Aug 9, 2022 - World

Nationalism rules China's internet during Taiwan tensions

Illustration of a computer keyboard with a red return key resembling China's flag
Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Online nationalist sentiment in the wake of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan last week urged Beijing to take more aggressive actions and pushed celebrities to publicly support China's position.

Why it matters: Nationalism thrives on China's highly censored internet, but it comes at a cost for Beijing. If Chinese leaders are perceived as responding too weakly to what people online might consider a foreign provocation, nationalist ire could turn against Beijing.

Driving the news: Beijing announced new drills this week after completing four days of live-fire exercises on Sunday.

  • The Chinese government sanctioned Pelosi and halted numerous channels of communication with the United States.

What's happening: Chinese social media users shared their anger over what they perceived as a violation of China's sovereignty over Taiwan.

  • Hu Xijin, a former editor of the party-run tabloid Global Times, wrote that the Chinese military should "shoot down Pelosi's plane."
  • Many social media users shared a list of celebrities who had not yet publicly expressed support for China's position on Pelosi's visit.
  • Censors hurried to delete posts calling the government's response too weak, the Financial Times reports.

What they're saying: “Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan created a sense of unity on social media, which was flooded with comments expressing support for the Chinese military and calls for a unification with Taiwan,” Manya Koetse, who monitors Chinese social media for the website WhatsOnWeibo, told The Guardian.

  • “Multiple netizens also said: ‘I hope that when I wake up tomorrow, we’ll be unified with Taiwan.’ I’d never seen such strong unification sentiments on Weibo before,” Koetse said.

The backstory: The Chinese government in the past has taken action to censor fervent nationalists who express sentiment that isn't in line with the Party's official position.

  • In 2012, Chinese authorities suppressed anti-Japanese protests, fearing the demonstrations could tarnish China's international reputation, damage trade ties or turn against the Chinese Communist Party.
  • After a Hague court ruled against China's claims in the South China Sea in 2016, inflaming anger online, censors deleted posts calling for war.
  • In April 2020, as nationalism surged amid the pandemic, censors shut down social media accounts that called for territories in Vietnam and Kazakhstan to unify with China.

Between the lines: Excessive nationalism raises the cost for Beijing to exercise restraint, Jessica Chen Weiss, political scientist at Cornell University and author of a book on Chinese nationalism, wrote in a 2020 article for Foreign Affairs.

  • "Once mobilized, nationalism creates pressure for the government to talk tough and placate domestic audiences," Chen Weiss wrote.
  • "The more an issue resonates with nationalist sensitivities among the Chinese public and elites, the more likely foreign threats and actions are to provoke rather than deter."

Yes, but: Rigid censorship means dissenting views are erased, making the Chinese internet a poor barometer for the true range of views among people in China.

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