An Epidemic of Social Disbelief
The organization and drive shown by China’s online youth in the midst of the coronavirus epidemic was an inspiring glimpse at the potential young Chinese have to assert themselves. But these actions disguise a deeper vacuum of social values in China.
The world is now reeling from the impact of the coronavirus epidemic, which the World Health Organization has declared a pandemic. In China, meanwhile, where the epidemic began, leaders are rushing to declare victory, characterizing the country’s apparent containment of the virus as a heroic feat of sacrifice. In fact, the superiority of China’s system, now being loudly touted by the state media, has faced serious questioning at home throughout this ongoing crisis, in light of the often ineffectual response by the state when it comes to both larger questions like information openness and more direct problems such as equipment shortages.
As the Chinese government proved slow in its initial response to the coronavirus outbreak, drawing widespread criticism, private voluntary groups rallied online in China and overseas to respond effectively to urgent needs for supplies. These groups point to an online youth culture in China that needs to be better understood.
While a limited marketplace of ideas does exist in China that can influence what Chinese youth think, this space is seriously constrained by the intertwining of money and power, which ultimately consume other values and encourage the spread of nihilism throughout Chinese society.
This nihilism can be readily seen in the online "fandom" culture (centered around various celebrity and other "idols") that provided the shared community that enabled the coronavirus response -- but also fuels online nationalism in China.
But there is one area in the midst of the coronavirus crisis where we have most certainly seen China perform well – and that is in the efforts of private voluntary groups to rally and respond to urgent needs.
While the government controlled Red Cross Society triggered outrage through its mismanagement of essential medical supplies, groups of young Chinese connecting through social media worked quickly to gather across the internet, raising donations, purchasing materials and working through logistical challenges. They were able to send masks and protective clothing to front-line hospitals in Wuhan and other areas within a short period of time.
Given what we know about the limitations placed on non-governmental organizations and other private groups in China, how do we understand the popular, grassroots action seen over the past two months? And what does this reveal about the beliefs that drive young people in China today?
Nihilism and Fandom Culture
Contrary to the perception many Westerners may have of China today, in the eyes of most of the country’s youth it is neither a “Confucian China” nor a “Communist China.” In today’s China, there is no single grounding idea, as Confucianism was in imperial China, or communism in the days of Mao Zedong. As for “public reason” in the sense of the philosopher John Rawls, as a process of reasonable pluralism and disagreement, this again is something China lacks. But that is not to say categorically that China has no public sphere— though the sphere it does have is curtailed by serious political restrictions and the interference of big capital.
It can be said that there does exist in China a kind of marketplace of ideas that influences what Chinese youth think, and in this marketplace, beyond an overwhelmingly dominant nationalism pushed by the state, there are various forms of Marxism, niche feminist ideas, and what could be characterized as left-wing liberalism. Also quite popular are certain quasi-Buddhist concepts that actually have no genealogical connection to traditional Buddhism.
Power and money are intertwined [in China], and they overtake and even consume other values.
Most of these ideas have existed for some time. But the forms in which they present themselves in China today are related not only to modernity and capitalism, but also have a strong relationship with China's particular political and social conditions. In his book Spheres of Justice, Michael Walzer stresses the importance of "complex equality" as a plurality of values and a balanced relation between values. Unfortunately, no such complex equality can be found at all in China. Rather, power and money are intertwined, and they overtake and even consume other values. The consequence of this is a nihilism that has spread throughout Chinese society.
One aspect of the influence of this nihilism on the thinking of young people in China is the popularity of the concept of "Buddha-likeness," or foxi (佛系). The term is associated with a Chinese stand-up comedian named Li Dan, whose famous line, “The world is not worth it,” has been warmly welcomed by young people, and accepted as a state of mind. Youth who are "Buddha-like" do not attach too high a value to anything – whether it is work, love, friendship or entertainment. They do not pursue intense sensory stimulation, but want only to obtain a kind of inner peace.
Being "Buddha-like" is not rooted in the true desire for a state of egolessness, but rather reflects the hardening of class lines and the impact an imbalance of values has on personal consciousness. For the vast majority of young people, being “Buddha-like” is a manifestation of frustrated individualism. They refuse to exhaust themselves physically and mentally for illusory ideals of "national revival" or "personal success."
Another manifestation of nihilism is an increasingly unbridled nationalism, seen increasingly in well-organized online campaigns by groups of young Chinese netizens against those perceived to have slighted China. These young “keyboard warriors” have sometimes referred to as “little pinks.”
Who Are the "Little Pinks"?
The term “little pinks” arose from the pink forum design of an online literature platform where many young web users gathered to read a type of fiction generally featuring romantic relationships between male characters. The term “little pinks” has in recent years become a general way of framing a broader population of Chinese nationalistic youth online, as the adoration directed at celebrities and fictional characters is projected onto the nation. The term “little pinks,” therefore, points not so much to a specific group as to a general social and cultural phenomenon that includes participants in various online fandoms, or fan communities that emerge around certain celebrities or other idols.
One of the earliest examples of “little pink” nationalism was the so-called "Chou Tzu-yu Incident” in early 2016, in which a Taiwanese singer living in South Korea was forced to apologize to Chinese fans after being shown waving the flag of Taiwan. Since then, Chinese netizens have on numerous occasions collectively “scaled the wall,” using VPNs to access banned sites like Facebook and Twitter and leave nationalist messages.
After the protest movement began in Hong Kong in June 2019, “little pinks” spontaneously organized a number of responses that grabbed attention at home and abroad. For example, when Fu Guohao, a reporter for the official Global Times newspaper, was beaten by Hong Kong protesters on August 14, 2019, netizens organized a campaign called "the 814 Great Unity of Fandom Groups,” which brought together members of fan clubs (mostly following young celebrities) to mob social media sites outside China’s “Great Firewall,” including Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.
Fandoms refer to online celebrity support groups in China, chiefly for young stars, that have their own distinctive internal cultures. Because these groups are principally female, their members are sometimes called “fandom girls.” As “China” has become the object of fandom adoration, young Chinese online have spoken fondly of “Brother China” (阿中哥哥). They make use of organization techniques and skills that have proven effective in other campains, such as comment flooding (屠版), comment manipulation (控评) and the reporting of comments with opposing ideas (反黑), all with the objective of striking out against perceived insults to “Brother China.”
In some cases, these netizens also single out for attack the Facebook and Weibo posts of mainlanders who voice support for the Hong Kong protests. When they find such posts, they screenshot them and post them to nationalistic Weibo accounts where they are likely to get a flood of attention. Angry netizens then constantly tag the accounts of local police and internet authorities with “@” on these social media posts in order to call their attention to them. In some cases, Chinese who are exposed in this way are called in for questioning, and some are even detained. Their private information is posted freely on the internet, and they are branded as “sellouts” and “traitors,” something the author has personally experienced.
The guiding role and involvement of various parts of the state machinery in actions like these among Chinese youth is patently clear. A number of the above-mentioned campaigns, including the August action against the Hong Kong protests, were highly praised by party-state media and their official accounts on social platforms like WeChat and Weibo. For example, the official Weibo account of the Chinese Communist Youth League, the CCP’s official youth movement for those between the ages of 14 and 28, has been very engaged with online youth subcultures, and the group has considerable influence among young people.
Tip-offs, cyber manhunts and cyber bullying have also been favored and protected by the Chinese state, which has long habituated the population to informing on their fellows as a means of maintaining control. In some cases, when official accounts have signaled to netizens that it is time to back off, “little pinks” will view this as proof of desertion and criticize the call. This has led some to ask whether or not decades of “patriotic education” in China, combined with full immersion in nationalist rhetoric and culture, have not brainwashed China’s young people so thoroughly that the state is often not sufficiently nationalistic in their view.
In my view, while "pink frenzy" certainly is attributable in part to a history of patriotic education and system manipulation, the real root causes lie deep in the structure of China’s political culture and the structure of social organization.
Fandoms to the Rescue
In the midst of the coronavirus epidemic, China’s online fandom groups have played an interesting role. They are a huge population, are well-organized, and have a clear division of labor, giving them an explosive power many would find astonishing. Just one day after the public announcement by Dr. Zhong Nanshan on January 20 that the new coronavirus could be transmitted from person to person, a charity support platform set up by mainland Chinese actor Zhu Yilong received donations that enabled the purchase of more than 200,000 masks as well as alcohol swabs and hand sanitizer, all of which were sent to Wuhan the same day. Nearly all of China’s fan clubs had organized donations and purchases by January 23, showing a remarkable speed of response.
Cross-regional fan groups were also extremely organized. The "666 Alliance," a fandom charity alliance comprising 27 fan groups from the mainland, Hong Kong, Taiwan and overseas, is an excellent case in point. Often used by young people, “666” is an internet buzzword that means “awesome” or “very good.” Most members of the “666 Alliance” are leading decision makers at participating fan clubs who have experience dealing with emergencies. Once they assembled, the members of “666” determined their various areas of expertise and assigned different groups to key tasks, including copywriting and connecting with networks overseas.
These groups generally maintain close connections, and they are able to rapidly mobilize fans around the world, maximizing opportunities for sourcing of various materials and supplies. Text, images and other content used in campaigns is shared among the groups, but each is responsible for raising its own funds, which means fund allocation is at the discretion of each group independently, without interference from other groups.
While fandoms, built around the worship of celebrity idols, are often associated with fanaticism, it is worth noting that these support clubs are organized in a rather democratic way. The organizational capacity such organizations show in moments of need arises from a deep-rooted awareness of and respect for community rules. The group rules may stipulate, for example, that the manager of the group cannot act as a dictatorship, or they may stipulate that the idol must always be protected, and so on – but the crucial point is that anyone who wishes to play in the circle must respect the rules of the game.
While fandoms, built around the worship of celebrity idols, are often associated with fanaticism, it is worth noting that these support clubs are organized in a rather democratic way.
But in the mental world of fandom, the idol around which the club is formed is actually a projection (投射) of the fans' emotions and love. The idol works as an operator who exists in order to satisfy this need for projection, and idols must adjust their public images in order to accommodate the needs of their fans. If the "nation," therefore, wishes to become embedded in fandom culture, it must satisfy the requirements of fandom. This means, for example, that it cannot simply rely on traditional male characters in the hope of drawing fans. The fandom is a female-dominated circle. This is significant because it emphasizes the rights of women and the women’s gaze. In this culture, male idols are the objects of "gazing" and of imagination and desire.
State organizations that interact with fandoms may not fully understand the cultural psychology within them. This can be glimpsed in attempts by official media or state interests to cater to the fandoms. Some of these attempts have had relative success. On February 17, the Central Committee of the Communist Youth League released a pair of manga cartoon-style virtual idols through Weibo that were called "Jiang Shanjiao” (meaning roughly “sister,” and meant to represent Chinese women collectively) and “Hong Qiman” (meaning “brother, and meant to represent Chinese men). The characters faced a storm of criticism by internet users who objected to the use of fandom language and entertainment styles to deal with serious political topics against the backdrop of the coronavirus epidemic.
"Personification" and "downsizing" are not the ultimate pursuits of fandom girls, but merely the methods by which they create an image that satisfies their imagination and emotional need. The state has worked hard to employ these methods, but it still has no real understanding of the purpose of "fandomization." It still imagines that fans play a passive role, and that fandom can be inspired and used simply by putting out idols that superficially respond to this demand.
Before "Brother China" was created as an idol of the state, the relationship between the state and fandom culture was one of extreme inequality. Fans reflexively placed the state high above their idols out of fear, rather than fashioning the state as an idol to be adored. This power relation between the state and the fan actually matches closer with reality than the intimacy the state has tried to foster through “fandomization.”
Fandom Versus Civil Society
Is it then conceivable that these fandom groups, which the state wishes to utilize, but which maintain a definite degree of subjectivity and autonomy – having not yet been monitored, restricted, controlled or coopted – could represent a breakthrough for civil society groups and spontaneous social action? The answer is no.
Fandom groups have already demonstrated their utility in abiding by state controls and accommodating official ideology. The state, for example, can ultimately determine the professional fate of flesh-and-blood idols if they act in ways that are not in line with mainstream ideology. Critical coverage in the official media can bring about a serious reversal of fortunes for a popular artist or celebrity. In some cases, fandoms must also appeal to the state to take real action in the case of perceived wrongs. This informing process happens frequently in cases of conflict between different fandoms (worshipping different idols), and is a common way to make trouble for the opposing side.
Another image to be found within fandom culture is that of “Motherland.” Unlike “Brother China,” who is a figure the requires the guardianship of his fans, “Motherland” is herself a guardian, a protector. One post made to a fandom forum helps to explain the relationship: “If the nation appears as an image of power, intelligence, reason, concern, tolerance, and even sacrifice and dedication, the people will develop an emotional connection and will be willing to surrender their individual rights to the motherland. I believe that mother loves me, and so I will fight for her.”
This emotional connection means that if the state can appear in the appropriate image and form, it can earn the uncritical support of the fandoms, who will fight without question.
This process is fundamentally different from the mechanisms of civil society. Civil society is comprised of intermediate groups and organizations that exist independently between the state and the individual or family, and participants in these groups are free to take part or to disassociate. According to psychologist William Kornhauser's theory on mass society, “intermediate groups” in society serve four main functions: 1) to undertake roles that the state cannot manage or does not manage well, and that the family cannot perform; 2) to provide a platform for dialogue among members within the group, between intermediate groups, and between groups and the state; 3) to promote diversity of identity and interests; and finally 4) to provide a way to mediate between elites and non-elites. In his latest book, Nation Building, Andreas Wimmer argues that voluntary organizations can help build trans-ethnic communities and regional coalitions and promote political integration and nation building.
There is only one way for fandom groups to counter the authorities – and that is by becoming more nationalistic than the authorities.
Generally speaking, fandom groups are diametrically opposed to civil society in terms of their organizational characteristics, collective psychology, values, behavioral patterns, functions and degree of independence. Their relationship with the state, however, is not entirely one of passive acquiescence to power. The authorities must guard against fandoms on the one hand and use them on the other – which is fandoms have not suffered the fate of civil organizations like the Open Constitution Initiative, the Transition Institute and Liren College, cases dealt with in more detail below
Political Reality: Prohibitions on Civil Liberties
In a Chinese context, the term "civil society" has a very particular meaning. In the past, it has represented the ambitions of a generation of liberal intellectuals eager for political transformation, and also their continued frustrations.
There is only one way for fandom groups to counter the authorities – and that is by becoming more nationalistic than the authorities.
The emergence of the market economy during the reform and opening up era, in the period from the 1980s through the 1990s and early 2000s, created a degree of relatively free or open, though very precarious, space for the public in which some liberal intellectuals hoped there could be a stead expansion of democratic Chinese politics. The notion of "civil society" came to represent the ideal form of this expanded space.
In the process of civil society formation, and the awakening of civic consciousness, the emergence of intermediate groups and organizations is a necessary condition. It was the belief of liberal intellectuals in China that if citizen consciousness and intermediate group development could reach a certain extent, this would bring considerable bargaining power that might pressure the ruling party and bring about political reforms.
Xu Zhiyong, a former leader of the Open Constitution Initiative, also known as “Gongmeng,” has been a leading proponent of this course. In May 2012, Xu Zhiyong published an article called “China’s New Citizen’s Movement” in which he proposed: “The New Citizen’s Movement is a political movement. China must complete its transition into a political civilization, building a free China with full democracy and rule of law.” Under the banner of this movement, Xu Zhiyong promoted equal rights over a range of issues, including the household registration system and migrant rights to education, and transparency over the assets of government officials.
Xu Zhiyong’s trial and imprisonment in 2014 on charges of "gathering crowds to disrupt public order" stemming from his activities related to his “New Citizen’s Movement,” following his detention and house arrest on July 16, 2013, was a clear sign that his favored route toward a civil society had been destroyed. Xu was sentenced to four years in prison, and was finally released in July 2017. More recently, Xu was again detained on February 15, 2020, after posting a letter online calling for the resignation of China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, over his mishandling of the coronavirus epidemic.
Many other citizens and would-be intermediate groups have disappeared since the crackdown on Xu’s Open Constitution Initiative. Even less overtly political organizations, such as Guo Yushan's Transition Institute, Lu Jun’s "Yi Renping" and Li Yingqiang's “Liren Rural Libraries" – an initiative to expand learning opportunities for rural students – have also been forced to close.
A series of new laws passed between 2015 and 2017, including the National Security Law and the Law on the Management of Activities of Overseas NGOs in China have further choked off the breathing space for independent rights NGOs and public welfare NGOs.
Despite these events, the idea of civil society has not been entirely abandoned as a result of the failure of the Xu Zhiyong approach. Some liberal intellectuals continue to hang on to the idea that the “citizen consciousness” of Chinese can be developed through a process of "enlightenment" and "public reasoning." Meanwhile, others have attempted organizational forms that are more resilient than the typical NGO. A model of social engagement that does not rely on state power to sustain it requires a critical mass of people on the one hand, and on the other hand the means to facilitate coordination and cooperation between groups of such people. One example might be the Christian church communities found in Alexis de Tocqueville’s America of the 1830s. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that quite a number of liberal intellectuals have converted to Christianity, viewing this as a new form of social organization on the path to national salvation.
A series of new laws passed between 2015 and 2017 have further choked off the breathing space for independent rights NGOs and public welfare NGOs.
Such thinking has not escaped the notice of the party-state. In February 2018, the new Religious Affairs Regulations came into effect in China. In December of the same year, Wang Yi, the pastor of the Early Rain Covenant Church, himself once a representative figure within the liberal generation of those born after 1970, was arrested in Chengdu. One year later Wang was sentenced to nine years in prison for "inciting subversion of state power" and "illegal business operations." There has been a general tightening of enforcement over other religions in the past two years. Religious activities have become more difficult to hold publicly, and religious books have become more difficult to publish.
The intent of the CCP leadership is clear. The existence of organizations that are not under the Party’s control will not be accepted – let alone the emergence of other groups that have the capacity to organize in effective ways.
Even if we acknowledge that China has a certain degree of freedom in the economic realm, we cannot deny that basic freedoms such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of belief, and freedom of association are seriously lacking. The absence of these rights means that political participation in the true sense does not exist in China.
In a society with political freedom, people can exercise this freedom to act on their "comprehensive doctrines," to return to the formulation given by Rawls – meaning their full set of personal and political values, including moral, metaphysical and religious beliefs, but also about how society should be organized and governed. In a society that is politically free, these “comprehensive doctrines” can mutually seek understanding, forming a compatible world view.
Liberalism, Marxism, feminism, Confucianism and Christianity all have such comprehensive doctrines. What are they at their base? They are the ideological crystallization of various civilizations through history, and they contain various essential elements of these diverse civilizations.
In today's China, where civil liberties are inhibited and the road to genuine political participation is blocked, it is difficult for such comprehensive doctrines to gain conscientious adherents and to be put into practice. As a result, the ideas and convictions of China’s young people are systematically deprived of nutrients, withering in a kind of spiritual desert. Those who manage somehow not to wither can often gather substantial force, becoming actors seen, as in the case of Xu Zhiyong, as a threat to the system. The government allows no legitimate outlet for this energy.
In my view, the cyber-bullying behavior of the so-called “little pinks” against those inside the Great Firewall deemed to be traitors can be explained as a surging of this otherwise undirected energy. It is essentially a nihilistic fever generated by youthful energy that has nowhere else to vent.
It is inevitable that there will be some within this surging tide who go against the current.
Young Activists in Defeat
The development of so-called “liberalism” in China since the 1980s – generally describing a set of ideas including the embrace of the market economy, and support for individualism and the limited of government power – has been a tortuous process. China’s reform and opening policy was essentially about the embrace of the market economy, so many liberals in the early stage of reform held fast to the belief that economic reforms would mean a gradual path of political loosening.
These hopes vested in the gradualist path of political reform were dashed through various setbacks in the reform era. Many intellectuals gave up on the illusion of political reform entirely, clinging instead to the belief that China’s political system was superior to Western democracy. Some moved in the direction of Christianity. Still others moved toward left-wing liberalism in the Western sense. This left-wing liberalism placed great emphasis on equality, with a view to correcting the extreme inequality emerging in particular as a result of rapid economic development in China and the winner-takes-all logic, driven by the collusion among political and economic elites.
The rise of left-wing liberalism in China is influenced by the liberal egalitarianism of Western academia, originating with Rawls's A Theory of Justice, though some scholars argue the position can be traced to the democratic socialism in Europe. In August 2014, an academic conference was held at the Chinese University of Hong Kong called “Left-wing Liberalism and China." The conference marked a departure from China’s earlier liberalism and the emergence of left-wing liberalism as a new pole of thought.
Left-wing liberalism criticizes both power and capital, which is also a correction to ultra-nationalism. Influenced by western "identity politics," left-wing liberals also refuse to give any precedence to the “nation” as a source of identity. Their vision of an ideal society is a constitutional democracy that works against the ethos of social Darwinism.
Left-wing liberalism has been focused on the spread of its ideas in the abstract, but has not taken shape in real action. By contrast, feminism has been more action-oriented in China and has a higher degree of integration with public welfare organizations and social issues. Gender issues tend to generate a lot of social discussion on social platforms, and are more likely to result in responses from the state in one form or another. Young women in China are increasingly sensitive to workplace sexism, domestic violence and sexual harassment. This sensitivity has sometimes provoked a backlash from more conservative elements in society, who have labelled those sensitive to gender issues as "countryside feminists"—suggesting they are coarse and unsophisticated.
Since the emergence of the global #MeToo movement in 2017 there have been numerous related cases in China, unfolding at universities, in the media profession, in charity circles and among public intellectuals. In April this year, college student Liu Jingyao launched a civil lawsuit against Liu Qiangdong, the billionaire founder of JD.com, in the United States for sexual assault. On Chinese social media platforms, groups supporting Jingyao and the #MeToo movement came together online to advance the national discussion over sexual harassment.
The forceful activism and publicity surrounding cases like these, as well as the challenge to the established social order, has made feminism a thorny issue for the authorities. In early 2015, the so-called “Feminist Five,” a group of outspoken young feminists, were briefly detained, drawing international attention to feminist activism in China. Over the past year, several social media accounts covering feminist issues have been shuttered by the authorities, and a number of individuals involved in #MeToo have been closely watched.