The Great Firewall: How China’s Online Censorship Grew a Generation of Young Chinese Nationalists

By Ann-Renee Rubia

“Tell the China story well and build China’s soft power,” President Xi Jinping urged delegates at the 19th congress in 2017.

For the past 8 years, Xi has been waging an aggressive ideological war online.  The “Great Firewall,” which describes a combination of legislative actions and technologies utilized by China to monitor online content, has created a political, ideological, and cultural vacuum where messages of devoted patriotism are elevated and spread while dissenting opinions are silenced.  As a result, a generation of young Chinese people has grown increasingly belligerent in the pursuit of spreading positive, nationalistic propaganda about the country online.

Recently in Wuhan Diary, Chinese writer Fang Fang recounts her life under quarantine in Wuhan during the coronavirus outbreak.  While the book is mostly free of criticism towards the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and actually praises the party at some points, Fang has nonetheless endured intense online backlash from Chinese citizens who have accused her of circulating propaganda for the West.  Dr. Zhang Wenhong, a once-revered doctor for his role in the national coronavirus response, was attacked and labeled as a lapdog to foreign powers for his suggestion that children eat sandwiches and drink milk instead of rice porridge for nutritional purposes. Zhang Yiming, the once-admired founder of Tik Tok and symbol for Chinese innovation, has been denounced for planning to sell the app’s U.S. operations. This mobilization of online mobs, even against the most esteemed figures, have become more commonplace in China, as groups of young Chinese nationalists have gained traction through their huge online followings. 

While many of these netizens were long known as wumao or  “50 cents” for the amount of money they earned for posting patriotic content, and as many as 2 million people were employed as “public opinion analysts”, a new class of netizens who work for the price of nothing has emerged.  One such group, nicknamed “the little pinks” (primarily composed of young women aged 18 to 24), has gained a large online following by claiming to be fed up by talk of individual rights and civil liberty, and being pro-government and pro-authoritarianism, according to Today Online.  The group has an online forum named “the Emperor’s Board,”  which has a following of 29 million people and is committed to coordinated attacks (nicknamed “crusades” or “mass bombings”) in which public figures are threatened and intimidated.  For example, Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen had her Facebook page flooded by thousands of pro-unification Chinese citizens after her inauguration in 2016.

Coordinated attacks, such as the one committed against Ing-Wen, and other nationalist acts have been openly supported by Chinese officials, thereby empowering activists to mobilize actions in real life.  In July 2019, a protest in support of the democractic movement in Hong Kong was countered by pro-China activists at a university in Australia. In response, the Chinese Consulate in Brisbane praised the pro-China activists, calling it “spontaneous patriotic behavior.”  Many other pro-China demonstrations countering ones in support of Hong Kong have occurred in universities across the U.S., the U.K, New Zealand, and Germany.  

China’s online censorship policy has played a large role in shaping public discourse about the country.  The growing online presence of pro-China nationalist groups on the mainland as well as abroad is deeply worrying for pro-democratic and independence movements in China. Such nationalist groups are now playing an active role in suppressing pro-democratic movements while cementing the CPC’s political supremacy over China.