Diaoyu in Our Heart: The Revealing Contradictions of Chinese Nationalism

The same patriotic feelings that send Chinese to rally for national sovereignty over disputed islands might also explain their surprising and apparently conflicting answers to an online discussion.

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Protesters carry banners reading "Declare War Against Japan" and "Japan Get Out of Diaoyu Islands" in Beijing. (AP)

There was another side to the anti-Japanese demonstrations that rocked Chinese cities this weekend, reacting to Japanese activists who had landed on a disputed island chain in the East China Sea. As Chinese protesters asserted their national prestige in ways symbolic and not, their countrymen on social media held a very different discussion on the Diaoyu Islands controversy. These two Chinese reactions, seemingly contradictory, hint at the contours and complexities of Chinese nationalism, and what it means for China both domestically and abroad.

A web user named oncebookstore posted a question on Weibo, China's twitter-style social network: "If your child were born on the Diaoyu Islands, what nationality would you pick for him/her: Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong or the mainland?" (The islands, also known as the Senkakus in Japan, are claimed by China, Taiwan, and Japan.) It went viral on Sunday, retweeted over 20,000 times in nine hours before censors took it down around midnight. The surprising results would seem to contradict the popular anti-Japanese protests, undercut the government's efforts to stoke patriotism, and may well baffle outside observers: Chinese respondents overwhelmingly picked places other than mainland China. Around 40 percent answered Taiwan, followed by Hong Kong with about 25 percent, followed by Japan. Mainland China was the least popular option. A formal poll, set up on Weibo after the original post was pulled, returned similar results, with Japan at 20 percent and the mainland at 15.

Chinese will march in the streets to proudly declare their nation's sovereignty over these five rock-like, uninhabited islands, but when it comes to picking which flag could hypothetically adorn their child's passport, China comes last. How could that be? Judging by the surprise and disbelief in the poll's comment section, the result confuses even the Chinese themselves.

Though contradictory at first glance, the sentiment at the anti-Japanese protests and that revealed by the Weibo quiz are perhaps not as inconsistent as they might appear, and could highlight the dual nature of the nationalistic feelings deeply rooted in Chinese society today. The same Chinese nationalism that drives citizens to stand up for their native land when outside forces challenge it could also sharpen their pain when they observe the depressingly wide gap between China as it is and China as they wish it could be. Some of the Weibo poll respondents suggested that, although they might have grudgingly picked Taiwan or Hong Kong or even Japan for their child's hypothetical nationality, it wounded them not to choose mainland China as they wished they could. Therein lies the common ground between the nationalism of the Diaoyu marches and what you might call the national humility on display in the Weibo poll.

User wang-wei-bin confessed his conflicted feelings after answering the poll in a Weibo message: "Sigh. I picked Taiwan, but in fact I love this country. Just that I feel it doesn't love me."

"The reason I picked Japan is that I don't want to see my son becoming a traitor to his country like me," feiyuchuqing explained. "What terrible statistics," she said of the results to which she had contributed.

"If I had a girl I would perhaps pick Taiwan, and if a boy, Japan, but in any case I would always be waving the Chinese national flag on the rocks of the Diaoyu Islands," another user wrote in a response that had been widely retweeted before disappearing with the original quiz.

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Helen Gao is a freelance writer based in Beijing.

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