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.

"Political slogans aside, as a citizen of the globe, I would rather have the next generation growing up in an place like Taiwan or Japan," said zuzhanggaocangwentai. "I don't want them to have to take poisonous baby formula, sit in brainwashing classes, and love the party that hurts its people."

Weibozhuanping also saw potential social advantage abroad: "If we speak about society instead of politics, Japan has the most fair and humane society. Workers and farmers won't have as hard a time there as they do in China."

"I vote for Taiwan," said yingdedaobie, "because that's where you get to vote."

In fact, web users' responses seemed to be driven more by a deep discontent with the current China than by a veneration for these more developed economies: a large number of participants put their answers as bluntly as "Anywhere but the mainland."

The popularity of the quiz and the heated discussion it engendered also provide a window into the Chinese public's struggle to reconcile the frustrating social realities surrounding them with the lofty patriotic ideals they have long internalized, partly as a natural result of living in one of the world's oldest and most storied societies, and partly through China's public education and mainstream discourse. These ideals have featured prominently in recent large-scale public protests against perceived foreign aggression: the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, controversy over Japan's tendentious history textbooks, a 2005 dispute over the ownership of the Diaoyu Islands, and as a reaction against the international demonstrations against China during the torch relay prior to the 2008 Olympics. These perceived foreign insults all brought Chinese national rage to a boiling point and monopolized domestic discourse for weeks. This time, however, as the familiar government rhetoric on the islands disputes rolls on, a large portion of the public seems to be distracted by two sensational episodes of domestic disorder: the hunt for a high-profile and notorious serial killer, and the sentencing of a disgraced party official's wife.

As domestic woes increasingly surface in public discourse here (partly because the rise of social media makes them easier to discuss) and as China sometimes-uneasily engages with the world, Chinese citizens' perceptions of patriotism may be changing. In an essay titled "Patriotism with Chinese Characteristics," Li Chengpeng, a popular blogger and prominent social critic movingly described this struggle and transformation. Having long been a "typical Chinese patriot," as Li calls himself, he saw his beliefs challenged after witnessing evidence of corruption and government ineptitude during a trip to Sichuan after the 2008 earthquake. "My definition of patriotism changed," he wrote, "patriotism is not about bullying mothers of children who died in the earthquake, while calling for people to stand up to the foreign bullies of our motherland. ... [It] is about speaking more truth ... about dignity for the Chinese people."

Oncebookstore, the creator of the Weibo quiz, agrees. The owner of an independent bookstore in a southern Chinese province, he told me that his initial hope in asking the uncomfortable question was to make the public aware that "there are more pressing issues than the Diaoyu Islands."

"I hope Chinese people can show as much solidarity as they did in protecting the Diaoyu Islands every time someone is illegally evicted from his house by officials; I hope they can shout like they did to save the pro-China Diaoyu activists every time a Chinese dissident is arrested," he posted on his blog immediately after putting up the quiz.

"Farmlands, houses, and families, they should be the Diaoyu Islands in our heart."