HomeUncategorizedCensorship and Hate: The Contradictions of China's Social Media Xenophobia

Censorship and Hate: The Contradictions of China’s Social Media Xenophobia

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Violent attacks on foreigners have prompted a debate about extreme nationalism online in China, as reported by the New York Times and Li Yuan. Despite the country’s breathtaking censorship, xenophobic content thrives on Chinese social media, raising concerns about its impact on real-world violence.

Last year, a video posted on Chinese social media showed over 100 Japanese children supposedly in a Shanghai schoolyard, with subtitles falsely quoting them as saying, “Shanghai is ours. Soon the whole China will be ours, too.” The video, which actually depicted a sporting event in Japan, was viewed over 10 million times before being removed. This incident is just one example of the xenophobic content proliferating online in China.

The issue has gained urgency after recent violent attacks on foreigners. A Chinese man recently stabbed a Japanese mother and her son, and two weeks earlier, four visiting instructors from Iowa were attacked. These incidents have led some Chinese citizens to question the role of online speech in inciting violence.

China has one of the world’s most sophisticated internet censorship systems, regulating what can be said about politics, economics, society, and the country’s leadership. Despite these controls, hate speech against Japanese, Americans, Jews, Africans, and Chinese critics of the government persists. False information about Japan and the United States frequently trends on Chinese social media, receiving substantial engagement.

President Xi Jinping’s administration has fostered a rise in nationalism, promoting a “China-versus-the-world” mentality. This approach is reflected in China’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy, characterized by aggressive and nationalistic rhetoric. The government’s public opinion machine often tolerates and even encourages xenophobic messages directed at certain countries. Efforts to correct misinformation are frequently silenced, while internet companies profit from the traffic generated by such content. Influencers and intellectuals of the Xi era also gain traffic and income from perpetuating these narratives.

For example, in February 2023, the derailment of a train carrying toxic chemicals in East Palestine, Ohio, was extensively covered by Chinese state media. Influencers spun conspiracy theories, comparing it to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and claiming a government cover-up. Duan Lian, a misinformation consultant, tried to debunk these falsehoods but faced censorship and a temporary suspension from the social media platform Weibo.

Similarly, Liu Su, a science blogger, was censored for challenging government disinformation about Japan’s release of treated radioactive water from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. His articles were reported, and his social media account was suspended. Liu, among other intellectuals, has voiced concerns about the nationalistic tide drowning rational discourse.

China’s foreign ministry claims recent attacks on foreigners are isolated incidents. However, social media comments often praise the attackers, reflecting an environment where nationalism fuels hostility. Short dramas on platforms like Douyin also contribute, depicting Chinese characters humiliating and attacking foreigners, particularly Japanese and Americans.

Nicholas Burns, the U.S. ambassador to China, recently expressed concern about the aggressive anti-American sentiment promoted by the Chinese government and prevalent online.

Chinese censors act swiftly when it suits political needs, as seen when tennis player Peng Shuai’s post accusing a former leader of assault was deleted within 20 minutes. However, the same urgency is not applied to curbing xenophobic content.

The recent death of Hu Youping, who tried to stop the attack on a Japanese mother and son, has sparked discussions about the influence of nationalistic rhetoric on such crimes. In a rare move, China’s major internet platforms announced a crackdown on hate speech against Japanese and extreme nationalism. However, questions remain about the sustainability and sincerity of this effort, especially when xenophobic sentiments serve political purposes.

As former journalist Peng Yuanwen noted, the attacker in the recent incident was a victim of nationalistic brainwashing, illustrating the deep entrenchment of these dangerous ideologies.

Li Yuan writes The New New World column, which focuses on China’s growing influence on the world by examining its businesses, politics, and society.

ACZ Editor: Censorship has its consequences. The harder you suppress emotions and instincts, the greater the expression when suppression fails. This is illustrated by the extreme sexual fetishes that emerge from some of the strictest societies in the world. Could China’s efforts to encourage “correct” behavior actually be making this worse?

Is Xenophobia on Chinese Social Media Teaching Real-World Hate?

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