Internet and nationalism in authoritarian states

Optimistic discussions about the internet’s potential to facilitate communication across borders and by extension cross-border understanding, which ultimately would lead to world peace have been a common feature of what has been criticised as “internet-centrism”. This technological determinism has largely focused on what the internet has made possible rather than on how it is actually used (Curran 2012a, pp. 8-12). The internet can be used for various purposes and even though it has certainly had a tremendous impact on people’s lives, at the same time, “society exerts, in general, a greater influence on the internet than the other way around” (Curran 2012b, p. 59). In other words, the internet, as well as ICT more generally, may very well be used to bring people together across borders but there is much empirical evidence showing that it can also be used to promote nationalist or xenophobic political agendas.

As part of another research project, I have recently analysed hundreds of Japanese newspaper editorials, many of which deal with Sino-Japanese relations and especially with expressions of anti-Japanese sentiments. The role of ICT in anti-Japanese activism in China is highlighted in a number of these editorials. ICT has been used not only to mobilise activists for anti-Japanese demonstrations but also by the authorities to urge activists to obey the law. This was the case during the large-scale anti-Japanese demonstrations in 2005, which turned violent in a number of locations with demonstrators smashing the windows of the Japanese embassy and consulates while the police was watching passively. After having given the demonstrations its tacit approval for a few days, the authorities in Shanghai sent out a text message instructing demonstrators to express their “patriotic passion through the right channel, following the laws and maintaining order” (article).

In addition, it has been suggested that nationalism on the internet has had an impact on the Chinese government’s foreign policy (See for example Wu 2007). One such incident occurred after the earthquake in Sichuan in 2008. When the Japanese government wanted to provide earthquake relief aid its Chinese counterpart suggested that the Japan Air Self-Defense Forces (JASDF) participate in rescue operations and that aid be sent using its planes. Had this happened, it would have marked the first presence of Japanese forces in China since 1945. Both governments intended for the initiative to be a symbolic reconciliatory measure. It was aimed at improving bilateral relations. However, on the internet in China, arguments against the deployment of the JASDF plane to China spread, leading the Chinese government to abandon the idea. In an editorial in the Japanese Yomiuri Shinbun, which lamented the Chinese government’s decision it was stated that it was due to the existence of an “anti-Japanese public opinion” in China. The Chinese government was unable, it was argued, to reign in this public opinion, which was running wild on the internet. Cooperation in the area of disaster relief, it was argued, could have led to improved bilateral relations (Yomiuri Shinbun 2008). However, the government initiative was stopped by anti-Japanese internet activism. The negative response on the internet was arguably related to collective memory of Japanese aggression and nationalistic sentiments. The internet, it might be argued, made it possible for such ideas to have the kind of impact that they did.

Of course, nationalistic and xenophobic discourse exists not only in China but is a common feature of the internet all over the world. In recent years, there has been much debate concerning expressions of hatred on the internet in European countries. In Japan, the Netto uyoku, or internet right-wingers, have been given much media attention (See for example: the following article or the following website). In different national contexts, self-proclaimed patriots express xenophobic views, often under the cover of anonymity offered by the web. Even though this phenomenon can be found in different types of state, it may matter and influence politics in different ways in democratic and autocratic states.

Does nationalism on the internet matter more in authoritarian or democratic states? The standard belief that public opinion in general matters little in authoritarian states because these are believed to be highly repressive has come to be challenged in recent years (See for example Reilly 2012). There are good reasons to believe that nationalism on the internet actually matters more in authoritarian states (at least if these are developed enough for a large number of people to have internet access) than in democratic ones. Whereas in democratic states legitimacy resides in the system, i.e. in the procedures through which the state is governed, authoritarian states need to create legitimacy through other means because it is not readily available in the system. Instead, the regime might be legitimised through a political ideology such as communism (this was largely the case in communist states before the fall of communism) or nationalism.

It is often argued that the Chinese regime used to obtain its legitimacy from communist ideology but that after Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms communist ideology has become increasingly hollow. The regime, it is argued, now receives its legitimacy largely from economic performance and nationalism. If nationalism is key to the legitimacy of a political system it is arguably more likely to influence politics than if the legitimacy of the system is derived from the procedures according to which politics function. It is easier to ignore nationalism for regimes that do not derive their legitimacy from such sentiments. Authoritarian regimes that rely on nationalism for legitimacy are hence likely to be more vulnerable to nationalist expressions on the internet than are democracies. If nationalism or patriotism is the mainstream it becomes possible for non-state actors within society to challenge the limits of what is deemed acceptable patriotic behaviour. We have seen this in the large-scale anti-Japanese demonstrations in 2005, 2010 and 2012. Those who resort to violent behaviour, for example by smashing Japanese cars (usually belonging to Chinese citizens), as well as those who have expressed extreme xenophobic views during demonstrations and on the internet have done so in the name of patriotism. When the most widespread anti-Japanese demonstrations since normalisation of bilateral relations in 1972 took place in autumn 2012, the Chinese government responded to the violence as it had done several times before—by urging people to express patriotism “rationally”. A large number of newspaper articles calling for the rational expression of patriotism were published (See for example: the following article, another article). A debate followed on the internet concerning how to express patriotism in a rational manner. Numerous statements by netizens condemning as well as supporting violent expressions of patriotism could be found in internet chat rooms. Such debates are likely to continue and it is probable that the internet will be the main venue for the discussions.

Curran, James (2012a) ‘Reinterpreting the internet’, Curran, James; Fenton, Natalie and Des Freedman (eds.) Misunderstanding the Internet, New York: Routledge.

Curran, James (2012b) ‘Rethinking internet history’, Curran, James; Fenton, Natalie and Des Freedman (eds.) Misunderstanding the Internet, New York: Routledge.

Reilly, James (2012) Strong Society, Smart State: The Rise of Public Opinion in China’s Japan Policy, New York: Columbia University Press.

Wu, Xu (2007) Chinese Cyber Nationalism: Evolution, Characteristics and Implications, Plymouth: Lexington Books.

Yomiuri Shinbun (2008) ‘Kūjiki chūgoku haken: Miokurareta rekishiteki na ippo’, 31 May.

February 13, 2013

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