Don’t trust Chinese internet opinion on Ukraine. It’s a warped lens

Days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, eyes turned to the Chinese internet, scouring social media for clues. How would China — not only the state, but its people — respond to a war started by the nation’s chief “strategic partner?” With no reliable polling, you’d imagine that social media might be a useful gauge for both. The reality is more complicated. 

Social media provides a warped lens into public sentiment. This is no less true in China, where, over the past decade, the systematic suppression of liberal voices on social media — and the amplification of nationalist ones — has provided the oxygen for patriotic accounts to run rampant.

In the early days of the war in Ukraine, when Chinese state media remained muted and cautious, people like ultranationalist commentator Sima Nan were quick to jump into the fray. They vehemently criticized American hypocrisy, argued in support of war, and saw Russia’s actions as justified pushback against NATO. A translation of one Putin speech was so widely shared that the Weibo hashtag #putin1000wordsspeechfulltext received 1.1 billion views in a day.  

Perhaps the most emblematic of these is Nan, active on Weibo since 2009. His video uploads have accelerated pace to become a daily event, where he lectures his 2.4 million followers, sharply dressed and seated in front of a mahogany bookshelf.

“You can’t help but admire Putin’s strategy,” he exclaimed in a February 27 video titled “Putin’s Battle Strategy and Concepts.” “As Chairman Mao once said, isolating a small group of enemies will help you win over your opponent when you take over.” 

It’s tempting to consider Nan’s content, along with the many like it, as proof of a pro-Putin affinity among the Chinese people, signaled from the highest political levels. But Sima Nan isn’t a military strategist, nor a voice of the establishment. He rose to fame in the late 1990s as an obscure cult-buster who debunked fraud related to qigong, a form of traditional exercise. By 2012, as the political winds shifted, he found a new myth to debunk: the U.S., and China’s belief in the American dream. Through fiery Weibo posts, melding patriotism with online entertainment, Nan amassed a following.

Microblogging platform Weibo, especially, has been set up as a ripe environment for these provocative voices to bloom. Since authorities cracked down in 2013, the site has been quick to censor posts and shut down liberal accounts. It means that opinions on Weibo probably belong to “sub-segments of the Chinese public whose views align more closely with those of the government,” said Jennifer Pan, a professor of communication at Stanford University.

To survive, both politically and commercially, Weibo and other social media platforms not only had to scrub critical voices and amplify patriotic ones, but make up for lost engagement, drawing traffic by shifting emphasis to commercial entertainment and pop culture. This blend of patriotism and entertainment enabled the rise of grassroots patriotic bloggers, or ziganwu, known as the “voluntary 50 Cent Army.”

Guyanmuchan is among them — a young influencer with a Weibo following of 6.4 million, whose posts describe the European Union as on a “dog leash to America.” Her short, scathing videos explain how the United States will profit from the war in Ukraine. She is rewarded by an online ecosystem that, chasing clicks however it can, promotes her content, increases engagement, and brings in profit through advertising revenue, paid posts and media appearances. Guyan Muchan charges Weibo users 20 yuan ($3.14) to ask her a question; Sima Nan charges 100 (over $15). 

If Weibo is a town square, the entire city — WeChat, Douban and other platforms — is overrun by Little Pinks, digitally native young Chinese nationalists who blend the traits of the patriot and the “stan,” or obsessive pop fan. Their organizing tactics are borrowed directly from commercial fan culture, and their public exchanges can be similarly emotional and heated.

Just as they bombarded President Tsai Ing-wen’s Facebook page after the Taiwanese elections in 2016 and attacked Lady Gaga’s Instagram account after she shook hands with the Dalai Lama, Little Pinks defend their idol’s “friend,” Russia, from the slights of their ultimate enemy: the United States.

“While nationalist sentiment is often solely interpreted as a product of state propaganda, many are a result of a bottom-up, organic rise.”

“The point of a fan club is to defend their team, or their idol or their boy band, and to attack rival teams, idols, or boy bands,” writes the Chinese scholar Yu Liang. “China came to be the Little Pinks’ team, and they went after anyone who ‘insulted’ China in search of the emotional rush that comes from defending your tribe.” 

The closest to a space for dissent may still be WeChat. In the town landscape of Chinese social media, it resembles a private residential courtyard. Despite being swiftly censored, voices continue to surface there: a poem published by Chinese poet Yu Xiuhua, an open letter signed by five historians condemning the war, and an online campaign where more than 200 alumni of China’s elite Tsinghua University call for the cancellation of Putin’s honorary degree. 

Though their tone tends to be muted, these instances show that Chinese people do not speak with a singular voice — and will take risks to show it, however fleetingly. Even in the inflamed space of Weibo, a recent study of half a million posts by Professor Pan showed that although 50% blamed Ukraine or the United States and NATO for the war, 10% blamed Putin, and 15%-20% expressed other opinions such as sympathy toward Ukrainians. 

Censorship instructions demand that media outlets do not “support or adulate the United States.” But the momentum is not all top-down. “While nationalist sentiment is often solely interpreted as a product of state propaganda, many are a result of a bottom-up, organic rise,” Maria Repnikova, professor of global communication at Georgia State University told Rest of World. 

Academics like Repnikova say that, if untamed, the emotional rush of nationalist furor can pose a threat to the state. Censors have not only had to reckon with anti-war voices, but rogue posts rallying for war — a direct challenge to official state rhetoric, which calls for peaceful resolution to the crisis. (Weibo recently announced that it removed and suspended more than 10,000 accounts and 4,000 posts, including misogynistic content targeting Ukrainian women.) 

In China’s inflamed social media landscape, it’s advisable to be wary of reading the loudest voice in the room as the most representative. Sima Nan is hardly a state mouthpiece, nor the voice of the people. He is at best a media entrepreneur, at worst an opportunist who exploits the attention economy. And this is true for tens — even hundreds — of Sima Nans who clamor on the Chinese internet, scrutinized by pundits the world over. In doing so, though, Nan risks drowning out the very voices of reason and civility that serve the best interests of the nation he claims to support.

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