Over the past years, China has developed a solid phenomenon of cyber-nationalism from which several groups have emerged. Among the most famous groups there are the 50 Cents Army (五毛党 wǔmáo dǎng), a group of state-backed internet commentators - whose name derives from the fact that the Communist Party pays 50 cents of RMB per pro-Chinese government post - or the nationalistic branch of the angry youth (fèn qīng 愤青).
Cyber-Nationalism in China
Youth-led nationalism began to come to light in the late 1990s (Zheng, 1999). The development of communication technologies (ICT) facilitated the evolution of this phenomenon on the internet, creating the ground for Chinese cyber-nationalism and an emerging public sphere in China (Yang, 2003). For several years now, nationalistic netizens have ardently condemned governments, companies, politicians, celebrities who have allegedly endorsed opinions or actions in contrast with those of the Chinese government, or Chinese society.
The phenomenon of cyber-nationalism is impacting both the national and international spheres. At the national level, it has an ambivalent effect. On the one side, these groups fuel support for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP); on the other side, they have the power to turn against the Party if it fails to meet the expectations of the radical nationalists. This results in a mix of state endorsement and control toward the cyber-nationalist groups (Han, 2017). At an international level, the phenomenon of cyber-nationalism is having a great impact on foreign issues and China’s relationship with the world.
Since 2015, a new wave of cyber-nationalists has arisen on the internet led by the newly formed Little Pink (小粉红 xiǎo fěnhóng).
Little Pink: The Label
The name refers to the pink background of the discussion forum of the Jinjiang Literature City, a famous literature website in China. The users of the website are mainly young women who avidly read love stories and had never expressed a particular interest towards politics. Among them, only a minority wanted to go political and showed nationalistic behaviors that, however, are prohibited by the regulation of the forum. As a result, the small group of nationalist users left Jinjiang and created an online forum called Fengyi Meishi Luntan (凤仪美食论坛 fèngyí měishí lùntán) (Tao, 2017).
The nationalistic tones of the new netizens were soon noticed by the internet and quickly a conflict arose with the Weibo liberal opinion leader Daguguguji (@大咕咕咕鸡). The reason behind the dispute was the use of the term “your country” (你国nǐguó), invented by Daguguguji to mark a difference with the term “my country” (我国wǒguó), typically used by the PCC, and that generated dissatisfaction among the nationalistic users. The Fengyi users insulted Daguguguji and, in return he ridiculed them for their appearance and their posts, calling them Little Pink, mistakenly referring to the Jinjiang website (Tao, 2017).
The moment that contributed to the widespread dissemination of the term Little Pink was the cross-strait memes war (两岸表情包大战 liǎng’àn biǎoqíngbāo dàzhàn) in 2016, year of the election of Taiwan’s pro-independence president Tsai Ing-wen. On 20 January, Chinese internet users flooded the Facebook pages of Tsai and Taiwan’s pro-independence media outlets with memes defining Taiwan as a province of China, underlying the beauty of mainland China and its exquisite delicacies. The battle was organized by Di Ba (帝吧 dì ba), a popular discussion group of the online forum Baidu Tieba (百度贴吧 bǎidù tiēbā), that called for action for producing memes, translating from simplified Chinese (commonly used in mainland China) to traditional Chinese characters (commonly used in Taiwan) (Leng, 2016). To overcome the block of Facebook, the organizer provided virtual private network (VPN) services to all the participants from mainland China. The war of memes lasted for a couple of days. Since that moment, the term Little Pink went viral to describe young naïve girls obsessed with romantic stories who eventually turned to politics.
The cross-strait meme war not only publicly launched the Little Pink, but also contributed to outline specific characteristics to the group members and the way in which they discuss politics. Many of the memes used by the nationalist netizens are part of what Fang & Repnikova (2017) define as a seduction strategy in nationalistic contents: “a softer, emotion-invoking discursive approach” (Fang & Repnikova, 2017). The tactic of the memes creators was either the expression through family metaphors, by referring to China and Taiwan as one family, comparing the reunification to a lost child coming back to the parent, or through the romantic narrative, by personifying China and Taiwan as tender lovers. Another tactic was showing Taiwan the beautiful places to visit in China and listing Chinese delicacies to offer to Taiwanese visitors if Taiwan decided to be under mainland China’s administration. Similar offers were directly addressed to Ms. Tsai.
Since the very first appearance, the term Little Pink inherently had some peculiar traits (Fang & Repnikova, 2017). In particular, the origins of the name and the term itself imply characteristics understood as feminine such as seduction, moderate terms and kind offers. For this reason, for a long time, the national and international public have considered the Little Pink as a nationalist group made in large part by women. However, soon after the cross-strait memes war, the national propaganda tried to frame the Little Pink as faithful, open to dialogue young activists born in the 90s, whose actions must be backed by the government officials. The change in definition operated by the Party moved the attention from the feminine composition to a broader inclusion of young nationalists. At the present moment, Little Pink has become an extensive umbrella term for all the forms of cyber-nationalism in China (Yang and Zheng, 2012).
In contrast, as also noted by the Chinese version of the Global Times, liberal netizens use the disparage term Little Pink to describe young nationalists as agents of the party: CCP is red, and they are lighter red/pinkish (Xi, 2016). As The Economist (2016) suggested, they were seen “as modern-day Red Guards.”
The Little Pink are hardly a temporary phenomenon; on the contrary, their flare-ups are getting more frequent. They have whipped up a broad public and state back-up thanks to their recourse to a nationalism characterized by the usage of seductive pop-culture as cultural capital.
Noemi Capelli is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Forecasting Innovation and Change at the University of Bologna. She holds a master’s degree in China’s Politics and Economics at Shanghai Jiao Tong and a bachelor’s degree in Asian and African Languages and Cultures at the University of Torino. She is passionate about China’s domestic and foreign policy, as well as those of the DPRK and Iran. You can find her on Instagram as @darthnoems or on LinkedIn.
The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.
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