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Chinese nationalists online are directing their anger towards both a Nobel laureate and a water company.
Chinese nationalists online are directing their anger towards both a Nobel laureate and a water company.

Chinese nationalists online are directing their anger towards both a Nobel laureate and a water company.

In China, there has been a significant increase in online nationalism over the past few weeks. A large group of cyber nationalists have directed their focus towards Mo Yan, the country’s first Nobel Prize winner in literature, and Nongfu Spring, the largest bottled water company.

The cyber assaults on Nongfu Spring commenced following the death of Zong Qinghou, a prominent billionaire and founder of the company’s main rival, Hangzhou Wahaha Group, on February 25.

Some internet users started to draw comparisons between Zong and Zhong Shanshan, the wealthiest individual in China and founder of Nongfu Spring. This turned into a widespread criticism against Nongfu Spring. Certain online nationalists argued that the packaging of Nongfu Spring’s products includes Japanese influences, accusing Zhong of being pro-Japan. Others targeted claims that Zhong’s son holds American citizenship.

One user on the Chinese social media site Weibo commented that if the next leader of Nongfu Spring is American, their beliefs would be deemed inappropriate.

“I refuse to accept that an American is now the wealthiest individual in China,” expressed another Weibo user Liu Jia-nan. “Even though I may not be able to bring about change, my family and I can certainly boycott purchasing Nongfu Spring’s products.”

The demand to stop purchasing Nongfu Spring’s items has had a negative impact on the company’s stock, causing it to decline by over 6% since the criticism began in the previous month. In the midst of this chaos, Chinese news sources shared that Zhong Shanshan resigned as the legal representative of a Nongfu Spring subsidiary on March 11th.

A blogger who claims to be patriotic, Wu Wanzheng, targeted Chinese Nobel Prize winner Guan Moye, also known as Mo Yan, last month. On February 27, Wu, who manages the “Truth Telling Mao Xinghua” account on Weibo, announced his intention to take legal action against Mo for allegedly breaking the Chinese Heroes and Martyrs Protection Law. If Mo is found guilty, he could face up to three years in jail.

Wu shared the indictment on Weibo, where he accused Mo of praising the Japanese invaders in his book “Red Sorghum.” The novel is about a Chinese family during the Second Sino-Japanese War.

The individual additionally alleged that Mo attempted to defame the Chinese People’s Liberation Army heroes and martyrs in a separate novel about the Chinese Civil War. Wu requested an apology from Mo and a payment of approximately $0.14 USD per Chinese citizen as restitution, as well as the removal of his books from shelves throughout China.

FILE - A worker transfers packages of Nongfu Spring mineral water at a factory in Danjiangkou, China, on May 11, 2023. Nongfu Spring has become a target of nationalist attacks on Chinese social media.

On May 11, 2023, packages of Nongfu Spring mineral water were being transferred by a worker at a factory in Danjiangkou, China. Nongfu Spring has been a subject of nationalist criticisms on social media in China.

Chinese nationalists have been targeting various brands, both domestic and international, in recent years. This includes Li Ning, as well as Western companies like H&M, Nike, and Adidas. The criticism has been focused on either designs that resemble Japanese military uniforms from World War II or the boycott of cotton from China’s Xinjiang region.

According to some analysts, Chinese individuals participating in internet activities view using nationalism as a way to defend themselves, similar to a shield.

According to Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, those individuals carefully select their objectives and are aware of their ability to generate significant online attention. In a telephone conversation with VOA, Yang stated this.

Yang explained that Chinese nationalists may feel morally justified in targeting certain businesses or individuals, as long as their actions do not become extreme. In most cases, the overall environment is accepting of such behavior.

In the past, there were measures in place to prevent Chinese social media content from becoming overly nationalistic. However, current online content regulators now prioritize the removal of critical viewpoints that could be seen as “unpatriotic” or “sensitive” by Chinese authorities.

According to Eric Liu, who used to moderate on Weibo and is now an editor at the bilingual news site China Digital Times, Chinese authorities do not censor nationalistic content on the internet because it aligns with the government’s messaging. He shared this information during a phone conversation with VOA.

Following potential dangers from a blogger with nationalist views, Mo attended an engagement alongside British author Abdulrazak Gurnah in Beijing last week. Multiple state media sources in China provided coverage of the event, and it was reported that China’s state television network CCTV conducted an interview with the renowned writer.

Several Chinese social media users have appealed to fellow nationalists to cease their attacks on Nongfu Spring. In addition, various state-run media sources in China have released editorial pieces urging nationalists to halt their campaign of persecution against business owners in the country.

Despite attempts by government propaganda outlets to combat the barrage of online criticism, some observers believe it is unlikely that the Chinese government will intervene in this trend. Murong Xuecun, a noted Chinese author, stated in a phone interview with VOA that the government would have taken action against the online nationalists if they truly wished to put an end to the targeted attacks.

The author expressed concern that China’s current state of free speech is already poor after 10 years of Xi’s leadership. They also believe that if the pattern of specific online attacks persists, the free speech climate in China will worsen.

“According to Liu from China Digital Times, along with the decline in free speech, this development could have a detrimental impact on many Chinese individuals using the internet. He explained to VOA that the online atmosphere in China may worsen to the extent that users become apprehensive about being targeted in these types of attacks.”