Twenty-five-year-old postgraduate student Rong Xiapei (pseudonym) can remember Western commentators calling the Covid-19 pandemic China’s “Chernobyl moment” in the early stages of the coronavirus’ spread in China last year.
“They thought the coronavirus would cause major turmoil in China,“ he said in a phone interview. “But later on, we saw that the pandemic became the ‘Chernobyl moment’ of advanced Western countries instead, as it exposed serious problems in the countries that were supposed to be the lighthouses of the world.”
This post-90s Chinese youth from Shanghai spoke with the confidence of the vindicated.
China successfully contained the pandemic last year through a whole-of-nation approach. Against this backdrop, there has been a strong surge of nationalism and patriotism.
Rong emphasised that his level of patriotism has not changed but following the pandemic, he now sees the contrast between his and other countries. “You feel safe when you’re in China. But you’re always scared when you’re in the US. It’s as clear as day.”
Extreme views on the rise?
Fang Kecheng, a longtime observer of Chinese public opinion and an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, told Zaobao that the pandemic could result in younger Chinese holding more extreme views.
He explained, “The young people who tended to agree with the Chinese system would have more reason to agree now, while the young people who were already more critical would also have more reason to stay critical.”
But based on absolute numbers, Prof Fang believes that there are more young people who agree with the country’s system than those who are critical of it.
In the early stages of the pandemic, public sentiment in China showed a hunger for truth and a call to reflect on the system. The sense of patriotism in the younger generation fluctuated and did not always rise.
Now furthering her studies in Singapore, 23-year-old Lin Yuying remembers clearly the night “Wuhan whistleblower” Dr Li Wenliang passed away a little over a year ago. Chinese media had released confusing information in the last hours of Li’s life, resulting in a sleepless night for her and many others who were anxiously awaiting new information.
She recalled, “I felt like I was kept in the dark… On one hand, I thought that our containment measures were very effective. But on the other hand, some things left me with big question marks.”
Twenty-year-old Ning Zukang was in the US in the early stages of the pandemic. He shares the same sentiments as Lin. “Back then, some things really angered me, such as how the Wuhan Red Cross handled donations,” he said.
Following the global spread of the pandemic, numerous countries closed their borders and cancelled their flights, and a large number of overseas Chinese students hoping to return home were left stranded. Ning was one such student.
“China’s economy has recovered strongly but European countries and the US are still arguing over pandemic containment measures. China has already taken a big step forward.” - Ning Zukang, 20, student
This post-00s youth described his experience in a calm tone: “I don’t know how to put it in words. My emotions were all over the place… Especially when people in China were saying that we were ‘bringing the virus back from a thousand miles away’.”
However, as China gradually contained the virus and the economy slowly recovered, anxiety and questions faded away.
He endured multiple twists and turns such as staying up overnight to buy air tickets and having his flights cancelled before finally buying an air ticket to China last July for 50,000 RMB (approximately S$10,300). But during our conversation a while ago, he had to jog his memory to recall the anxiety he felt at that time.
Now, his gut feeling is: “China’s economy has recovered strongly but European countries and the US are still arguing over pandemic containment measures. China has already taken a big step forward.”
Chinese officials emphasised that China’s successful containment of the pandemic reflects the superiority of the Chinese system. Seen against the backdrop of the raging pandemic in Europe and the US, the younger generation support this position.
“It is no mean feat for a country this big and with such a huge population to completely contain the pandemic. The response has already been very quick.” - Lin Yuying, 23, student
In the face of war and big calamities, a centralised system and the belief that the collective outweighs the individual tend to be more effective. When the uncertainty of the pandemic struck, the Chinese were more accepting of the fact that individual interests were subordinate to collective interests, and were able to recognise the effectiveness of a centralised system in unprecedented times.
Lin said that the pandemic has made her confident in the government’s ability to handle public emergencies. “It is no mean feat for a country this big and with such a huge population to completely contain the pandemic. The response has already been very quick.”
She thinks that it is unreasonable for Western politicians to call the coronavirus “Chinese virus” and attack China because of the pandemic.
Young Chinese actively attacking the West
Beijing’s Center for China and Globalization research fellow Chu Yin told us that in a time of crisis, a country’s performance is closely related to the country’s governance capacity. China’s execution of its pandemic plan was stellar, especially when compared with the messy handling by the US, a country that was supposed to be a leader in the international arena. This made Chinese youths more confident of the country’s institutions.
In an interview with Zaobao, Professor Yu Hai of Fudan University’s Sociology Department pointed out, “Chinese youths feel more secure and confident in their own country and in turn become more passionate and patriotic. This is certainly how it is.”
Because of this newfound confidence, some youths are no longer restrained by values of humility and forbearance but are instead actively counter-attacking the West even more. Last year, self-proclaimed “wolf-warrior artist” Wuheqilin made himself famous with his impactful and satirical political cartoon targeted at Western countries.
He is unabashed about his “wolf-warrior” stance. This post-80s artist even wrote in a public Weibo post: “Since some people are calling me a ‘wolf-warrior artist’, I will definitely clear the way for you and let more patriotic youths express their views openly and without fear.”
Love-hate relationship with the US
The last US government’s suppressive measures against China has triggered feelings of rejection and retaliation among the Chinese people. Buried beneath the surge of patriotism among Chinese youths lies a pot of mixed and complex feelings and opinions about the US.
“The general public may think that the air is sweeter over in a free and democratic US. But no one will trust Pompeo. After all that he said, has he given us money? Has he helped us migrate to the US? Or given us a green card?” - Rong Xiapei (pseudonym), 25, postgraduate student
In the latter phase of former US President Donald Trump’s presidency, various policy speeches of the US government were aimed at dividing the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Chinese people. In a speech given last July, former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for like-minded nations and the Chinese people to cooperate with the US to change the CCP’s behaviour.
In response to this, Rong, who is an international relations major, said, “The general public may think that the air is sweeter over in a free and democratic US. But no one will trust Pompeo. After all that he said, has he given us money? Has he helped us migrate to the US? Or given us a green card?”
Even more patriotic after going abroad
In the pandemic era, Chinese students furthering their studies in the US feel an even stronger sense of patriotism and have a greater distaste for the US’s China policy. Coming into contact with foreign cultures and languages did not make them more accepting of Western thinking. On the contrary, they feel an even greater affinity with China’s system.
Two years ago, Ning left for the US to further his studies. At that time, China-US relations were taking a nosedive and the former Trump administration was criticising China over Hong Kong, Xinjiang, the pandemic, and other issues. Ning felt that all these were “utterly unreasonable”.
He described the different stands in the US towards the anti-extradition bill protests in Hong Kong and Trump supporters’ storming of the Capitol as “double standards”, as frequently cited by Chinese official media. He also claimed that his classmate had his social media accounts and laptop checked at US Customs, which was “a blatant violation of the human rights and freedom that they [the US] speak of”.
As for the phenomenon of being more patriotic when overseas, Chinese academics feel that this is worth some thought by Western society. Prof Chu noted, “These people should have a better understanding of the West and want to learn from it. But why are their feelings so complex after living in the West for some years?”
Some analysts attribute the nationalism of young Chinese to the patriotism that they are taught and pick up as children. However, the young Chinese interviewed for this piece did not agree with this assessment. Rong firmly believes: “This nationalism has been sparked by the horrible, seriously disrespectful attitude of the US.”
On the other hand, some young Chinese do not totally dismiss the US or completely accept everything about China.
Civil servant Qian Junkai (pseudonym), 32, expressed his strong approval of his country and criticised the various accusations of the US against China. But he did not deny that there were things he liked about the most developed capitalist country in the world.
He said frankly that he still hoped to fulfil a plan he made many years ago — to go on a trip to the US and catch an NBA match.
A progressive society does not need to block out different cultures and voices
Lin feels that Chinese society lacks inclusiveness and diversity, such as the lack of concern for the disabled community, and overly homogenous views and information.
She said forthrightly: “A progressive society would not block out different cultures and views, but allow a maturing society to organically weed them out — no need for any external force. In this regard, we have a very long way to go.”
But this child of the 90s who grew up amid China’s rapid development is determined to act on her love of her country, and not just pay lip service, saying that she plans to return to China after she graduates. “China is rising and I hope to be part of the spray created by this wave.”
Hurting inside over being tagged as ‘model citizen’
Even as they feel that their country’s rise gives them more confidence, some young Chinese are still hurt by Western prejudice.
“They think that only citizens of a democracy are capable of independent thought, and that the Chinese are all ‘brainwashed’, and even patriotism is forced.” - Ning Zukang
When Ning got to the US, he found that American classmates’ stereotype of Chinese students was that they were rich, good at math, and “model citizens”.
The “model citizen” label made him uncomfortable. This seemingly complimentary assessment made him sense a hidden discrimination. He said, “I am law-abiding, but they feel that it is government-controlled, and I can only obey my country with no freedom and no personal choice at all.
“They think that only citizens of a democracy are capable of independent thought, and that the Chinese are all ‘brainwashed’, and even patriotism is forced.”
Zhou Yue (pseudonym), 35, works in an overseas company in Beijing, and occasionally “goes over the wall” — the Great Firewall of China — to surf Western news websites. She has come to a conclusion: “Sometimes every line seems to be an irrefutable fact, but put together, it just does not feel good.”
She asked this reporter: “Have you realised that when Western media reports on China, they like to use red and yellow illustrations?”
Red and yellow are the colours of the Chinese flag, but Zhou feels that using this colour combination for illustrations “makes one strangely nervous”.
Disapproves of nationalistic war of words on overseas social media
Qian, who often “goes over the wall”, also mentions that Western assessments of China give him an “undefinable sense of superiority”.
He said he does not totally believe the rosy picture painted by Chinese media reports, but he is not comfortable with “malicious” Western media descriptions. “Intentionally or not, they lead you to feel that China is a mean, red fire-breathing dragon with wings.”
However, these Chinese who grew up amid China’s rise also show confidence in the face of what they see as Western superiority. Many young people interviewed also said they are not keyboard warriors, and do not approve of engaging in a war of words with different voices on overseas social media platforms as the “little nationalists” (小粉红) do; they are more inclined to have rational, face-to-face exchanges with non-Chinese classmates and colleagues.
Of the Western penchant for seeing China in a certain way, Zhou said, “This is like how we see North Koreans as living in dire straits, when in fact we do not know North Korea. Similarly, they [the West] do not know us.”
Hidden risk of nationalistic confidence turning into arrogance
With young Chinese more confident and no longer looking up to the West following China bringing the pandemic under control, would the new generation of young Chinese become inward-looking and narrow-minded?
Prof Chu said: “Chinese people do not feel that they are high-class, but they also no longer agree with the view that Chinese civilisation is inherently low-class. They are starting to move away from denigrating and being ashamed of their own culture.”
He believes that the Chinese will learn from the West more peaceably and confidently, and actively export their views and embark on exchanges with the world on a more equal footing.
Populism leading to total rejection of Western system
Young academic Fang, born in the mid-80s, said that confidence and openness should not contradict each other — a confident person is in fact more able to accept a diverse world and face criticisms and challenges more calmly. But he admitted: “What some young people have may not be confidence, but arrogance.”
He hopes that the patriotism of young Chinese will be more peaceful and healthy, but is also worried that “this is not the way things are going right now”.
He added, “What I am seeing is populism and ‘wolf-warrior’ tendencies, a complete rejection of the Western system based on fake news and conspiracy theories. This has to do with misinformation on social media, and also the general political environment.”
“A system that brings a pandemic under control may not be conducive to innovation and art. After all, there is an urgency, even a wartime quality to controlling a pandemic.” - Professor Yu Hai, Fudan University
Will patriotism tinged with nationalism bring any risks to China after the pandemic?
Jessica Chen Weiss, an associate professor at Cornell University who studies Chinese nationalism, said last year in a New York Times article: “The real risk that the nationalism poses is to foreign governments’ perception of threat from China.”
Prof Yu also gave a warning about such confidence sparked by this unique pandemic. He said, “A system that brings a pandemic under control may not be conducive to innovation and art. After all, there is an urgency, even a wartime quality to controlling a pandemic.”
He also gave a reminder that the correct attitude of patriotism is not to watch the rest of the world burn, or to be smug and blow one’s own trumpet, but to show empathy and kindness to any part of the world that is ravaged by sickness and suffering.
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