Chinese nationalist internet warriors creating diplomatic disputes for China

China is finding out that overzealous nationalist internet warriors can do its foreign relations more harm than good. Zaobao correspondent Yang Danxu learns that China's neighbouring countries are taking these internet voices seriously because of China's unique political system.     
China can easily face a passive disadvantage in handling its external relations if callow nationalists gain control of the Internet. In this photo taken on 14 April 2020, people wearing face masks are seen at a main shopping area after the lockdown was lifted in Wuhan, China. (Aly Song/Reuters)
China can easily face a passive disadvantage in handling its external relations if callow nationalists gain control of the Internet. In this photo taken on 14 April 2020, people wearing face masks are seen at a main shopping area after the lockdown was lifted in Wuhan, China. (Aly Song/Reuters)

An article circulating on the Chinese internet that claims that other countries “yearn to return to China” (渴望回归中国) has touched a raw nerve among China’s neighbouring countries, and is threatening to escalate into a diplomatic issue. Chinese academics warn that the Covid-19 pandemic has driven public opinion around the world to degenerate into hysterics. China can easily face a disadvantage in handling its external relations if callow nationalists gain control of the Internet.

China’s foreign ministry spokesperson office emphasised that “the article came from we-media and does not represent the stand of the Chinese government”. 

According to a report from Kazinform, Kazakhstan’s foreign ministry had summoned its Chinese ambassador Zhang Xiao on 14 April to express displeasure over an internet article titled “Why Kazakhstan Yearns to Return to China”. It also sent a diplomatic note to the Chinese foreign ministry through its embassy in Beijing.  

The report quoted the Kazakh foreign ministry as saying that the article runs counter to the spirit of permanent comprehensive strategic partnership officially declared between the two countries.  

Not representative of the Chinese government’s stand

The article has since been deleted from the Internet. It had recapped Kazakhstan’s history, claiming that Kazakhstan had “historically been part of China’s territory”. It also said that China had given huge assistance to Kazakhstan, and that some Kazakhs were “yearning to return to China”.  

When Lianhe Zaobao asked about the incident yesterday (16 Apr), China’s foreign ministry spokesperson office emphasised that “the article came from we-media and does not represent the stand of the Chinese government”.   

Workers unload a shipment of medical and protective gear from China to help fight the coronavirus, at Almaty International Airport, Kazakhstan, on 2 April 2020. (Pavel Mikheyev/Reuters)
Workers unload a shipment of medical and protective gear from China to help fight the coronavirus, at Almaty International Airport, Kazakhstan, on 2 April 2020. (Pavel Mikheyev/Reuters)

The spokesperson office also pointed out that China and Kazakhstan are good neighbours and permanent comprehensive strategic partners with “no pending and unresolved problems”. China and Kazakhstan are also currently fighting the pandemic hand-in-hand and the longstanding friendship between both countries will not be shaken.

WeChat said on 15 April that it had deleted 227 articles that touched on the topic and blocked 153 official WeChat accounts.

Kazakhstan is not the only country that China we-media has claimed to be “yearning to return to China”. Articles alleging that neighbouring countries such as India, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Mongolia, Vietnam “yearn to return to China” have sprung up on the Chinese internet over the past two months.   

Following Kazakhstan’s demarche, China moved to keep its social media platforms in check. WeChat said on 15 April that it had deleted 227 articles that touched on the topic and blocked 153 official WeChat accounts. Weibo also blocked and deactivated 180 accounts that “issued information pertaining to foreign affairs and incited discrimination among the masses”.   

On the Chinese internet, various articles that peddle nationalism and ridicule the outbreak in other countries are wildly popular but often include plenty of sensationalised fake news.   

A medical official wearing protective gear takes the body temperature of a man who waits in line to enter the city following the Kazakh state emergency commission's decision to lock down Almaty at a check point on the outskirts of Almaty, Kazakhstan, on 19 March 2020. (Pavel Mikheyev/Reuters)
A medical official wearing protective gear takes the body temperature of a man who waits in line to enter the city following the Kazakh state emergency commission's decision to lock down Almaty at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Almaty, Kazakhstan, on 19 March 2020. (Pavel Mikheyev/Reuters)

Ever since the Covid-19 outbreak escalated into a global pandemic, anti-Chinese sentiments have surfaced in some countries, with some Western countries, spearheaded by the US, attempting to push the blame of their own mishandling of the outbreak to China. On the other hand, there has been a surge of nationalistic sentiments in China, with public opinion highlighting China’s effective containment of the outbreak and its superior political system by exaggerating the seriousness of the outbreak in other countries. On the Chinese internet, various articles that peddle nationalism and ridicule the outbreak in other countries are wildly popular but often include plenty of sensationalised fake news.   

"China now has to realise that callow nationalism or boastful arrogance and complacency can possibly harm China all the same." - Professor Zhu Feng

China’s unique political system to blame

Professor Zhu Feng, director of Nanjing University’s Institute of International Relations told Lianhe Zaobao that the pandemic has made the people severely nervous, anxious, and fearful. Fuelled by a boisterous internet, online public opinion has become emotional to the point of having a meltdown. However, the extreme remark that other countries “yearn to return to China” is not aligned with the basic tenets of China’s foreign policies and also not the mainstream view of the Chinese public.    

Prof Zhu put it plainly when he said, “A characteristic of internet regulation in China is that Chinese public opinion with extreme viewpoints singing praises of nationalism will not be censored… China now has to realise that callow nationalism or boastful arrogance and complacency can possibly harm China all the same.” 

"External parties think of China as a single entity that speaks with one voice. They believe that for such comments to appear under the Chinese government’s stringent control over public opinion, official backing must have been obtained." - Professor Wang Jiangyu

This picture taken on 5 December 2013 shows a WeChat app icon in Beijing. (Petar Kujundzic/File Photo/Reuters)
This picture taken on 5 December 2013 shows a WeChat app icon in Beijing. (Petar Kujundzic/File Photo/Reuters)

While such outrageous articles are published by private we-media, they still have the power to sow discord between China and other countries, and cause China to lose the upper hand in its external relations. Wang Jiangyu, a professor of the City University of Hong Kong’s School of Law and director of the Centre for Chinese and Comparative Law thinks that these articles were misunderstood as being endorsed by the officials because of the uniqueness of the Chinese political system.     

He told Lianhe Zaobao, “External parties think of China as a single entity that speaks with one voice. They believe that for such comments to appear under the Chinese government’s stringent control over public opinion, official backing must have been obtained. Thus, the Chinese government was innocently implicated as a result.”  

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