It’s not often that ordinary Chinese people say publicly that they are frustrated with their government. That they are ashamed of their government. That they want to renounce their membership in the Communist Party. And that they think the People’s Liberation Army is a waste of taxpayers’ money.
It is even rarer that such angry comments come from the kind of nationalists who usually support whatever their leaders demand of them.
For much of Monday and Tuesday, many Chinese applauded tough rhetoric from government, military and media figures trying to block President Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. Then, as Ms. Pelosi’s plane landed in Taiwan late Tuesday night, some social media users commented on how disappointed they were with Beijing’s lukewarm response.
No military action in the Taiwan Straits, as they felt they had been led to expect. No shooting down, no missile strikes, no fighter jets flying by Ms. Pelosi’s plane. Only some complaints and announcements of military exercises.
Many people complained that they felt let down and lied to by the government. “Don’t make a show of strength if you don’t have the strength,” wrote a Weibo user with the handle @shanshanmeiyoulaichi2hao shortly after the flight landed. “What a loss of face!”
The user went on to say that the government didn’t deserve people waiting for hours to see how history could be made. “A great nation. How ironic!”
The intense online sentiment showed the complexity of public opinion that Beijing would have to manage if it decided to invade Taiwan. And they showed how nationalism is a double-edged sword that can easily be turned against the government. Some anti-war comments that managed to escape censorship, if only for a moment, also opened a window into the psychological impact of the Ukrainian war on the Chinese public.
Some users compared the People’s Liberation Army to the Chinese men’s soccer team, which is a laughing stock in the country because it has only qualified for the World Cup once. They scoffed at the announcement that the PLA would hold military exercises near Taiwan. “Save some gas,” said one WeChat user. “It’s too expensive now,” replied another.
On WeChat, the comment section for a short video about a military exercise became a whiteboard for disgruntled people to grumble. Among thousands of comments, some Communist Party members said they would like to resign in shame. One military veteran said he would probably never bring up his military experience again. “Too angry to sleep,” commented a user with the handle @xiongai.
The comment section was later closed.
Many users seemed particularly disappointed with the foreign ministry. “When China said ‘strongly condemn’ and ‘officially declare,’ it was just to entertain ordinary people like us,” wrote a Weibo user with the handle @shizhendemaolulu, referring to the language used by foreign ministry officials about Ms. . Pelosi’s visit.
“So tough when it comes to domestic governance and so cowardly in foreign affairs,” the user wrote. “Totally disappointed!”
On Wednesday afternoon, a spokeswoman for the foreign ministry, Hua Chunying, responded to a question about the public’s frustration by saying that she believed the Chinese people were reasonable patriots and had confidence in their country and their government.
The Chinese Communist Party has used nationalism as a governing tool since the Mao era. Xi Jinping, China’s current top leader, has taken it to a new level. “Nationalism is becoming a key pillar of the personal political legitimacy of both the party and Xi,” Kevin Rudd, chief executive of the Asia Society and former prime minister of Australia, wrote in his book.War that can be avoided: The risks of a catastrophic conflict between the US and Xi Jinping’s China.
The unification of Taiwan, a self-governing republic that Beijing considers part of its territory, with the mainland is central to Chinese nationalism.
But as Mr Rudd and others argue, it has sometimes proved difficult to control the nationalist genie once it has been released from the bottle. “This problem has become progressively greater under Xi Jinping, as nationalist appeals have moved from the fringes to the center of the Chinese propaganda apparatus at all levels,” he wrote.
The online backlash this week is a case in point.
Most Chinese paid little attention to Ms. Pelosi’s pending visit to Taiwan until Monday afternoon, when a flurry of official and semi-official statements led many to believe that China could take tough, possibly military, action to prevent her.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, who may be China’s best-known “warrior wolf” diplomat, warned the United States on Monday that the PLA “will never sit idly by. China will definitely take decisive and strong countermeasures to defend its own sovereignty and territorial integrity.” On the website of the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, a two-paragraph article about his comments was viewed 2.7 million times.
That evening, the PLA’s Eastern Theater Command, which covers Taiwan, posted on Weibo that it was awaiting the order to fight and would “bury all invading enemies.” The post has been liked more than a million times and the embedded video, featuring footage of bombings and explosions, has had more than 47 million views.
And then there is Hu Xijin, the retired editor-in-chief of the Global Times, the Communist Party tabloid that has played perhaps the biggest role in fomenting Chinese nationalism over the past three decades.
Mr. Hu first suggested on Twitter last week that China should shoot down Ms. Pelosi’s plane if she visited Taiwan. On Weibo, he called on his nearly 25 million followers to “support all the government’s countermeasures and share the hatred of the enemy.”
“We will definitely launch strong countermeasures to hit the US and Taiwan,” he wrote on Tuesday. “So hard that the Taiwanese authorities will regret it.”
After Ms. Pelosi’s plane landed in Taipei, China issued several strong condemnations and announced a terrifying series of military exercises around Taiwan. But the lack of any direct military action left many nationalists feeling shortchanged. Their heroes, including Mr. Hu and Zhao, lost some of their halos.
Now they mocked Mr. Zhao by posting a short video to make tough statements on Monday.
Late on Tuesday night, Mr. Hu’s Weibo account was flooded with angry, sarcastic and abusive comments. “If I were you, I would be so ashamed that I wouldn’t dare to say another word and hide until the day of Taiwan’s reunification,” commented a Weibo user with the handle @KAGI_02.
Ren Yi, a Harvard-educated nationalist blogger, wrote a scathing commentary early Wednesday morning urging that Mr. Hu’s influence be curbed.
In a post on Weibo, Mr. Ren said unfulfilled high public expectations could damage the government’s credibility. He blamed these unrealistic expectations on Mr Hu, saying his posts were taken too seriously because he once ran a party newspaper.
Mr. Ren is not the only person who wants to dethrone Mr. Hu, now a Global Times columnist, from his position as China’s most important journalist. Other commentators and social media personalities are also calling for him to be held accountable. Mr Hu wrote on Weibo on Wednesday morning that he would become a “punching bag”.
But some comments also pointed out that Mr. Hu was only one part of China’s response to Ms. Pelosi’s visit, and suggested that all the blame heaped on him could signal that the administration may be looking for a scapegoat.
There are anti-war voices on Chinese social media as well. Some people have argued that only online warmongers should be sent to the front lines. Some parents worry that their children could be recruited. Others tried to urge their countrymen to look to Ukraine and Russia to understand that war means death and economic ruin.
Zou Sicong, a writer who has been traveling in Poland in recent months, urged people on WeChat to have a realistic understanding of the war, saying he had learned what Ukrainians and ordinary Russians had experienced.
People should be glad nothing happened Tuesday night, he said. “You should feel lucky to still be able to run your business, pay your mortgage, go to work tomorrow, get tested for Covid and live,” he wrote. “Please pray for yourselves and your loved ones that we can come out of this coming storm unscathed.”