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China’s digital nationalism: Kung Fu Panda under fire

About the author
Li Datong is a Chinese journalist and former editor of Bingdian (Freezing Point), a weekly supplement of the China Youth Daily newspaper. In 2006 he was the recipient of a Lettre Ulysses award for reportage on his experience at Bingdian

The Hollywood movie Kung Fu Panda has in the past month caused a stir in China, the homeland of the panda itself. The story begins on 15 June 2008, five days before the film's official release in the country, when an artist called Zhao Bandi from Chengdu in Sichuan province wrote a letter to the state administration of radio, film and television (SARFT). Zhao described his firm opposition to Kung Fu Panda being shown in China, and somewhat emotively claimed that the film's release as planned would be equivalent to "stealing from the Sichuan compatriots who died in the earthquake [on 12 May 2008]". The artist even made a special trip to Beijing to press his case, and stood outside the SARFT offices displaying a banner with the words: "Don't let Hollywood make money from China's tragedy".
Li Datong is a Chinese journalist and a former editor of Bingdian (Freezing Point), a weekly supplement of the China Youth Daily newspaper

Among Li Datong's recent articles in openDemocracy:

"Xiamen: the triumph of public will" (16 January 2008)

"China's soft-power failure" (16 May 2008)

"China and the earthquake" (2 June 2008)

"China: after the quake, the debate" (16 June 2008)

"China's leaders, the media, and the internet" (4 July 2008)

Zhao Bandi's actions were not completely in vain; the opening date of the movie was postponed in Chengdu until 21 June (that is, by one day). In other Chinese cities, however, screenings went ahead as planned.

What was it about Kung Fu Panda that made Chinese people like Zhao Bandi so angry? The logic of those who took up the cause - who can broadly be describe as new Chinese nationalists - drew on the American actress Sharon Stone's horrible comment implying that the Sichuan earthquake was in some sense the result of the Chinese people's bad "karma" following the treatment of the Tibet protests; an argument was extracted to say that not only Stone's films, but all Hollywood pictures, should be banned.

A young Chinese author called Han Han dared to write on his blog that the Chinese had misunderstood Sharon Stone's comment, and that her words were really a confession of guilt for having had such thoughts in the past. The response was a wave of partisan ranting in which Han Han was viciously berated and insulted for his generous interpretation.

An angry tide


This episode - the prehistory of the Kung Fu Panda affair - is just one source of revealing insight into the main psychological impulses of China's "angry youth". After the Olympic-torch relay was disrupted in France, this generation of young and wired citizens called (mainly via the medium of the internet) for a boycott of the French supermarket Carrefour's stores in China. It didn't matter - indeed it is characteristic of the disregard for fact and the truth in such campaigns - that 95% of Carrefour's products and almost 100% of its staff are Chinese. The Chinese paralympic athlete Jin Jing, who bravely tried to hold onto the torch as protesters tried to wrest it away, had been lauded as a "heroine of the Chinese race"; but when she publicly opposed the Carrefour boycott, the angry youth branded her a "race-traitor".

From the mid-1990s onwards, the tide of Chinese nationalism has gradually become a globally recognised force (see Christopher R Hughes, "Chinese nationalism in the global era", 18 April 2006). The nationalists are large in number, and seem to consist mainly of relatively educated young people. They are confident enough to hold demonstrations in the streets, to smash Japanese goods in the shops, and to throw bricks and bottles of ink at the United States embassy. Wherever they are allowed to gather, they become a crusading force; and it goes without saying that the most convenient place for the angry youth to congregate is online.
Among openDemocracy's articles on China in 2008:

Kerry Brown, "Beijing's political tightrope-walk" (12 March 2008)

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom, "The perils of forced modernity: China-Tibet, America-Iraq" (27 March 2008)

Robert Barnett, "Tibet: questions of revolt" (4 April 2008)

Wenran Jiang, "Tibetan unrest, Chinese lens" (7 April 2008)

Ivy Wang, "China's netizens and Tibet: a Guangzhou report" (8 April 2008)

Wang Lixiong, "China and Tibet: the true path" (15 April 2008)

James A Millward, "China's story: putting the PR into the PRC" (18 April 2008)

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom, "China's political colours: from monochrome to palette" (14 May 2008)

Susan Brownell, "The Olympics' ‘civilising' legacy: St Louis to Beijing" (23 May 2008)

Emily Lau, "Tiananmen, 1989-2008" (4 June 2008)

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom, "Tiananamen's shifting legacy" (26 June 2008)

Kerry Brown, "China on Olympic eve: a globalisation of sentiment" (11 July 2008)


Here, the main targets of attack are the US, Japan and Taiwan. When it comes to domestic politics, the angry youth do not seem to have any clear manifesto, though they usually have good words for Mao Zedong, as it was he who "made the Chinese stand up". During and after the protests in Tibet in mid-March 2008, they slated the Dalai Lama for his attempts to "split China"; and while they were at it, they attacked the ignorant Tibetans for their lack of gratitude for central-government funding (see Wenran Jiang, "Tibetan unrest, Chinese lens", 7 April 2008).

The experience of daily life in China, including the Chinese media, would give the average citizen no idea that the angry youth even exist. But as soon as this citizen goes online, the impression changes: debate forums are full of people who like to portray themselves as "super-patriots" and label anyone who disagrees with them is labeled a "race-traitor" or a "sell-out". The amplifying effect of the internet makes it seem as if these people make up a large part of the population. Their open hostility to the west also makes many people in western countries nervous. Who are these people; and are they going to be the ones who decide China's future?

A patriotic arc


The word "nationalism" came relatively late to China. In imperial times, emperors only recognised what they called "all under heaven" and were not aware of the concept of the nation. It was only in the mid-19th century, when the western powers entered China by force, that the emperor became aware of the idea of national borders. (On one occasion, when Russia wanted to sign a border treaty with China, the emperor had to consult with his oldest officials to see whether they could remember if the land in question belonged to China. Their conclusion was that "this is a place where Your Majesty has been hunting.")

The arrogance and foolishness of the empire was such that it resisted any kind of reform despite fifty years of repeated invasion and humiliation, and eventually collapsed. The degradations of the era were lodged firm in the memories of China's intellectual classes, and gradually formed into a new Chinese nationalism. From its roots in the May Fourth movement of 1919, through the war of resistance against Japan that broke out in 1937, this nationalism has now become mainstream. Throughout this period of history, all of the most active figures in Chinese politics have been nationalists, including Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek as well as non-aligned intellectuals. At the core of their nationalism lay a desire to resist foreign invasion and lend support to the fight against fascism led by the US and Britain. This nationalism was basically a benevolent force.

Chinese nationalism began to take on a different hue after the Communist Party came to power in 1949. The fact that the Communist Party was founded on Soviet support and developed under Soviet guidance meant that during the cold war, the new People's Republic of China had no choice but to join the Soviet bloc. The western countries, led by the US, became the natural enemy.

After Stalin's death in 1953, Mao's desire to be a new emperor began to develop. He was no longer content for China to be the "little brother" of the Russians; rather, Mao wanted China to replace the Soviet Union as the leader of world revolution. The result was that he got into arguments with almost every other country. By the time of Mao's death in 1976, China had hardly a friend in the world. Mao was certainly a fervent nationalist, but his brand of nationalism was born of an "emperor-complex" mixed with revolutionary fantasy. Mao knew nothing about the west and his ideas were fundamentally foolish. With China sealed off from the rest of the world, and the media and education system under the control of the party, a generation of Chinese youth were fed these stupid ideas. Deluded nationalism became an important part of the regime's legitimacy.

The drip-feeding of nationalist ideas continues today. Despite almost thirty years of reforms, the education system has seen few positive changes. From primary school through high school and onto university, political education is always present. Even masters students have to pass politics exams. Such long-term dogmatic education, based on rote-learning and without any room for thought or diversity, subtly and silently controls the way in which people think.

A bolt in the brain

The last thirty years have seen enormous changes in the Chinese media, but some aspects remain as they were in the late 1970s. In particular there is still a view that "anti-Chinese forces" are constantly plotting to overthrow the Chinese government, and that all criticism of the government equals criticism of China itself. The official view of modern history still reinforces the victim mentality and the imperative need for China to remain unified. This is all that Chinese nationalism today is based on.

But if on the outside there seems a fixed and unalterable hardness here, from the inside there has been a process of withering and hollowing. Who now "believes" that China is a victim of the same kind as before; and will the angry nationalists who claim to do so, and who perform so passionately online, one day become a guiding force for China?

I don't really think so. The reason is simple: their ideas are a result of party-led education and one-way inculcation of information. As soon as these people are able to gain access to different sources of information and see different points of view publicly debated, the basis of their ideas collapses.

It can often be forgotten that young people are naturally rebellious, and have a need to vent their emotions by behaving badly. The current situation in China is an interesting mixture of this youthful impulsiveness with astute pragmatism. Young people make a judgment on what the government will allow them to get away with. They won't jeopardise their chances of graduating or getting a good job by protesting about forbidden subjects. It is ironic that those students who are throwing bricks at the US embassy one day are queuing up for US student visas the next without a second thought. When Bill Clinton made a speech at Beijing University in June 1998, he was asked challenging questions by a particularly pushy young woman surnamed Ma. The next year, Miss Ma went to the US to study and ended up marrying an American. They now have a bouncing baby boy. The story suggests how far feelings of patriotism tend to go.

A jolt in the road

One day last year I took a taxi in Beijing. Like most Beijing cabbies, my driver was something of a political commentator. He was around forty years old. Somehow we got talking about Taiwan, at which point the driver became highly animated, and exclaimed, "We should completely flatten anyone who wants independence! Look at the size of Taiwan - we could destroy them just like that!"

I was surprised that my driver seemed to be an angry youth, and so I decided to test the extent of his feelings. I said: "Yes, but the Taiwanese have a much better quality of life than mainlanders. And they have democracy. They don't just vote for their president - even a county head has to be voted in. If you can't get public support there's no way you can ever become an official. Do you really think they would want to come back to the mainland?"

The driver seemed alarmed. Perhaps it was the first time he had heard about the Taiwanese political system. "If that's the case", he said, "would the Communist Party even let them come back?" It was that easy to win over an angry youth.

Meanwhile, how is Kung Fu Panda doing? According to the latest news, after the delays to its first showing in Chengdu, it opened with the best ever box-office figures for a Hollywood film.


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