Chinese Young Nationalists amid The COVID-19 Pandemic: A Rap against A “Diary”
by Chang Liu, MA Student, The New School for Social Research
Sixty-five-year-old Fang Fang’s diary on living in and through the pandemic in China has recently triggered an antagonistic debate on nationalism and has polarized the political atmosphere in China. A 20-year-old female rapper’s opposition to the diary has reached millions of viewers and received thousands of supportive comments on a popular Chinese video-sharing website. The diary and the response to it became a flashpoint of controversy about ascendant Chinese nationalism, particularly among the younger generation.
Fang Fang started keeping her diary when she was asked by a journal editor to write about her lockdown experience in Wuhan. At first, she did not even expect to write it daily, but she gradually made the 60 daily entries from January 25 to March 24. As a record of personal memory and thoughts about the quarantined life, the narrative of the diary is very mild and contains moderate political views. It just expressed some anxious and uncertain feelings that many other Chinese people experienced at the same time.
However, the nationalists regarded these feelings as representative of “national scars” and accused Fang Fang of not defending national pride. On the 12th of April, rapper “Bo Peep” uploaded her rap to diss on Fang Fang and her diary on the influential youth-based Chinese website, Bilibili. By the 3rd of May, the video reached over 1.5 million views and had 15 thousand comments. It was even endorsed by the Chinese Communist Youth League.
The rap presents the opinions of both the opponents and supporters of Fang Fang’s diary and also includes the rapper’s own views. The criticisms from the opponents mainly question Fang Fang’s intention to publish the diary overseas, her sources of information, and her morality in general. The rapper describes the diary as a “farce,” challenging its accuracy and authenticity. Supporters of Fang Fang, on the other hand, respond to these accusations by emphasizing that a diary is not an academic article or a scientific report, and as such should not be held to the same standards of accuracy and factuality.
More importantly, Bo Peep pokes fun at Fang Fang and her supporters by satirizing their supposed “democratic” views and sentiments in her rap. She sings ironically: “Just got a little fragrance of democracy and freedom. Those who oppose it are far right or have suffered brain injuries. Afraid to tell the truth because the totalitarian government is holding the gun.”
She regards the opponents of Fang Fang, including herself, as the ordinary “people,” but describes Fang Fang, who was the chairperson of Hubei Writers’ Association from 2007 to 2018, as rich and elite. Bo Peep, attacks Fang Fang’s wealth and social status, “live for the people but live in a 20-million-dollar villa complex. After all, you’re a noble chairman and I’m just ‘deaf people’” (the homophony of ‘peasant’ in Chinese). Furthermore, the rapper claims that Fang Fang’s diary is complict in the overseas bullying of and discrimination against Chinese people as she and Fang Fang’s opponents believe the publication of the diary overseas will make more foreigners hate China. Towards the end of the song, the rapper argues that Fang Fang’s thoughts, which allegedly admire “western values,” are outdated, and the younger generation has a different mindset and will strengthen the nation.
The opposition to Fang Fang’s diary reveals the nationalist youth’s distrust of those who do not share their views, especially the Chinese intellectual elite. In their eyes, morality is contingent on loyalty to the nation and country. Although the contents of Fang Fang’s diary are somewhat politically ambiguous, the detractors assert their judgments and draw their conclusions without sufficient evidence. They blindly demand collective solidarity during the insecure and uncertain “emergency” situation created by the pandemic.
Moreover, while the first phase of the coronavirus outbreak had provoked critical reflection about the social system in China, ever since the so-called “victory” phase, the public had entirely shifted attention from questioning government response to celebrating the government’s success in dealing with the crisis. In this context, the overseas publication of an apolitical diary was politicized as an act of disloyalty to the nation for it the diary was not explicitly pro-government.
Furthermore, the “Great Firewall” (state technologies that block access to selected foreign websites such as Facebook, Google, Twitter, Wikipedia, etc.), which is essentially a virtual national border, has isolated most Chinese Internet users from the main Western Internet community. The Chinese government and state media, however, are exempted from such restrictions. Thus, both Chinese state media and Western media have become the de facto “mediators” between the Chinese and Western world. Although some people can travel physically by air and virtually by VPN, the majority still rely on their domestic media to get indirect information about the “other side.” As a result, for the Chinese, the West is imagined to be the enemy of China and “Western” human rights and democracy are considered hypocritical and dysfunctional. In the diary event, although a few mainstreaming Western media did report the story of Fang Fang, the influence of Fang Fang’s diary in the West was highly exaggerated by the domestic Chinese media and her detractors see her as a “traitor” of China who is serving the overseas anti-China industry.
In addition, Chinese nationalism has been combined with a long-simmering nationalist “inferiority complex.” Under the shadow of the US-China trade war, in late January, many people on social media were even panicking about the potential negative economic consequences of WHO’s announcement that the new coronavirus outbreak in China constitutes a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC), which they believed would lead to more trade restrictions. Recently, news about the U.S. lawsuits seeking compensation from China evoked people’s memories of “centuries of humiliation,” when the Chinese government had to allegedly pay millions of dollars to various Western powers because of “unequal treaties.”
As a flashpoint for an ascendant Chinese Nationalism amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the controversy surrounding the diary of Fang Fang and the rap response to it, have reflected not only the social tensions between the nationalist populists and intellectual elite in Chinese society but also the long-existing misunderstanding between China and the West because of the “Great [internet] Firewall” in mainland China.
Meanwhile, the rise of China on the international stage has brought Chinese people both pride and fear. The inconsistency between the increasing economic power and the lack of political and cultural recognition from the West has produced a strong national resentment towards the West in China, and particularly among the younger generation, who were born in the age of the Internet and a rising China. Although the rise of nationalism in China is worrisome, the heated discussion and controversy on the diary event actually shows the public opinion is not monolithic and there is still room for dissent in society.
Chang Liu is currently a MA student in sociology at the New School for Social Research, with research interests in political sociology, historical sociology, and the sociology of China in general. She also holds a master’s degree in global development from University of Copenhagen in Denmark, and a bachelor’s degree in economics from Central University of Finance and Economics in China.
This piece was a contribution to the Democracy & the Pandemic Mini-Conference of the Democracy Seminar held on May 20-21, 2020.