Cyber conflict is all the rage, it seems. The row over the Pentagon’s report on China’s military capacity (including electronic warfare) rumbles on. But amongst China’s ordinary netizens, the squabbling is much more frenetic. The nation’s fenqing are at the online frontline.
The term fenqing (literally ‘angry youth’) emerged in Hong Kong in the 1970s, referring to young people calling for reform within Chinese society.
It is now a blurred identifier; fenqing from the left rail against China’s elite and call for pro-poor policies, Maoist ones yearn for a return to the socialist utopia, and groups on the right demand fuller embrace of the free market economy.
But the different fenqing usually share strongly nationalist sympathies, as well as a certainty that their own views are indisputable ones. Most are also male and in their teens.
The internet provides some of the best anthropological conditions to see the fenqing in all of its finery, especially in the reader comment sections. Like revolutionaries to the barricades, they muster in response to content perceived to be unfavourable towards China or aspects of its society. Recent targets have included the French, fans of CNN, the Olympic Torch protesters and even overseas Chinese studying at foreign universities who are not thought to love their home country as they should.
Most observers argue that the fenqing are over-represented online and provide a distorted view of Chinese society at large.
Others point out that for every angry comment there is usually a countervailing one from a Chinese contributor offering a more measured opinion.
This pleases the People’s Daily, which has called for patriotism to be expressed “in a rational way”. But some Western critics blame government policies for fomenting much of the online aggression. The author of the Froogville blog classifies fenqing anger as the “blowback” on years of anti-Western propaganda in the classroom, for instance.
Jeremiah Jenne, of Jottings from the Granite Studio, downplays references to student brainwashing, preferring to focus on adolescent angst instead. For Jenne the fenqing are “the short guys in the corner of the bar who all the women are ignoring.”
But in terms of getting fenqing attention, the experience of netizen Wang Hongzhe is a revealing one. After receiving little response to material posted under his own name, Wang signed off on one particular article under the pseudonym Steven Zuckerberg to see if it would be any different.
It certainly was. Comments piled up online (some critical, some complimentary) and the Chinese news media even picked up on the story.
The inference – that the author’s nationality may have been more important in exciting comment than what he actually had to say – is an interesting one. It indicates perhaps that many fenqing are more in thrall to overseas opinion than their nationalist rhetoric should warrant. It is this uneasy mix of patriotic vigour and an underlying lack of confidence that fuels some of the more heated fenqing debate.
The Chinese author of ThinkWeird’s Blog (who did study in the US, admittedly) agrees that fenqing opinions are often emotional ones, lacking in perspective or reflection. In fact, ThinkWeird admits that he was once a fenqing himself but moved on when he became more familiar with other points of view.
So perhaps time spent reading more widely on the internet might be a basis for a change of heart. In which case a medium that often seems to heighten fenqing fervour might also sow the seeds of its eventual decline.
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