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Why China’s millennials are high on ultra-nationalism

In most societies, millennials tend to be the most liberal-minded, anti-establishment demographic group. But those in China seem to be a conspicuous exception.

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In most societies, millennials tend to be the most liberal-minded, anti-establishment demographic group. But those in China seem to be a conspicuous exception.

A large number of those born in the last decade of the 20th century hold increasingly nationalistic views and fight their battles on social media, harassing those not submissive to the regime.

These young millennials are collectively known as the “little pinks” or “xiao fenhong”. Riding on rising ultra-nationalism, they often behave like mobs on the Internet.

Last January, when Ms Tsai Ing-wen, leader of Taiwan’s independence-leaning Democratic Progress Party was elected President, the “little pinks” flooded her Facebook wall with negative comments.

Entertainers in Hong Kong sympathetic to the universal suffrage movement and their counterparts in Taiwan, who joined the protest against a free-trade deal with the mainland, were labelled separatists by these youngsters, who called for nationwide boycott.

Xenophobic and chauvinistic, they see “hostile foreign forces” everywhere, from the United States to Japan, from the Philippines to Singapore.

So who are those “little pinks”? According to a report released by the website of communist mouthpiece People’s Daily, most were born in the 1990s, 57.9 per cent are female, with a strong sense of “pride in the Chinese culture”. Claiming to be fed up by talk of individual rights and civil liberty, they are pro-government and pro-authoritarianism.

Sounds quite conservative, an attitude more commonly associated with the older generations in many other societies, right?


Young people in China have not always acted this way. The atmosphere used to be quite different.

China’s university campuses were often at the forefront of social changes and democratisation movements, a historical fact that has for long troubled Beijing.

In 1919, college students hoping to save the country from imperialist exploitation and feudal rule took to the streets advocating democracy and science.

Seventy years later, students from universities all over the country once again led a massive pro-democracy protest in the nation’s capital that profoundly influenced history in the years that followed.

So why are today’s Chinese youth so different from their peers in the rest of the world and even with their own predecessors?

The quick rise of living standard certainly has played a big role. The “post-1990 generation” grew up in an era when the world witnessed China’s impressive economic growth.

The “China model”, which embodies the combination of market economy and authoritarian rule, was once a hot-button debate topic.

More recently, the young millennials, proud of the economic miracles, have by large accepted such a model as being as good as, if not better than, the concept of constitutionalism from the West.

The government’s control over information and historical facts has no doubt also helped shape the views of this generation, which did not experience the Great Famine of the early 1960s, the violent Cultural Revolution in 1966-1976, or the 1989 crackdown.

The Great Firewall on cyberspace has worked very well to erase all the scars in history. The sad stories of the victims in those tragedies all seem like juicy rumours made up by the hostile forces with the agenda of messing China up.

Also, with not-so-subtle encouragement from those in power, there is a growing trend in China that views democracy and human rights as merely naive “cliches” and authoritarianism as pragmatic and strong.

That is why many young Chinese who study abroad still defend their government’s draconian policies: This is the best way for China, in their view. In the meantime, the idea that the ruling party represents stability while dissent, however mild, represents turbulence, is deeply ingrained through China’s education system.

There is almost a consensus among the “little pinks” that if China were to launch political reforms, it would for sure disintegrate into a failed state like Syria or Iraq.

Erosion of Academic Freedom

Those hardline young nationalists usually do not care to differentiate patriotism, nationalism and racism; they also tend to mix the concepts of regime, country and government. In the last few years, Chinese students abroad have accused professors of being racist for their views on China’s human rights conditions or communist history, something obviously not related to race.

Meanwhile in China, academic freedom on campuses has eroded as universities come under increasingly tight ideological control.

In recent years, the government’s top discipline and anti-graft watchdog dispatched inspection teams to top-tier universities to make sure educators were toeing the party line.

Students are encouraged to snitch on professors for “improper discussions”.

At Sun Yat-sen University, which was known for being liberal and open by China’s standards, a directive of “10 not-allows” was announced early this year, prohibiting the faculty from criticising the Party’s leadership.

The “little pinks” do not necessarily act spontaneously all the time. Young students are strictly organised and can be called upon by the Communist Youth League.

Since President Xi Jinping took office in late 2012, universities have recruited students to be “volunteers for Internet civility”, with a duty to fight the so-called “negative energy” and report sensitive criticism to the authorities.

Their “political performance” is then linked to job prospects and other opportunities. It is hard to miss the effect of this mechanism of motivation: It was reported that 13.1 per cent of the WeChat content tip-offs have been “politically harmful information”.

As a result, fewer and fewer people are courageous enough to speak out any more.


Audrey Jiajia Li is a filmmaker and columnist in Guangzhou, China

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