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By Zheng Chang, MERICS Visiting Academic Fellow
The Chinese leadership will mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II (WWII) in Asia by staging a major military parade at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on 3 September.
The visible public opinion on the military parade is dominated by excitement and great expectation. This may reiterate a common perception of Chinese nationalism. However, looking at netizens’ preferences on related topics to the parade like WWII or patriotism, the picture is much more complex. Chinese nationalism in relation to WWII can be understood as overcompensation for a collective trauma, and this is also true in other contexts. Although many Chinese people strive for a strong nation and national dignity, these concepts also include a longing for individual morality and civic virtues.
The following analysis is based on data from public accounts on WeChat (微信), China’s most prominent social media platform with more than 500 million active users per month. Having searched public content for “World War II” (二战) and “patriotism” (爱国) via the data platform gsdata.cn, the accumulated top 10 most read and top 10 most liked articles from 1 May to 26 August 2015 were analysed.
World War II: torn between accusations and forgiveness
More than half of the analysed articles on World War II are about Japan. Unsurprisingly, the overwhelming majority accuse Tokyo of a profound failure to understand Japanese crimes committed in China during WWII. Many authors claim that Japan’s apologies up to now haven’t been sincere. This closely corresponds with the official rhetoric of the Chinese government, but also points to the above-mentioned compensation.
Demand for Japanese apology, but also recognition of need to forgive
Although Chinese netizens are disappointed with Japan's apologies so far, forgiving others for their crimes is recognized as a mainstream societal value. Among the most popular and most liked articles, four pieces pick up the topic of trust (信任). They all tell the following story: during WWII, a soldier knew that one of his comrades tried to kill him to gain access to food, but he still expressed trust and forgiveness to the man who attacked him.
Emotions distort facts – a fake video about Obama denouncing Abe
There is no doubt that the stance of Chinese WeChat users towards Japan and its Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are extremely offensive. But when it comes to the United States and President Barack Obama, netizens express a high degree of emotional recognition.
Among the ten most read and the ten most liked articles are three pieces containing a link to a speech by Barack Obama. The video features Obama denouncing Abe for not sincerely repenting Japanese war crimes. At the end of his speech, Obama leaves angrily and slams the door of the meeting room. However, the video is fake. The high approval rating of the video not only reiterates Chinese netizens’ desire for a genuine apology, but also suggests that they would like their own national leaders to be as assertive and blunt (direct) as Obama in the video.
Patriotism: variety of role models and civic virtue
There is great diversity in the topics and opinions contained in WeChat users’ favourite patriotism-related articles. Articles on different kinds of patriotic role models account for more than a third of the analysed content. How someone turns into a patriot, depends on the person’s position and influence in the Chinese society. As you can see from the adjoining table, WeChat users have much more rigid criteria for judging the patriotic behaviour of government officials and soldiers than they have for entertainers or clerics.
Soft power and “uncivilized” behaviour
It is noteworthy that the most liked article is that about the entertainer Liu Qian. This shows Chinese netizens’ strong expectations for their country in the era of globalization: popularization of Chinese soft power has become an important criteria for enhancing self-identity and national pride. One of the most read articles is about a Chinese flight attendant’s experience on an Emirates Airlines flight.
She describes wealthy Chinese passengers who behaved in “uncivilized” (???) ways (e.g. dropping empty food packages in the aisle of the plane), finally drawing the conclusion that a strong country depends not only on wealth or strength, but also on civic virtue. Judging by the analysis, many Chinese people will watch the parade with rather complex feelings of excitement and reflection.