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Image composite of computer keyboard by "Andrew Writer" available at Flickr.com under Creative Commons license, and Nazi officers, image from Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons license. 

08:30 am | 20. August 2019

A "Nazi Song" Marches on China's Internet

As nationalistic Chinese internet youth rallied on a popular message board to plan an attack on media and platforms outside China's Great Firewall and oppose protesters in Hong Kong, they invoked disturbing notes from Germany's past. 

By Emilia Ye

As protests continued in Hong Kong over the weekend, one of the hottest trending topics on Chinese social media was a coordinated campaign by Chinese internet users to flood Western social media with messages of support for the People's Republic of China.

The campaign was organized through Diba (帝吧), one of China's largest message boards with more than 30 million users. According to the Global Times, a newspaper published by the flagship People's Daily, Diba created 16 chat groups to carry out the campaign, each with up to 1,000 participating members. The campaign began at 7 PM on Saturday, August 17, and it principally targeted Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter – all services banned inside China.

In order to bombard the accounts of social media users identified as "violent Hong Kong protesters," and media outlets such as Hong Kong's Apple Daily, the participants first had to set up user accounts and download VPNs allowing them to bypass domestic internet restrictions. 

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A screenshot of a post over the weekend on China's Diba platform reads regarding Hong Kong: "Protect National Unity, Strike the Extremists." 

This was not the first time external cyber attacks were organized through Diba. In a 2016 campaign referred to as the "Diba expedition to Taiwan," participants similarly crossed the Great Firewall to post tens of thousands of comments on the official Facebook page of Taiwan's recently elected leader, Tsai Ing-Wen. In the midst of tensions with Sweden last year, Diba users organized to flood the Facebook pages of the Swedish national broadcaster SVT and Sweden's Ministry of Foreign Affairs after SVT ran a satirical sketch about Chinese tourists

But this latest attack over the weekend was exceptional in receiving strong and unambiguous support from state propaganda organs in China. The social media accounts of the People's Daily and the Chinese Communist Youth League, for example, posted lengthy articles detailing the campaign and praising Diba for its "positive energy," or zhengnengliang (正能量), a phrase describing content and actions favorable to the Party-state. Even Xinwen Lianbo (新闻联播), China's carefully scripted official nightly newscast, reported on the campaign – a level of open official sanction and acceptance that surprised even Diba members, judging from their comments online after the program. 

However, some criticism began surfacing online in China as internet users revealed that the song lyrics included in a post by Diba to its account on the Sina Weibo platform initially calling for the external action were actually from a "German Nazi song" (this is how it was identified in Chinese) bearing the title, "The SS Lightning Brigades are Marching" (SS闪电部队在前进). Online sources in Chinese identify the song of this Chinese title as being the official marching song of the paramilitary division referred to as the 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler, charged with guarding Hitler personally during the Second World War. 

Suddenly mindful of the negative implications, both Diba and state media reacted with lightning speed, deleting all references they could to the lyrics and scrubbing them from the internet. 

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A post made to the social media account of the official People's Daily praises the trolling campaign launched through Diba, and includes an image of the Diba post with the alleged Nazi song lyrics. 

The lyrics in the Diba post read:

空气布满紧张的气氛,大战即将来临, 
The air bristles with tension, the war is coming, 
泪水划过母亲的脸庞,祖国就在身后, 
Tears cross my mother's face, and the motherland is behind me . . .   

看,人民的军队在前进! 
Look, the army of the people is marching!

According to sources on the Chinese internet, the "original SS song" begins with the same text, the only difference being that it is the "army of the SS" doing the marching. The lyrics continue, in the Chinese version: 

Whether it storms or snows,
Whether the sun smiles upon us,
[Whether in] The day's scorching heat,
Or the ice-cold of the night,
Dusty are our faces,
But joyous is our mind,
Yes, our mind.
It roars, our tank,
There in the stormwinds.

The lyrics above, in fact, will be familiar to German readers as the Panzerlied, or "Tank Song," a Wehrmacht military march of the Nazi era. Composed in 1935, the song was removed from Germany's Bundeswehr Songbook in 2017 by Ursula von der Leyen, the current President-elect of the European Commission who at that time was Germany's defense minister. 

As recognizable as this section may be, the first portion of the Chinese version, including the line about "the motherland," can be found nowhere in the German language. The reference to the motherland, in fact, provides one of the clearest clues that this is a Chinese invention. While the mother is a potent image of the nation in Chinese patriotic discourse, the metaphor does not work in German as “Vaterland” (fatherland) is the word for “motherland” in the German language.

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A screenshot from the official Sina Weibo account of Diba shows the image of a soldier and the words, "Where Diba goes into battle, not even a blade of grass grows," along with calls to attack Facebook.  

Many Chinese online sources combine the lyrics of this alleged "Nazi song" with the music of "The Mass," a popular hit released in 2003 by the French band ERA that adapts the melody of Carmina Burana, composed by Carl Orff and highly popular in Nazi Germany after its premiere in Frankfurt in 1937. The earliest discussions of the "Nazi song" on the Chinese internet go back to 2005, suggesting that the "SS Marching Song" used by Diba in its call for a coordinated patriotic campaign on Western social media platforms is most likely a fan product created in China sometime after 2003.

Why would Chinese internet users expend such effort to create fake Nazi propaganda for domestic consumption? Perhaps more to the point, why is such material not restricted in China, given the sophisticated tools used to control the Chinese internet? 

These questions are best answered with reference to China's socio-political context. 

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An online encyclopedia in Chinese explains the supposed origins of the song identified as "The SS Lightning Brigades are Marching."

First of all, in contrast to Germany, where militarism is sensitive and unpopular owing to the country's painful Nazi past, military themes are exceptionally popular in today's China. According to a survey conducted by Tencent, one of the country's top internet firms, military-related news and information is the second most sought-after category of online content for male internet consumers in China, ranking above sports and finance.

A booming market has emerged on the internet providing chat networks, military-themed products and information (and disinformation) to accommodate this interest. The platform Tiexue.net (铁血军事), for example, whose name literally translates “Blood and Iron Military Affairs," has claimed that there are more than 100 million military "fans" in China, overlapping quite closely with readers of Reference News (参考消息) and the Global Times (环球时报), both top state-run mass circulation newspapers catering to nationalistic sentiments. It is equally testament to the market strength of military themes in China that Tiexue is now listed on the country’s over-the-counter exchange.

In contrast to Germany, where militarism is sensitive and unpopular owing to the country's painful Nazi past, military themes are exceptionally popular in today's China.

 

Aside from current military topics, one popular theme among Chinese military fans is the re-imagination and idealization of strong military forces in history. This often results in the idealization of Nazi militarism, and one can even find, among the popular genre of the online novel in China, such titles as "My Führer” and “My Third Reich.” One of these novels tells the story of a Chinese man who time travels to Germany in the 1930s and becomes a close friend of Hitler, marries into the Krupp dynasty, and helps bring off a German victory in the Second World War (which comes with the defeat of Japan through this imagined German-Chinese alliance). Most of these online novels include portions of the apocryphal "SS marching song," including the references to the motherland. 

In 2018, Chinese state television CCTV reported that Nazi uniforms and paraphernalia have become popular and sought-after items on the internet. Significantly, this report noted while reporting disciplinary action against several online platforms for "defaming" Chinese national heroes that Nazi imagery and music were also prevalent on the Chinese internet. Despite the suggestion in the report that the presence of Nazi content was a surprise and a regulatory oversight, there was no suggestion that platforms had been disciplined for hosting such content. 

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A July 2018 report on Chinese state television notes the prevalence of Nazi songs, symbols and other materials in Chinese cyberspace. Screenshot from Tencent Video

Another important point of context is that Chinese at present have quite a different view of nationalism than that found in Germany and other Western societies today. While nationalism is generally seen as something negative in many countries in the West, understood as the subordination of individual and group interests to loyalty and devotion to the state, China promotes a very different view in line with the struggle to build a modern state. 

In China, nationalism has provided the leadership with an important source of ruling legitimacy since the end of the Qing dynasty. As Chinese scholar Liu Bin (刘斌) has noted, nationalism has become "the most powerful part" of the ruling ideology in China today. While Marxism has lost its ideological force and attractiveness, nationalistic movements are regarded as key contributors to China's modern history. Nationalism now forms a core part of the ideological content to which Chinese youth are exposed – and as Liu notes, is also the “most explosive part."

Against this backdrop, it is perhaps not surprising that many Chinese youth do not necessarily associate the spirit of nationalism in German Nazi propaganda with the crimes committed by the Nazis, but rather generalize this spirit as indicative of a national strength and military power to which they aspire.

Their primary point of reference is devotion to the motherland or fatherland, something they read into Nazi music and imagery.

In Germany, the portion of the "Tank Song" that says "to die for Germany is the highest honor" was forbidden many years before the entire song was removed in 2017. In China, however, the notion of dying for the motherland is still taught and emphasized as a highly desirable form of heroism. In the above-mentioned report from state media, the entire thrust of the news is that authorities are moving more aggressively against online content that "defames" national heroes, those in many cases who are said to have died for the higher ideals of the Party-state

Ceremonies to honor wartime heroes now take place every year across the country in China coinciding with the traditional Grave Sweeping Day, with the stated goal of urging young Chinese students to "remember our revolutionary heroes and uphold the spirit of nationalism" 

These notions of nationalism are not shared by protesters in Hong Kong, or by the majority of young people in Europe. But for many young Chinese inside the Great Firewall, they are a fundamental mark of Chinese identity, over and against the values that exist beyond the wall.

Another social media post on Diba over the weekend summed up this outlook on the world:

"[Young Chinese] don't care about the Great Firewall, and they don't feel that life outside the wall is better than life inside the wall. All they want, all they desire, can be fulfilled in their daily lives offline and online. The difference between them and young people in Hong Kong and Taiwan is that they refuse to consider or accept those values long associated with the West. To them, you are you, and I am me, and the division is clear."

 

20. August 2019
Author
Emilia Ye

Emilia Ye is a freelance journalist who writes for Chinese and German media.