The rise of Chinese nationalism on the internet is drawing attention from commentators. Such often aggressive views are being cited as evidence to support the 'China threat' theory, and some Western observers worry that the venting in cyberspace is spreading to the streets. But is this the case?
A closer look shows that those who espoused nationalist sentiments in online polls, forums, games and blogs tend to do so only in the virtual environment.
Opinion poll findings on the mainland back this observation. Web polls and street surveys frequently show widely divergent views: while many Chinese express fervent nationalist rhetoric on the internet, especially when they can do so anonymously, the responses culled from street and telephone surveys tend to be more measured and rational.
China watchers should be prepared to study two sets of opinion polls. As Shen Min, manager of the leading Chinese polling company, Horizon Research Consultancy Group, explained: 'Internet polls are randomly visited and clicked on, and they attract the attention of the relatively young and relatively well-informed activists. Most other people have access to less information, and are less able to analyse what information they have. In general, opinions on the internet are more aggressive and more radical.'
This 'split identity' is common in role-playing games. Like gamers who role-play, activists can take on the part of a Chinese nationalist when it suits them. In a study of the nationalist rhetoric used in the discussion forum of a virtual-war-gaming website, researcher Zhou Yongming found that its members saw themselves as part of an imagined military community.
What does this development tell us? Given the restrictions in Chinese political space, nationalist discourse is one of the very few platforms that allow people to take part in cabianqiu - kicking the ball from the side, or acting on the fringes - to exercise their freedom and develop their identity.
Yet these fringe players have little intention of pressing the party-state to act on their expressions. The subtlety of this has not gone unnoticed. When leading British sinologist Christopher Hughes analysed the discourse of various Chinese nationalists, he found that most were 'either not particularly interested in nationalism or were highly sceptical concerning its possibilities for solving the problems faced by the Chinese state'.
Thus, it's logical to also endorse Macau scholar Liu Shih-Diing's observations about the internet-mobilised anti-Japanese protests in 2005; he noted that these internet groups were developing their own form of nationalism - 'an autonomous political domain that is independent of the state nationalism'.
Once this new generation of Chinese were able to use this split identity for nationalist discourse, it became their platform for a variety of rights discussions. Considering that such rights have generally been lacking in the People's Republic since its establishment, ordinary people have won themselves a seat at the nationalist debate alongside the party-state and intellectuals.
Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau was among the first to propose the concept of a 'social contract' to define the constraints on the respective power of the state and the people, so there would be checks and balances to prevent the encroachment of either party - absolute dictatorship or 'tyranny of the majority' - on the rights of the other.
Chinese nationalism is also a contract for citizenship. As long as China remains undemocratic, a de facto 'nationalist social contract' is likely to continue to govern the relations between three parties: the party-state, which guides the ideology; intellectuals, who redefine the ideology; and ordinary citizens, who subtly fight for more autonomy to express themselves in the name of nationalism. Each - while trying to expand their lebensraum, or 'living space' - understands that the others' spheres of interest should not be totally undermined.
While the party-state is primarily concerned with sustaining its legitimacy, its subjects accept the authoritarian regime in principle. The only difference between this contract and that of Rousseau's time is that the mutual understanding is not based on a democratic infrastructure but, instead, on a pragmatic agreement developed out of fait accompli.
Today, Chinese nationalists are both radical and rational; but most are inward-looking. As long as China remains undemocratic, the internet is more likely to act as a valve for public emotions in domestic politics, rather than become a hotbed of nationalism that will drive aggressive foreign policy.
Simon Shen is a visiting fellow of the Centre for Northeast Asian Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution and an associate professor in the department of social sciences at the Hong Kong Institute of Education. He is author of Redefining Nationalism in Modern China and co-editor of Online Chinese Nationalism and China's Bilateral Relations