In early 2007, a chic, young CCTV news anchor called Rui Chenggang posted a blog on Sina.com titled “Why Starbucks Needs to Get Out of the Forbidden City?” In the blog, he declared the presence of a Starbucks shop in the Forbidden City “obscene” and demanded its removal. In a distinct style that later became his signature, he incidentally brought up, with apparent pride, his encounter with Starbucks CEO Jim Donald at a Yale event where he made the latter “flushed” in front of the audience with his challenging questions. The blog created a wave of support from the Chinese public, generating half a millions clicks, tons of media reports and awkward responses from both Starbucks and the Forbidden City administrator. Six months after the blog’s appearance, the Starbucks store was closed, ending a 7 year presence in the very heart of Beijing.
The Starbucks incident in 2007 was a landmark of China’s surging nationalism at that time. And Rui stood for its new face: young, well-educated, confident and most importantly, sufficiently exposed to Western ideas and values. The last one was a defining feature of China’s new brand of nationalism: participants considered their nationalistic stance a well informed choice, rather than brainwashed parroting. The sense of agency, the feeling that “I know exactly what you Westerners are talking about yet I beg to differ”, adds to the vitality and potency of the surge, whose rising crescendo ultimately reached a peak around the 2008 Beijing Olympics. In Evan Osnos’s resounding piece (“Angry Youth”) that featured this new generation of young nationalists, his subjects were PhD students in western philosophy who took their ideas partly from the likes of Leo Strauss and Harvey Mansfield. Like Rui Chenggang’s criticism on Western businesses’ disrespectful encroaching into the sanctity of Chinese culture, these “angry youths” had their own target: the Western media’s biased portrayal of China. The “anti-CNN” website was the most well-known product that captured the Zeitgeist of the time.
Seven years have passed since the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The interval has not only seen the relative decline of nationalism in Chinese online discourse, but also its complete degeneration into something unrecognizable. The recent controversy surrounding a “patriotic youth” called Hou Jusen demonstrates how nationalism (or “patriotism” more specifically) has changed into an obscure sub-culture of young people that contains troubling elements. And increasingly, this new nationalism is used against domestic, rather than foreign targets.
On Jul 22, in what seemed to be a regular street fight among a group of adolescents in Shandong province, a high school student called Hou Jusen was injured. He posted photos of his wounds on his Weibo account and cursed the ones who attacked him. He called them “Na Qu” (纳蛆), a code name that literally means “the Na maggots”. The post quickly got the attention of the Shandong Provincial Youth League, whose official Weibo account tweeted about the incident and @ed the police. Furthermore, it added a spin to the incident: “a patriotic youth was brutally attacked by a mob for expressing patriotism on the internet.” The framing immediately raised a few eyebrows. Elevating a street fight to an assault on patriotism is to excessively politicize the incident and further polarize the society, one argument goes. And this time, unlike previous cases that involved law enforcement, the local police reacted swiftly on the internet. It declared the case a mutual provocation, where both sides agreed on a rendezvous place for a fist fight. The conclusion negated the Provincial Youth League’s framing of the incident and won the police rare compliments on the internet.
But why would a group of adolescents taunt each other to a street fight in the first place? And what does it have to do with “patriotism”? A probe into those questions leads us to the curious and troubling world of online “adolescent political rivalry” that runs almost completely outside the spotlight of the grown-up occupied media .
Our first key is “Na Qu”, the supposedly derogative term used by Hou to refer to his attackers. To understand the meaning behind the code name, people should first get to know an online animation series titled “That Year, That Rabbit, Those Things”, which is apparently a “cult animation” popular among a quite large audience (the first episode so far has collected more than a million clicks on Youku.com). Viewing the animation (which now contains 11 episodes) is an utterly weird aesthetic experience. In terms of visual style, it betrays a heavy influence of Japanese manga; in terms of language, it is filled with the puns and catchphrases of today’s Chinese internet; and yet in terms of its theme, it touches upon an essentially solemn topic: contemporary Chinese history. The hero of the animation is a bunch of white rabbits with red stars on their bellies. Without further hints you can easily figure out that these rabbits represent the Chinese Communist Party. Their opponents are also humanized animals: Japan is represented by a chicken, Russia a bear and the United States, not surprisingly, an arrogant eagle. In a worse-than-simplistic way, the first episode of the series depicts how the rabbit, after witnessing other animals humiliating his hometown, allied with a bald head (reference to the Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek) to beat the chicken (with the help of the eagle) and in turn kicked the dishonest bald head out of the country.
Why the rabbit? Some speculates that it’s a subtle reference to “TG”, a commonly used acronym on the internet that makes fun of the Party’s peasant roots (“Tu Gong”, meaning the country pumpkin communists). And in Chinese, Tu shares the same pronunciation as “rabbit”.
With the popularity of the animation also comes disparage. There are those who regard it as stupid and disgusting, who self-organized to attack fans of the animation. Their battle field is Baidu Tieba, a topic-based online forum created by China’s biggest search engine. To ridicule the Rabbit forum, netizens created the “Na Year, Na Rabbit, Na Things” forum (already banned), in which “Na” is simply a wordplay with the same pronunciation of “That”. Participants of the two forums taunt and abuse each other online. One side calls the other “Tu Za” (Rabbit Bastards) while the other refers to their enemies as “Na Qu” (Na Maggots). Their areas of dispute go way beyond the merit of the animation to touch on recurring debates that polarize Chinese cyber space constantly: Kuomintang vs. Communists; China vs. U.S./Japan; Democracy vs. Stability. Most of the time they are not real discussions but rather simple declarations, caricatures, and, worst of all, obscene personal attacks. “Bao Ba” (Burst the Forum) is a commonly used tactic which means posting tons of nonsensical shit on the other side’s forum to bury unfavorable contents.
The young Hou Jusen emerges out of such online shit fights. Materials dug up by netizens about his online track record depict a disconcerting picture. As a staunch Rabbit defender, he argues indefatigably with those who he disapproves. And this strong political leaning leads him into even weirder realms of online sub-culture: Soviet worship. He seems to be an ardent supporter of the Soviet Union and frequents the “Soviet Red Army” forum at Baidu. Participants of the forum share a common contempt for Gorbachev, referring to him as “Gorba-pig“. In one earlier exchange, Hou complained to fellow Soviet lovers that “My history teacher was again smearing the Stalinist model. I objected in class but he insisted.” Someone replied approvingly, “I recommend you to read ‘Da Guo Bei Ju’ (A Great Nation’s Tragedy). Next time you can challenge your teacher with those materials.” At one point, his allegiance to the Soviet cause even led him to question Mao directly: “If not for [Mao]’s petulance, we would not have departed with the Soviet Union!”
Online quarreling more often than not degrades into genital spattered mutual curses. And it creates enemies that transfer their online hostility off line. To intimidate each other, forum fighters deploy far more threatening tactics. “Gang search” is used to dig out one’s off-line personal information. And it is then used in many a “creative” ways. Hou has often been on the victim side of those tactics. His ID card information was leaked onto the internet. Before long, photoshopped pictures of him in shameful positions started to appear. His nemeses also posted his contact information on gay dating sites, which became an annoying intrusion of his daily life. Later on, his girlfriend was harassed, and had to put an end to their relationship. Hou claims that he only fought back verbally, often just by copy pasting the dirty language that was used against him. In Jun this year, he posted a long article on his Weibo account, lamenting his poignant experience of being a “patriot” but at the same time showing determination to persist. Weeks later, the aforementioned street fight happened.
What ultimately turned this high school kid into a national figure was the high pitched response of the country’s political establishment. Not only did the provincial Youth League tweeted about his experience, the Central Youth League also got publicly involved and tried to escalate the matter to the attention of the Ministry of Public Security. The central party organ adopted the same patriot-got-attacked narrative and made it into a hashtag. But the move backfired in a big way. Rarely do Chinese netizens side with the police on controversial issues, yet this time even some leftists criticized the Youth League for interfering with the due process of police investigation and over-politicizing an otherwise mundane case of affray. Probably emboldened by the support they enjoyed online, the local police defiantly talked back at the Central Youth League on Weibo, expressing frustration that their hard work to maintain social order was not appreciated, even though the post was later deleted.
The most urgent appeal came from Tsinghua University sociologist Sun Liping. Deeply troubled by the violent tendency of youth “patriotism”, the professor called for the stop of “any political mobilization among the juniors, especially the kind that stirs up hatred and violence.” The concern harks back at an earlier warning that China, especially its youth, is increasingly prone to the influence of militarist ideas. As a 2005 article by intellectual Wang Yi puts it, “Among all the countries, China is where military magazines are the most popular. Almost every middle school boy reads one or two military or weaponry related publications. It is probably also one of the few countries that not only do not restrict, but actually organizes children to watch war movies.”
The years in between Rui Chenggang and Hou Yusen witnessed Chinese nationalism’s metamorphosis from an expression of the young generation’s new found cultural confidence and assertiveness to an obscure sub-cultural phenomenon that is seething with anger and hatred. More importantly, the new brand of patriotism is becoming more and more introverted. Instead of bringing substantive grievances before multinational corporations, Western media and rival governments, the young patriots of today are busy chasing and intimidating Chinese “traitors”, speaking languages that only they themselves can understand.
* A side note on Rui Chenggang’s dramatic turn of fate: http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-china-blog-28291107