Celebrity actress/director Zhao Wei, the South China Sea, Kentucky Fried Chicken. In what kind of a mental universe can those three be organized into a recognizable constellation with meaning and significance? The answer seems to be the Chinese patriotic mind. In the past month, the cyberspace witnessed how patriotic sentiments built up with a grassroots campaign against Zhao Wei, climaxed with the vehement attack on the South China Sea ruling handed out by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague, and subsided with offline protests against KFC in a bunch of Chinese cities.
The key to understanding this rather bizarre pathway of mobilization-escalation-demobilization is a close look at the interconnection between the patriotic discourse and its class struggle “sister”. While the latter adds fuel to the flame of the former, its destructive potency that threatens to tear society apart induces an uneasy response from the conservative establishment originally set to benefit the most from a nationalist uproar.
At first, the campaign against Zhao Wei looked like old news. Once again, netizens attacked celebrities who carried political values deemed problematic and demanded redress from whoever hired them. Zhao Wei’s new film (which she directs) features Taiwanese actor Dai Liren, who has been active in the social movement scene of Taiwan. Though Dai himself firmly declined, political vigilantes in the mainland branded him a Taiwan independence advocate and pressured the film to either have him “declare himself a Chinese” or drop him as a lead actor. The film originally resisted, but caved in at last.
If the campaign had stayed at that level, it probably would not move beyond the premise of a self-sufficient community of Neo-Maoists, establishment leftists and youth patriots. The increasingly belligerent alliance reaffirms its relevance each time through virtually lynching celebrities on politically charged issues such as Taiwan independence or Hongkong’s democratic movement. Most of their aggressions do not surface in mainstream media but occasionally they catch a big fish. Over the course of the past 6 months, at least two stars have fallen spectacularly to such attacks, Taiwanese actress Chou Tzu-Yu (whom this blog has featured), and Hong Kong singer Ho Wan See, whose appearance at a concert sponsored by French cosmetic brand Lancome was cancelled after mainland “patriots” went after her involvement in the Occupy Central movement. Successful mobilization injects refreshed energy into the cause, which seems to rely on such vitriolic cycles to keep itself activated.
Dai Liren might have been just another poor game that the hungry beast prey on, repeating the somewhat banal cycle of denounce-denial-escalation-apology. But this time development took an unexpected turn that fundamentally altered the nature of the whole affair.
On July 6, a Communist Youth League Weibo post reviewing the Zhao Wei/Dai Liren episode was temporarily deleted for unknown reasons. The abnormality stirred up more than just suspicion. A major paranoia attack clenched a segment of the campaign, which, all of a sudden, became super concerned with freedom of expression on the Internet. They believed Zhao Wei was somehow involved in getting that post deleted, through her well known connections in the top echelon of the Chinese business circle, particularly with e-commerce tycoon, Alibaba Group president Jack Ma. The accusation is far-fetched at best. But it grabbed the imagination of the sensitively-minded. If an actress could ask her boss friends to censor the Communist Youth League, what else could they not do? “Capital manipulates public opinion” became a hashtag on Weibo, and a cyber warfare would sweep through the Internet, making one feel as if millions of Chinese had converted to Michael Moore overnight.
On Jul 12, the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague released its much anticipated ruling on the dispute between China and Philippines over the former’s claims in the South China Sea. It was a landslide win for Philippines, legally speaking. But Beijing refused to accept it, calling the decision void and null. As if on a cue, state media went on an all-out push to delegitimize the arbitration and the entire process.
The tone of the coordinated condemnation was vituperative and absolutist, leaving no space for negotiation. For a contemporary Chinese ear, the underlying message was familiar and clear: it’s a politically high-voltage line that one must not cross, no questions, no argument. It was in the same line as the response to the 1999 NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade and to the 2001 collision of US and Chinese military aircrafts near the Hainan island that killed a Chinese pilot. In both earlier cases, the government flooded the public space with its strong-worded position through the propaganda machinery and tried to unify public perception around that. This time, social media turned out to be the new territory that the state needed to occupy. People’s Daily put up on Weibo a poster declaring that “not a single (island) should be taken away“. Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin called the ruling “terrible as hell.” On WeChat, people posted the same set of slogans – the three “Nots”(not recognize, not participate, and not accept) – to flag their alignment with the state.
The high-pitched broadcasting of indignant denunciation, proud declaration and defiant sneer from the Chinese state media almost defined the tone of July. Everywhere on the Internet, people were condemning the United States, ridiculing Philippines and cursing Japan. At certain point, the collective glare turned toward the whole institution of the Law of the Sea itself. High level officials slighted the Arbitral Tribunal as a cheap, non-official body that would accept any case as long as someone paid for it. They questioned the composition of the panel, criticizing the five panelists for acting as puppets of Japan and not understanding Asia at all. They also picked on the location of the PCA, sarcastic about the fact that even if it sat at The Hague, it had nothing to do with the International Court of Justice (even though there was no sign that the PCA itself pretended to be the ICJ). At one point, the United Nations official Weibo account joined the chorus, implying that the Tribunal was just a “tenant” of the Peace Palace building, where both the PCA and the ICJ were stationed, and had nothing to do with the UN. A naughty “bye-bye” emoji was added at the end of that post.
The ideological hawks, who were busy attacking Zhao Wei at the time of the ruling, were briefly drawn into this national symphony of condemnation. But their attention quickly swayed back. After all, shouting at the United States or Philippines does not bring any visible “victories” or even response. But to keep a movement energized you always need vindication.
When observers look back at the whole Zhao Wei affair, they see what Philip Alden Kuhn described in his Soulstealers: the Chinese sorcery scare of 1768. In this bloody event that was the Qing Dynasty’s rough equivalence of the Salem witch-hunt, the country was caught in a panic attack of some weird rumors that sorcerers were stealing people’s souls by cutting off their pigtails, the long braid that Chinese people wore at that time. After Emperor Qianlong became concerned with the situation, heads started to get rolling, literally. Lower level officials needed convicts to fulfill their duty. And people turned against each other. As Kuhn puts it, the Emperor’s legitimizing of the scare was like “loaded guns left on the street”. People picked them up and started shooting at their own enemies.
The patriotism that saturated the air after the South China Sea ruling was that loaded gun. And the idea of an ideological “struggle” on the Internet, something President Xi suggested in a 2013 speech and the conservative Beijing Daily articulated in a follow-up editorial, provides politico-theoretical backing. In the much discussed editorial, the Internet is declared the “main battleground” of ideological struggle today. It is a “war without smoke” and its consequence is “either you live or they die”. The target: Western values dressed as “universal”.
The “struggle” approach redefines online debates, and for that matter, the expression of patriotism, which turns increasingly inward, in search of enemies to be crushed within the country. There should be no dialogue or conversation, only defeat, humiliation and subjugation. Life and death.
The escalation of the anti-Zhao-Wei campaign into a struggle against “capitalist control of media” means an enlarged hunting ground. Patriotic netizens cast their searchlight toward Zhao Wei’s web of connections, and big name institutions including Jack Ma’s Alibaba Group and Jet Lee’s One Foundation were dragged into the controversy. Both Ma and Lee, a legendary kung-fu-star-turned-philanthropist, were believed to be close friends of Zhao. Within days, both groups were alarmed to the extent that they issued official statements denouncing unspecified “online rumors” about their political associations. Alibaba had to explain that its donation to the Clinton Global Initiative, which netizens revealed amid the email leak of the Democratic National Committee, was purely philanthropic and not in any way political contributions to the Clintons or the United States. The One Foundation had to fend off more serious accusations that it served as a capitalist “Trojan horse” with the ulterior motive of overthrowing the regime through the gradual corrosion of the credibility of official institutions. Besides its founder Jet Lee, many of the foundation’s board members are business tycoons (i.e. capitalists) including Jack Ma and China Vanke President Wang Shi. Observers see the carefully worded response from Alibaba and One Foundation as an ominous sign of a fringe phenomenon collecting menacing power.
On July 17 a bunch of men and women showed up at the front door of a KFC restaurant in Laoting, Hebei province, with a banner that says “You eat KFC, our ancestors lose face”. The picketers tried to dissuade customers from dining at the restaurant, which had to close for that afternoon. This was one of the dozen small-scale KFC protests that happened in the aftermath of the South China Sea ruling, mostly in second and third-tier cities. For those familiar with Chinese patriotic “tradition”, American and Japanese restaurant chains are the usual vehicles for such expressions. Peter Hessler documented in his book Oracle Bones how students in Nanjing pelted and vandalized KFC and McDonald’s after the NATO bombing, which was probably the modern origin of this tradition.
What’s interesting this time is how swiftly state media came to disavow the protests, calling them irrational and stupid. The Weibo account of People’s Daily, which, only days earlier, was full of strong-worded denunciations of the ruling, turned around and lectured its audience why, in an era of interconnected international commerce, boycotts did not work. The 2012 tragedy where a poor Xi’an Toyota owner got his head smashed open by an anti-Japan protester seems to have permanently tarnished the image of such “acts of patriotism” from which state media are now eager to distance themselves. “Turning on each other only makes your enemy laugh,” as they would propagate. Hu Xijin, the Global Times editor, posted a photo of KFC chickens on his table as a gesture of him not buying into the KFC bullshit. He added one more twist: critics should never attribute such naïveté to proper patriotism.
As critics would argue, the official attempt to sever “patriotism” from unpopular offline activities and to confine the concept in a realm of noble civility is disingenuous at best, given the government’s promotion of an overall belligerent message through state media. But the distancing did create a tricky problem for the grassroots patriots who were still busying chasing Zhao Wei and her friends. And that tension reached to a flash point when two social media outlets openly clashed.
The day when protesters blocked the entrance to the KFC in Laoting, one of the People’s Daily’s offspring social media accounts, the influential Xiakedao, posted a scathing piece about the stupidity of the whole Zhao Wei affair and implied criticism of its source, Thought Torch, a weibo account that served as a center of ideological warfare on the Internet. It declared the campaign nothing but groundless conspiracy theory that took advantage of the nationalist nerve. “It’s the same nerve that directed ‘hot-blooded’ young men to vandalize Japanese cars owned by their fellow Chinese.”
Being scolded by a politically orthodox source did not silence the grassroots but piqued them. Their response was to incorporate the behavior of Xiakedao into their narrative: yet another dominant outlet being corrupted and compromised by capital. They sneered at Xiakedao as a sell-out that published for the money, a usurper of the People’s Daily’s red credential as the Party’s mouthpiece.
The open fight briefly caught the attention of Weibo’s top management, who implied suspicion of the Thought Torch’s claimed affiliation with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. But a shrewd commentator pointed out, half sarcastically, that such suspicion was probably ill-informed: the head of today’s CASS was among the first modern day intellectuals who advocate the resurrection of class struggle in social science studies. It’s the kind of perplexing irony that will linger even after the patriotic fire of July gradually died down following coordinated official efforts to cool things down. In the interval, the ideological volcano of China awaits its next eruption.