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Perils of Preaching Nationalism Play Out on Chinese Social Media

It is not often that ordinary Chinese say they are disappointed in their government in public. That they are ashamed of their government. That they want to renounce their membership of the Communist Party. And that they think the People’s Liberation Army is a waste of taxpayers’ money.

It is even rarer that such angry comments come from the kind of nationalists who usually support whatever their leaders demand of them.

For much of Monday and Tuesday, many Chinese people applauded the harsh rhetoric from government, military and media personalities who tried to thwart Chairman Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. When Ms Pelosi’s plane landed in Taiwan late Tuesday night, some social media users noted how disappointed they were at Beijing’s lackluster response.

No military action in the Taiwan Strait, as they expected. No shooting, no rocket attack, no fighter jet flying next to Mrs. Pelosi’s plane. Just a few convictions and announcements of military exercises.

Many people complained that they felt let down and lied to by the government. “Don’t show power if you don’t have power,” wrote one Weibo user with the handle @shanshanmeiyouulaichi2hao shortly after the flight’s landing. “What a loss of face!”

The user went on to say that the government didn’t deserve the people who had waited hours to see how history could be made. “A great nation. How ironic!”

The strong online emotions showed the complexities of public opinion that Beijing will have to control if it decides to invade Taiwan. And they showed how nationalism is a double-edged sword that can easily be turned against the government. Some anti-war commentaries that managed to evade the censors, if only for a moment, also opened a window into the psychological impact of the Ukrainian war on the Chinese public.

Some users compared the People’s Liberation Army to the Chinese men’s soccer team, a laughing stock in the country because it has only qualified for the World Cup once. They scoffed at the announcement that the PLA would hold military exercises near Taiwan. “Save some gas,” said one WeChat user. “It’s very expensive now,” replied another.

On WeChat, the comment section for a short video about a military exercise became a board for disgruntled people to whine. Among thousands of comments, some Communist Party members said they would like to quit out of shame. One military veteran said he would probably never mention his military experience again. “Too angry to fall asleep,” commented one handler @xiongai.

The comment section was later closed.

Many users seemed particularly disappointed with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “When China said ‘strongly condemn’ and ‘solemnly declare,’ it was just to amuse ordinary people like us,” wrote one Weibo user with the handle @shizhendemaolulu, referring to the language foreign ministry spokesmen used. about Mrs. Pelosi’s visit.

“As tough on domestic governance and so cowardly on foreign affairs,” the user wrote. “Completely disappointed!”

On Wednesday afternoon, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Hua Chunying, responded to a question about the public’s disappointment by saying she believed the Chinese people were rational patriots and had faith in their country and their government.

The Chinese Communist Party has used nationalism as a tool of governance since the Mao era. Xi Jinping, China’s current chief leader, took it to a new level. “Nationalism is becoming a core pillar of both the party and Xi’s personal political legitimacy,” Kevin Rudd, the director of the Asia Society and former Prime Minister of Australia, wrote in his book “The avoidable war: The Dangers of a Catastrophic US-China Conflict from Xi Jinping.”

The unification of Taiwan, a self-governed democracy that Beijing considers part of its territory, with the mainland is a centerpiece of Chinese nationalism.

But as Mr. Rudd and others claim, it has sometimes proved difficult to control the Nationalist spirit once it has been let out of the bottle. “This problem has grown under Xi Jinping as nationalist calls have moved from the margins to the center of China’s propaganda apparatus across the board,” he wrote.

This week’s online resistance is an example of this.

Most Chinese did not pay much attention to Ms. Pelosi’s upcoming visit to Taiwan until Monday afternoon, when a wave of official and semi-official statements led many to believe that China could take harsh, possibly military, actions to deter it.

Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and arguably China’s best-known “wolf warrior” diplomat, warned the United States on Monday that the PLA “would never stand by. to defend integrity.” On the website of People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, a two-paragraph article about his comments was viewed 2.7 million times.

That evening, the PLA’s Eastern Theater Command, which covers Taiwan, posted on Weibo that it was waiting for the order to fight and that it would “bury all invading enemies.” The post has been liked more than a million times and the embedded video, featuring images of bombings and explosions, has been viewed more than 47 million times.

And then there’s Hu Xijin, the retired editor-in-chief of Global Times, the Communist Party tabloid that has probably played the biggest role in fueling Chinese nationalism over the past three decades.

Mr Hu first suggested on Twitter last week that China would shoot down Ms Pelosi’s plane if she visited Taiwan. On Weibo, he called on his nearly 25 million followers to “support all government countermeasures and share the hatred of the enemy”.

“We will certainly take strong countermeasures to hit the US and Taiwan,” he wrote on Tuesday. “So hard that the Taiwanese authorities will regret it.”

After Mrs. Pelosi had landed in Taipei, China issued many strongly worded condemnations and announced an intimidating series of military exercises around Taiwan. But the lack of any direct military action left many nationalists feeling shortchanged. Their heroes, including Mr. Hu and Mr. Zhao, lost some of their halo.

Now they have mocked Mr Zhao by a short video that he made harsh statements on Monday.

Late Tuesday night, Mr. Hu inundated with angry, sarcastic and insulting remarks. “If I were you, I’d be so ashamed not to say another word and hide until Taiwan’s reunification day,” said one Weibo user with the handle @KAGI_02.

Ren Yi, a Harvard-trained nationalist blogger, wrote a torrid comment early Wednesday morning, urging Mr. Hu would be curtailed.

In a Weibo post, Mr Ren said the public’s high expectations unfulfilled could damage the government’s credibility. He blamed those unrealistic expectations on Mr Hu, saying his posts were taken too seriously because he once had a party newspaper.

Mr Ren is not the only person seeking to dethrone Mr Hu, who is now a columnist for the Global Times, from his position as China’s most influential journalist. Other commentators and social media personalities are also calling for him to be held accountable. Hu wrote on Weibo Wednesday morning that he would have become a “punching bag”.

But some comments also pointed out that Mr. Hu was only part of China’s response to Ms. Pelosi’s visit, suggesting that any blame pointed at him could indicate that the government may be looking for a scapegoat. .

There are also anti-war voices on Chinese social media. Some people argued that only online warmongers should be sent to the front lines. Some parents fear that their children may become conscripted. Others tried to urge their compatriots to look to Ukraine and Russia to understand that war means death and economic destruction.

Zou Sicong, a writer who has been traveling in Poland in recent months, urged people on WeChat to have a realistic understanding of war, saying he learned what Ukrainians and ordinary Russians had experienced.

People should be happy that nothing happened on Tuesday night, he said. “You must be lucky that you can still do your business, pay your mortgage, go to work tomorrow, get tested for Covid and live,” he wrote. “Please pray for yourself and your loved ones that we can emerge unscathed from this approaching storm.”

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