New world of cybernationalism starting to flex its muscles
Whether officials like it or not, internet opinions are becoming an ever more important force in influencing everyday mainland politics. Official media's reports are more often than not based on information first leaked and passed around in cyberspace, and then followed by waves of opinion from bloggers.
Powered by 450 million internet users and 70 million bloggers and microbloggers, this rising force is also influencing China's foreign relations, a field that only a very privileged few had access to in the days of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.
A great many opinions are being uploaded and reposted every day about the way China sees itself in the world, the way it sees other nations and its future role in the world.
'Internet users have truly become part of Chinese diplomacy,' says a definition of cybernationalism at Chinese search engine Baidu.com. By cybernationalism it means the nationalistic opinions quickly expressed on the internet by many commentators.
On the same site, curiously enough, was an advertisement for Qiaohuishe.com, a website which claims that 'the core spirit of our community is nationalism'.
The very existence of such a site is a rare phenomenon in a country where, without official endorsement, citizens' organisations are commonly banned or restricted.
The site's owner, who calls himself Sun Qiao, said he was born in Beijing in 1991. He told young people planning to study in the United States not to go there because 'it is a dangerous country. The heavens will punish the people there sooner or later.'
Laughable as that may sound, it does reflect the level of intelligence in many opinions posted online. Professor Xiao Gongqin, a historian at Shanghai Normal University, compared Chinese nationalism with a young man who had just developed some muscle who was running around looking for a fight.
In an interview with People's Forum magazine, Xiao said that with the passing of time, and as the middle class became more confident, nationalism could become more moderate in China.
In reality, however, it is still too early to tell. Late last month four mainland men who got together via the internet smashed a memorial stone at a cemetery in the northeast for Japanese workers on farms during the Japanese occupation.
The stone deserved to be smashed, according to most Chinese internet opinions, because it failed to mention that the farms were part of Japanese aggression, even though the deaths, mainly of diseases at a time when the defeated Japanese government could not be reached for help, were unfortunate.
A critical article about the incident in Singapore's Lianhe Zaobao newspaper a week later urged the central government to prevent nationalism from going too far. It was reposted last week on the websites of both People's Forum and Qiushi, an official theoretical journal of the Communist Party.
But it was the Singaporean critic who had gone too far, argued a column on August 15 on Caogen.com, a website intended to be a 'grass-roots think tank' but launched by a group of high-profile individuals. The column said most of the anger felt by angry young men in China (known as fenqing in Chinese) was rooted in reality. More tolerance should be shown to China's nationalism, whether or not one chose to be part of it, it said.
Nationalism also featured last week in an interview in the Guangzhou-based Nanfang People magazine with Professor Ge Zhaoguang, head of the National Institute for Advanced Humanistic Studies at Shanghai's Fudan University.
'China should guard against statism and nationalism on the political level, while giving some second thoughts to nationalism in the cultural sense,' he said.
Throughout the 20th century, he said, China had tried to carve its own way. It went through different stages, but it remained a struggle between cosmopolitanism and nationalism.
Whether common ground could be reached, or a consensus built, was still hard to say.
Even the People's Daily did not seem to disagree. 'Nationalism is a double-edged sword,' it admitted in an editor's note on nationalism on its website. 'What China should do is to strike a balance between passion and pragmatism, so as to maximise its national interests.'
But how? It did not say.