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Capturing the Growth of Digital Nationalism in China

Capturing the Growth of Digital Nationalism in China
-Swetha Ramachandran


China currently has over 649 million online users, which is more than double the entire U.S population. [1] With the advent of Internet in China in the early 1990s, the prevailing oversimplified argument was that Internet expansion would lead to uncontrollable access to information, allow expression of grievances, create platforms for association and mobilisation. Hence, there was an expectation to witness a liberalising impact and perhaps a gradual transition to democracy or a regime change.

But China, as always, emerged as an exception. Not only did the Chinese Communist of Party (CCP) avert risks of regime change but they tactfully embraced the internet as a part of wider strategy designed to legitimise and strengthen one-party rule. Internet was seen as an opportunity to boost reforms policies and modernization drive, while simultaneously invoking feelings of nationalism. The first White paper produced by the Chinese government (in June 2010) stated how the internet had become a part of the ‘State Information Infrastructure’.

This essay briefly explores the measures employed by the Chinese government to nurture patriotism and nationalist sentiments by controlling information over the Internet, how this process is regime-reinforcing and its implications for the future.

CCP’s inclination to censor takes root from its dominant ideology, the “Deng Xiaoping Theory”. Deng Xiaoping, a paramount Chinese leader, led the country to successful market-economy reforms and his ideas later became the ideological framework guiding the CCP. He believed that ‘Loyalty to the state-party was not natural and that Chinese youth needed to be taught how to be patriotic’. Hence, the idea of controlling the web was not unusual to the Chinese government.

Even before the advent of Internet, CCP controlled all the traditional media including newspaper, magazines, radio etc. Unsurprisingly, the government, sought to control the new media to enhance its propaganda apparatus. Like most sectors in China, the development of internet was driven by the state, making the internet infrastructure highly centralized and a government monopoly. Restrictions make it mandatory that atleast 51% of the 9 Internet Access Providers (IAPs) that China currently has must be controlled by state-owned companies. ISPs (Internet Service Providers) and IAPs are required to record subscriber details, track user’s online activities and maintain this record for 60 days to provide to authorities upon request. The government further uses filtering systems and gateways at ISPs (like Golden Shield Software and Green Dam software) that filters ‘illegal’ content.

Companies also face threat of shutting down if they disseminate ‘harmful information on political and current affairs’. To avoid this, companies resort to self-censorship through filtering technology. If a post contains certain ‘improper’ words, it cannot be posted by the user or posts are subject to review. [2] If a blog becomes too “sensitive”, the ISP can delete or block the blog. As a result, all content goes through a virtual double sieved filter and what finally reaches the users is ‘safe’ information that falls in line with CCP’s philosophy.

Let us first understand what words like ‘illegal’, ‘sensitive’, ‘improper’ mean in this context. It is simply a label given to ideas that weaken the one-party rule. Any anti-government comments, criticisms of the state actions, call for political mobilizations or propagating notions of democracy fall in this category.

Consider the case of ‘Weibo’, China’s largest social networking site. Each Weibo post is scanned by a computer system before being published, and those marked as sensitive were passed to censors, who would manually approve or delete them. Following is a sample of 10 words out of the 1,100 banned on Weibo: [3]



Tibetan + be refused hotel booking 22/05/2015 Political Incidents and Issues
压+大V suppress + influential verified social media accounts 22/05/2015 Political Incidents and Issues
习+情妇 Xi Jinping + Mistress 22/05/2015 Politician


Xi Jinping + charges 22/05/2015 Politician


Wang Man + Women’s rights 16/04/2015 Dissident


Tiananmen + hold up a sign 13/03/2015




开放 Lift press ban




镜+周永 Mingjing News + Zhou Yongkang 16/04/2015 Scandal and Corruption

(Source: IB Times, 2015)

A closer look at this phenomena shows that the state attempts to keep the public in sync with its current policies and provides little room for public debate. Hence, posts that provide solutions within the existing communist framework, without contending for a regime change are encouraged. Others criticisms are simply rejected.

Not all actions of the CCP are so apparent. For instance, ‘50-cent party’ initiative commenced by Chinese government incentivises youth to be nationalistic on virtual media. Select youth volunteers are recruited by the government and paid 50 Chinese cents (5 mao) for every pro-government post or to refute, report those critical of the authorities. Volunteers are selected from universities, schools and youth groups like the China Communist Youth League and are vigorously trained to ‘civilize’ the internet. China Digital times published a leaked directive sent to internet commentators and some of the instructions included:

  • Make America the target of criticism, underplay the existence of Taiwan
  • Use the bloody and tear-stained history of a [once] weak people [i.e., China] to stir up pro-Party and patriotic emotions
  • To the extent possible, choose various examples in Western countries of violence and unreasonable circumstances to explain how democracy is not well-suited to capitalism [4]

300,000 students are already a part of this initiative and plans are underway to recruit more 10 million students from universities, with each province and municipality being assigned a quota to fulfil. [5] So, the scale at which such initiatives are operating ensures a regime-reinforcing psyche among the population. Nationalism then becomes both a top-down and bottom-up phenomenon in China:


Apart from ensuring absence of political uprising, the government spends considerable resources to penetrate its foreign policy and sovereign interests too. Anti-USA, Anti-Japan rhetoric is maintained as ‘hot-topics’ over the Internet and any information related to the 3 Ts of Tiananmen Square, Taiwan, and Tibet are verboten. By keeping CCP’s narratives are at the centre of China’s online nationalism, the state’s hegemony over the Internet has strong elements of both coercion and consent.

Moreover, the state has thoughtfully initiated mechanisms to punish netizens (the term for a citizen of the net) for “illegal” online activities. Reporters without Borders documented a total of 163 netizens in Chinese jails as of November 2015. Long-term detainees include 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who is serving an 11-year sentence on charges of “inciting subversion of state power” for publishing online articles, including the prodemocracy manifesto Charter 08. These state actions have a chilling effect on the activists, feminists [6] and blogging communities who fear being chastised for their actions.

President Xi Jinping continues to pursue ‘cyberspace sovereignty’ as a top priority. This hasn’t gone down well with International agencies either. China was recently voted as ‘the world’s worst abuser of internet freedom’ in the 2015 Freedom on the Net survey. [7]

However, these instances alone should not shape one’s opinions of Chinese Internet. Consider Hong Yu, the first NPC delegate, who launched his own website in 2004 to solicit policy proposals and opinions from Chinese netizens. Several others followed suit and a new norm for China’s leaders to host internet Q&A sessions before major meeting is emerging. Hence, internet has definitely contributed to making the political debate in China more pluralistic compared to before.

But the larger question looming is: Could this be a mirage to reassure citizens that their government is a representative state?

While the ‘illusionary inclusion’ is a separate debate altogether, CCP’s strategy seems to be working to their advantage. A large chunk of the Chinese youth is convinced that their state is fair and just. They believe that state, leaders, people are the same and the Western world that critiques China does not understand their unique ideals, values and political systems. [8]


China’s foreign policy is complex and must be viewed in context and perspective. On one hand, it is attempting to contain the presence of the US in Asia an on the other hand, China is revitalising its civilization to gain cultural superiority. It then becomes necessary for the government to restrict exposure to Western ideas of democracy and liberalism to maintain political stability. The added dimensions of China being quick to take offense and its sensitivity to infringements of national sovereignty further obfuscate the understanding.

Some scholars believe that Cyber Nationalism has made China’s foreign policy more aggressive. While the argument holds partial validity, it is far too simplistic. Chinese leadership’s willingness to appeal to popular nationalistic sentiments still remains subordinate to its overriding goal of promoting economic development and maintaining political stability. That explains the love-hate relationship between China and USA, whose technologies, capital, market and global influence are all critically important to China’s economic development in this globalized era. This decade onwards, external factors are beginning to impact nationalistic tendencies greatly. Recent episodes of rising public anger against USA can be seen as a response to perceived containment of China and is not simply a thoughtless public acceptance of official rhetoric.

Hence, one cannot conclude simply that nationalism is a justification for monopoly of power by the post-Mao regime. The CCP generates public support not just from nationalism, but also success in developing economy and maintaining political stability. The Chinese government that is labelled as repressive and illegitimate has managed to exhibit fine understanding of interests of people and responded effectively to domestic sentiments, rather than its foreign critics.

Given this scenario, it should be interesting to observe whether the CCP can keep up with the growing numbers of Internet users and play the strategy to their advantage. While the rest of the world tirelessly debates on the Freedom of expression over Internet, Censorship and Net Neutrality, China is attempting to capitalize on the ‘controlled Internet’ as its trump card.

Swetha Ramachandran is a student at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Hyderabad. Views expressed here are personal.




  1. China’s net users outnumber entire U.S. population 2-1 – CNN.com. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://edition.cnn.com/2015/02/03/world/china-internet-growth-2014/
  2. Zheng, H. (2013). Regulating the Internet: China’s Law and Practice. Beijing Law Review,04(01), 37-41. doi:10.4236/blr.2013.41005
  3. Censorship In China: Which Words Are Banned From Weibo On The 26th Anniversary Of Tiananmen Square. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.ibtimes.com/pulse/censorship-china-which-words-are-banned-weibo-26th-anniversary-tiananmen-square-1951733
  4. Leaked Propaganda Directives and Banned “Future” – China Digital Times (CDT). (n.d.). Retrieved from http://chinadigitaltimes.net/2011/06/future-banned-on-sina-weibo-search/
  5. China Hires As Many As 300,000 Internet Trolls To Make The Communist Party Look Good | Business Insider India. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.businessinsider.in/China-Hires-As-Many-As-300000-Internet-Trolls-To-Make-The-Communist-Party-Look-Good/articleshow/44859392.cms
  6. Released Chinese feminists: Out of jail, but not free – CNN.com. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://edition.cnn.com/2015/04/14/asia/china-feminists-release-jiang/
  7. China | Country report | Freedom on the Net | 2015. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-net/2015/china
  8. Full Text: The Internet in China. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://news.xinhuanet.com/english2010/china/2010-06/08/c_13339232.htm