AN WORLD OF ANXIETY has long feared that the rise of nationalism would one day lead ordinary Chinese – especially young people – to uncontrollable outbursts of rage. If the past few months are any guide, outsiders have missed a more insidious threat: that anti-alien paranoia will turn into a nasty but profitable game.
These are scary times for Chinese civil society activists, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and private companies who see their role as building bridges between China and other countries. Nationalist bloggers, sometimes backed by media controlled by the Communist Party and the People’s Liberation Army, have spent months denouncing groups and individual activists for receiving foreign grants, or simply for relaying foreign concerns about China’s growing impact on the world, even in such relatively safe areas as the environment.
Last year, Paperclip, a maker of popular science videos, was attacked by online nationalists and driven out of business, accused of spreading anti-Chinese hatred with a film noting that China is a big buyer of Brazilian soybeans linked to deforestation in the Amazon, saying that eating less meat is good for the planet. Online celebrities have been branded breed traitors for making overfishing videos, some for a UK charity, in which they urged Chinese to consume seafood more responsibly . Nationalists detect an “evil” program to deny Chinese proteins that Americans and Europeans wish to keep for themselves.
China House, a Shanghai-based social enterprise that promotes sustainable development in Africa and provides Chinese youth with opportunities to volunteer to help marginalized people, faces continued attacks. He sparked anger for drawing attention to the discrimination African migrants face in southern China and for investigating Chinese buyers of illegal ivory. Sai Lei, a blogger behind some of the loudest recent campaigns, said the founder of China House an uh guizi, a contemptuous term for collaborators with the Japanese occupiers in the 1930s and 1940s. Republished by the Communist Youth League, his video has so far been viewed 5 million times.
A veteran of the NGO the world calls it the worst time for Chinese civil society since 1989. Yet this atmosphere of fear was not sparked by new government policies or by a wave of arrests. Instead, disconcertingly, some of the most damaging attacks have come from previously little-known social media entrepreneurs. Even more shockingly, the secret weapon of these bloggers is to poke fun at anti-foreign bigotry. Their target audience is made up of young men between the ages of 18 and 25. While followers are initially hooked by videos denouncing “anti-Chinese traitors,” their attention is caught by nationalist memes, conspiracy theories and dark jokes. Call targets uh guizi is just the beginning. Because state security services offer rewards of up to 500,000 yuan ($ 78,700) for foreign power intelligence officers, Chinese people found to be unpatriotic are ridiculed online as “500,000 ambulants ”in anticipation of their denunciation as spies, or simply“ 500,000 ”. Nationalism has become an entertainment industry. In the words of a Chinese liberal whose employer was targeted last year, nationalists found that the videos about “anti-Chinese” betrayal generated clicks. “If you get a lot of clicks you get influencer and influence generates income.”
Chaguan asked Sai Lei why he started making nationalist videos after years of making science and car explanatory films. Before agreeing to a telephone interview, the 30-something, whose real name is Li Sirui, asked questions in advance, citing his distrust of foreign media. He described his suspicions, from 2020, that a hidden agenda lurks behind what appeared to be growing criticism of China. In telling his story, Mr. Li mixed up many things that shocked him: President Donald Trump’s comments on covid-19; BBC reporting on allegations of forced labor in the Xinjiang cotton industry; and unsourced goodies he had “read somewhere”, such as a claim that pandemic masks donated by China “contain Huawei chips.” He called such claims “very clearly false news” and added: “We have to be vigilant as to the intention behind all of this.” He insisted that his campaigns are not coordinated in advance with officials. “We are a private company, we are not tied to the government.”
In this dark moment, those under fire find it difficult to discern how well clickbait nationalism aligns with the party’s agenda. In the 1980s and 1990s abroad NGOThe foundations and foundations were well received as they brought foreign economists and lawyers to China and funded scholarships for Chinese to study in the West. Those days are over. Chinese leaders today believe the West is both less useful as a source of knowledge and more likely to be hostile.
Tell the Chinese that every foreigner is a potential spy
Now that they have fewer opportunities to cooperate with national reformers inside China, some NGOs have turned to lobbying China to be a more responsible global player, on issues ranging from climate change to illegal fishing far from home. It is a more confrontational role for foreigners to play. Pushing back on criticism creates synergies between online click-seeking nationalists and national security hawks, who never believed foreigners would help China without expecting something in return.
In November, law enforcement accused Rendu Ocean, a nonprofit that studies marine pollution around China’s coastline, of collecting ocean data that could be used by spies. Later that month, the World time, a tabloid often granted exclusives by state security agencies, warned Chinese environmental workers NGOs that they may unwittingly aid foreign “espionage activities”, for example when they organize academic forums exploring China’s intentions in climate negotiations. Such hostility is at odds with President Xi Jinping’s stated ambition for China to be the world leader in “ecological civilization”. For now, it is useful to delegitimize criticisms with foreign links. Whether this dynamic can be easily reversed is an issue the party will face another day. ■
This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline “Paranoia for Profit”