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Vincent Capone

In Chinese Netizen Outrage, Echoes of Mao-Era Struggle

“Bombard the headquarters.”

“To rebel is justified.”

China's Red Guards were mostly students. By Villa Giulia via Wikimedia Commons

These quotations from China’s late Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong were heralded by Red Guards during the decade’s long and violent Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) in their hunt to weed out counter-revolutionary elements from Chinese society. The Red Guards were Chinese youth mobilized by Chairman Mao to carry out class struggle campaigns during the Cultural Revolution by removing traditional cultural elements from Chinese society. 

It’s no secret that China has changed tremendously since the Cultural Revolution seized a then-poor and insular China. Yet these Party-line quotations could easily be held up as mantras on the Chinese Internet calling for netizens to be vigilant in exposing corrupt officials. China’s Internet, while heavily censored, is counter-intuitively often a hotbed for criticism of government officials, especially local ones. For example the career of provincial official Yang Dacai was recently thrown into jeapordy when netizens found and shared photographs featuring Yang wearing a variety of expensive watches that an honest bureaucrat could likely not afford.

In a post dated February 26, 2009 on the blog RConversation, former CNN journalist and Global Voices Online co-founder Rebecca MacKinnon compared modern-day Chinese netizens to Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution.

“The intent of today’s cyber-vigilantes,” she wrote, “is idealistic; they believe in their absolute moral righteousness.” This righteousness, she points out, is what fuels the power of Human Flesh Search, a crowdsourced way of quickly finding someone’s identity on the Chinese Internet, with its dual ability to weed out corrupt officials while simultaneously unleashing impassioned witch hunts.

While events within the two periods may seem strikingly different, historical similarities can help us more fully understand the actions of modern Chinese on the Internet.

From Mao to now

Believing the Communist Party to be infiltrated by counter-revolutionary revisionists, Chairman Mao decreed that the only way to rid the Party of bourgeois elements was to practice Mao Zedong Thought. Brandishing Quotations from Chairman Mao, students organized Red Guard groups, hoping to eliminate “black” revisionists.

Just as Red Guards did Mao’s bidding, netizens today aid the Communist Party national leadership by weeding out corruption at the local level. While corruption is common in the Communist Party, the national leadership is content with allowing netizens to scrutinize public officials on the Internet and act as a means for filtering corruption among the ranks.

In studying the Cultural Revolution and exploring the Chinese Internet, certain keywords and rhetoric blur between the two eras. Propaganda and Big Character posters (大字报) of the Cultural Revolution denounced “American imperialists” and “foreign devils,” while in their so-called “struggle sessions,” Red Guards called for harming and even killing victims. Similar language continues to be prevalent online. 

In 2007, a British expatriate named David Marriot fell under attack by netizens after his blog, “Sex and Shanghai” (欲望上海), detailing his sexual escapades with Chinese women, circulated on social networking site Tianya.com. Chinese netizens quickly denounced the “immoral foreigner” and “foreign devil,” calling him to go back to his “imperial home.”

In January 2009, a young boy allegedly used a firecracker to kill a neighborhood cat on the Hebei University campus. A human flesh search began to discern his identity on Chinese social-networking site MOP.com under a post titled, “Deviant Boy Brutally Kills Garfield.” Within hours the boy’s photo and address were shared on the Internet and netizens denounced this “sadistic boy.”

The original creator of the post and eyewitness had a few choice words, comparing the young man with the very animal he slaughtered: “Did your parents not put you to death because they didn’t know that you are an animal? Or your parents are animals themselves and they put a little animal like you into our school ground to commit such a despicable crime? … we need to give the killer the punishment he deserves.”

Attacks on the innocent

Red Guards commonly targeted seemingly innocent individuals, using their class background as context to label them “revisionists.” In her memoir Red Scarf Girl, author Ji-li Jiang described how she fell under attack from local Red Guards because of her grandfather’s former status as a local landlord. The “black” status of her grandfather, who died when Jiang was a baby, was imputed to her; her house was later raided by Red Guards.

On the Chinese Internet, innocent individuals also experience an updated version of this guilt-by-association. 

In 2008, international student Grace Wang tried to mediate a dispute between pro-Tibet and pro-China groups at Duke University. A photograph of her writing “Free Tibet” on the back of a classmate was quickly taken out of context on the Chinese Internet, where netizens saw her as a traitor who wanted to divide her motherland. Netizens called for someone to “shoot her where she stands” and denouncing her as “race traitor…absolutely unacceptable!”

Within days of the human flesh search against Grace Wang, netizens discovered Wang’s parent’s house in Qingdao, pelting the home with animal feces and rocks, prompting her parents to go into hiding. Even Chinese state television’s main home page during the Grace Wang incident showed a picture of Wang with the caption, “the most ugly exchange student” (“最丑陋的留学生”).

Staunching the flow of anger 

For Red Guards, attacks against “black” elements went unchecked for years until Mao decreed that all youth move down to the countryside to learn from the peasants, limiting the influence of the Red Guards in the subsequent years. Similarly, on the Chinese Internet, blistering crusades against “immoral” individuals has gone relatively unchecked.

Internet privacy laws in China are still in their infancy. China’s landmark case occurred in 2008 after the “death blog” of a woman named Jiang Yan. Her blog depicted the sorrow she felt about her husband Wang Fei’s extramarital affair. Jiang later killed herself, leading to outrage at Wang Fei on the Chinese Internet, prompting a Human Flesh Search. The search dug up his personal information and place of employment, leading to public harassment and offline protests that caused Wang Fei to lose his job. After Wang sued popular websites Daqi.com, Tianya.com, and a netizen named Zhang Leyi for emotional distress, a court ruled in favor of Wang and ordered Daqi.com and Zhang to pay out 8,000 RMB (about US$1,160).  

Due to anonymity on the Internet, there continues to remain a very loose system of checks on netizen language. Rumors on China’s Twitter-like weibo platforms have become a common occurrence. Those who become targets quickly realize there is little hope to defend themselves against the speed of the digital age, as within hours their identity and stories are retweeted across the Internet.

This scale is similar to those who were denounced during the Cultural Revolution and became a target of the masses, often facing large groups of people criticizing their actions and family background. Many had to accept the charges against them and bear the humility, because for many, defending oneself only meant more trouble. 

Patriotism, run amok

The largest similarity between netizens and Red Guards is the patriotism that (each would claim) animated both groups. Red Guards were zealous proponents of Communism; many netizens fall into the same category. While netizens have been known to attack corrupt local officials, they rarely criticize national Party leaders. And as evident in the case of Grace Wang, solidarity on the Chinese Internet prompts a strong pro-China sentiment.

While recent political activity on the Chinese Internet has strong parallels to the fervor which categorized the Cultural Revolution, they remain two distinct periods of Chinese history. And while MacKinnon argues that no one can foresee where these online events are headed, it is highly unlikely that current trends will move in the direction of the Cultural Revolution. 

Instead, like the Red Guards of Mao’s day, netizens remain a double-edged sword for China’s leadership moving forward. On one hand, through their ability to weed out immoral citizens and corrupt local-level officials through tools like the human flesh search, netizens can (perhaps inadvertently) help the Communist Party maintain its legitimacy. But on the other hand, the power of the social web can quickly backfire on the powers that be. No wonder China’s leadership seeks to tamp down “rumor-spreading” through tools like real-name registration, which is designed to strip netizens of their online anonymity. They wish to feed the flame of netizen patriotism and righteous indignation without getting burned—a delicate task that keeps the Chinese Internet a fascinating and potentially treacherous place.

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Vincent Capone

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  • Fleur

    Hey this is a great piece. Very interesting comparison.

    • http://www.facebook.com/vincent.capone Vincent Capone

      Thank you, I hope it’s interesting because it’s the backbone of my graduate research :)

  • Fleur

    Hey this is a great piece. Very interesting comparison.

    • http://www.facebook.com/vincent.capone Vincent Capone

      Thank you, I hope it’s interesting because it’s the backbone of my graduate research :)