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Wolf Warriors turned rabid: Could China’s nationalist public become the government’s undoing?

Written by: Aaron Sidhu

“I am truly sorry. We tried our best, but we have let everyone down.”

These are not the words you would expect to hear from an Olympic silver medallist. But when Chinese badminton star Li Jinui returned to Beijing after a heated finals defeat, this is what he posted on social media site Weibo. The reception was far from supportive. “Shame on you. Do not insult the name of China”, one user replied. “You didn’t put in any effort at all. What crap!”, wrote another. To the swarms of Chinese netizens, losing out on a gold medal represented a deep blow to China’s national pride – an unacceptable humiliation on the world stage. Spurred by the Xi Jinping administration’s grand promises of national rejuvenation, the past decade has seen the Chinese public whipped up into a renewed nationalist fervour, together with an antagonistic portrayal of the West as a saboteur.

At the heart of this nationalist frenzy, however, lies a government desperate to maintain its hold on power. In attempts to ensure this, Chinese Communist Party propagandists have sought to redefine the very notion of what it means to be ‘Chinese’. Chinese leaders are no doubt aware that governments are conceptually distinct from nations. Yet labelling their critics as inherently ‘Anti-Chinese’ demonstrates an explicit attempt to stitch together the concepts of nation, people, and government. However, cracks have begun to form in the government’s ability to maintain control over public reaction and opinion. Much like the spread of a virus, nationalism is volatile – subject to mutations that can result in outcomes which differ greatly from those intended by its progenitors. For Chinese leaders, a growing disconnect between the ever-increasing expectations of patriots and their ability to deliver on them, should be a cause for alarm.

The 1989 pro-democracy protests at Tiananmen Square presented the CCP with their most significant crisis of legitimacy to date. Interpreting the event as a result of failed indoctrination, the government hastily implemented the patriotic education campaign in 1991. At all levels of schooling, students are taught China’s rich history, the many injustices it was inflicted by foreign aggressors during the century of national humiliation, and the glorious revolutionary origins of the Party. Here, the CCP is presented as an almost mythical guardian of the Chinese people, driving China’s restoration and repelling foreign devils. For the post-Tiananmen generation, national identity has been forged by a genuine belief in the superiority of Chinese civilisation. Political commentator Martin Jacques refers to this as the ‘Middle Kingdom Mentality’, a reference to the Chou Empire’s belief that China was situated in the middle of the earth, surrounded by barbarians. Gone are the days of ‘hiding strength and biding time’.

“With great power, comes great responsibility”

For the Chinese government, its responsibility has been to deliver on its promises of rejuvenation. Strong economic growth has traditionally served as the keystone in the CCP’s ability to claim its fulfilment of this objective. But growing economic troubles, primarily an impending housing crisis and demographic collapse, have presented the government with another potential legitimacy crisis. In response, Chinese policymakers have doubled down on their oppositional worldview, framing certain issues as the result of a global community intent on suppressing China’s rise. Officials have abandoned their previously co-operative rhetoric and adopted an assertive approach, colloquially known as ‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomacy – named after the popular, nationalistic Chinese action films. From storming out of international meetings to hurling insults over Twitter, Chinese diplomats have embarked on a campaign of appearing tough and dominant on the world stage, often to no avail. Whether in large or in part, these visible demonstrations of defiance are no doubt intended to appease the growing number of Chinese nationalists vocalising their anger at both the West’s disrespect and China’s inaction towards it.

(Tweet from the Chinese consul general in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil)

Often disregarded as hired party mouthpieces, the majority of China’s online nationalists are in fact acting of their own accord. Extensive surveys of the Chinese public reveal China’s youth to be its most hawkish demographic, and their desires have begun to reflect themselves in Beijing’s security strategies. For instance, China’s extensive nuclear modernisation can be partly attributed to growing demands from nationalists in both the public and military spheres, who are vocally disillusioned with the traditional approach of holding a minimal nuclear arsenal.

As nationalism in China is cultivated further, there is an increasing risk that it can go awry. Such prospects have already reared their head. Following renewed tensions with Japan in 2012, Chinese nationalists across multiple cities organised a series of anti-Japanese demonstrations. The demonstrations quickly turned violent, leading to clashes with police and the deployment of paramilitary troops. In 2016, the election victory of Tsai Ing-Wen in the Taiwan presidency race saw netizens coordinate an attack against Taiwanese websites, entirely unbeknownst to Beijing. More recently, protests last year against retailer H&M, regarding their stated refusal to use cotton from Xinjiang province, led to numerous arrests. All of these events were organised by Chinese patriots. The issue is that they acted autonomously.

China’s youth have grown up with stories of their country’s past greatness and have developed a deep sense of entitlement for China to reclaim its place as ‘middle-earth’. Amplified by Xi Jinping’s continued declarations of realising the ‘Chinese Dream’, today’s youth have great expectations for their nation’s future. A significant portion of the CCP’s domestic legitimacy now rests on their ability to meet these expectations. Exhibiting behaviour that is perceived as weak, or compromising, could draw serious questions concerning the government’s ability to lead their nation to its destined greatness. The (over)success of the patriotic education campaign could very well initiate the downfall of the CCP.

A slowing labour market has reduced prospects for a significant number of young Chinese workers. Many have taken to their keyboards, adopting the role of netizen and seeking comfort in the promise of China’s ascension to hegemony, demonstrating high levels of overconfidence in their nation’s power. The idea that the CCP is perhaps incapable of fulfilling this dream, to the extent that they hope, may end up being too tough a pill to swallow. Hundreds of millions of citizens have bought into the Chinese dream, and the Chinese government has thus far proved itself worthy of carrying the torch. But the future does not look too bright. Beijing’s adoption of wolf-warrior diplomacy has set a new status quo that could be difficult to reverse, constraining diplomatic flexibility, even when it may be necessary. The hands of policymakers may already be tied; the continued insistence down the Wolf Warrior path, despite embarrassing international backlash, is indicative of a regime that is fearful of being seen as weak, and thus inadequate to govern.

The reaction of netizens to China’s Olympic defeats demonstrates the deep emotional attachment between national identity and international victory. Losers are not welcome in modern China. Anyone who fails to do their part to ensure China’s absolute victory is subject to criticism; a message which should ring alarm bells for Chinese leaders. Policymakers may have to continuously up the ante to meet the expectations of a nationalist public that has begun to demonstrate its independence from Beijing’s orders. Wolf-Warrior rhetoric alone may soon not be enough. So far, the CCP has maintained the essential link between itself and Chinese identity, allowing them to control the core nationalist discourse. But that link is in danger of slipping if an increasingly-autonomous nationalist Chinese public begins to suspect that their government has bitten off more than it can chew. Recently, online propaganda spread by nationalists concerning the supposedly-imminent invasion of Taiwan left Chinese officials scrambling to downplay the risk of war. We should expect many more such inconsistencies, between the desires of nationalists and the capacities of the Chinese government, to arise in the future.

Already, officials who have called for a more subtle diplomatic approach have faced intense criticism from militant nationalists, who regard most instances of international cooperation as a betrayal of Chinese interests. It appears that China has made two distinct promises, one to its public and one to the international community. At home, the narrative is China vs The World. The CCP promises to assert the collective will of the Chinese people in realising the Chinese dream, adopting an indignant stance against the numerous rival powers who wish to halt it. Thus, young nationalists are gravely overconfident, they believe that China does not need allies because it is inherently superior. Internationally however, China wishes to be seen as a responsible, co-operative global power and reliable business partner. It is obvious that these two versions of China are fundamentally incompatible. But a failure to recognise this could be the final nail in the coffin for a government that is already facing numerous critical issues. Chinese policymakers should conduct themselves with care. Now that he has sold the Chinese dream, Xi Jinping must either redefine it or prove to the Chinese people that he is capable of fully delivering on his word. If not, the cultivated nationalism that has bolstered his administration over the past decade may ultimately end up being its reckoning.

Featured image by: Tomas Roggero (CC BY 2.0)

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