China’s Viral, Nationalist Screed Against Western Encroachment

“You are nothing without your motherland.” It’s a trite phrase, one that seems unlikely to stir the blood of even the most dyed-in-the-wool nationalist—but it has found recent currency in China. An essay with that title has been making the rounds on the Chinese Internet since mid-November; it then went viral in early December, with state media giving the rant widespread play. The spike in attention occurred just before a visit from U.S. Vice President Joe Biden at a moment of rising tensions between China and the United States; and the timing may not be an accident.

The 2,100-character, eighteen-paragraph screed stirs up patriotic Chinese sentiment using a combination of fear mongering and selective history that nationalists anywhere would likely recognize. To wit, it cites the falls of the USSR, Saddam Hussein, Muammar al-Qaddafi, and Hosni Mubarak as examples of Western powers subverting uncooperative regimes and leaving their countries in shambles. And it warns that Chinese people should be on guard against the United States and other Western powers, because they are trying to bring down the Communist Party and plunge the country into chaos.

“The Americans took down the USSR and eliminated its largest rival,” the essay warns. “Now China has become the country that poses the biggest threat.” The American response, according to the essay, has been to “cook up the Diaoyu Islands controversy,” a high-stakes tiff between China and Japan over the ownership of a few small islands in the East China Sea. The essay insists it is a “well-known fact” that the United States’ goal has been to foster “domestic trouble inside China in order to subvert the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party,” or C.C.P. If the U.S. plot were to succeed, “total chaos” would result.

The essay’s claims may sound outlandish, but defenders of the C.C.P. are unabashed in exploiting just this type of sentiment. The People’s Daily, the party’s primary mouthpiece, published an abridged version of the essay in its December 4 print edition, while official Weibo (Chinese Twitter) accounts of state-run Xinhua News Agency, nationalist outlet Global Times, and popular local newspapers have all shared versions of the essay within the past five days. Xinhua even selected a few approving comments from Internet users, including this gem: “Without our motherland, we will have no dignity!”

The high level of state media support strongly suggests that the Chinese government approved the surge in attention, according to Jessica Chen Weiss, an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Yale who studies nationalist protest in China. She notes that the post’s language is “squarely directed at the West,” as opposed to Japan, the usual target of Chinese nationalist ire. On November 23, China declared an “air defense identification zone” in the East China Sea that included territory disputed with Japan; the United States responded on November 27 by flying unarmed B-52 bombers through the space without informing Chinese authorities. Such a tense climate, Weiss notes, might provide “an opportune time to showcase” the post.

None of this means the essay’s popularity was purely engineered—the crude logic it employs has a receptive audience in China even without peddling from state-owned media. While China has surpassed Japan as the world’s second-largest economy and is now poised to take its place as a world power, many Chinese still cannot shake a deep-seated, almost primal fear that their country will again be reduced to a state of utter weakness and dispiriting humiliation at the hands of Western powers and Japan. The anxiety is rooted in China’s historical subjugation by foreign powers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in particular what Chinese call the “century of humiliation.” That period saw invasions by British and Japanese forces and a resulting series of unequal treaties that ceded valuable swaths of Chinese territory to foreign control.

The unsettling and nagging fear of disorder is pervasive among Chinese citizens. Many see enemies perpetually gathering at the proverbial gate, restlessly plotting to carve up China’s territories, subjugate its people, and plunder its resources. “I like this essay. I have seen a lot of dissidents calling for democracy and liberty; they are ignorant and brainwashed by god-knows-what,” one commenter wrote on Weibo. Another agreed that the essay lies “rooted in reality” and asked rhetorically, “You think if China becomes Libya, you will get liberty, democracy, human rights, and equality?”

That’s not to say all commenters bought into the essay’s simple logic. Some evinced a more nuanced understanding of Chinese patriotism. “Please do not confuse the three separate concepts of motherland, government, and ruling party,” one web user wrote. “I will love the first but not the others.” Mindful that the “motherland” is nothing but an abstraction without its inhabitants, another turned the essay’s core claim on its head: “Without us, the motherland is nothing.”