Society

Crossing the digital divide

American students study fenqing fervour

To surf and protect: China's internet footsoldiers dislike Western media

We have written before (in WiC9) about China’s fenqing, the generation of “angry youth” prone to frenzied, online defences of the nation’s honour.

But the Chinese press has steered clear of talking much about the fenqing phenomena, which makes a feature this month in the Oriental Outlook Weekly an unusual one.

Interestingly, the newspaper chooses to look at things through the eyes of 12 foreign students, rather than to speak to any of the fenqing themselves. The students – who are post-graduates from the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore – have been studying internet nationalism during a spell at a sister institution in Nanjing.

The Weekly reports directly on their findings, albeit with a few opening caveats. An important one, attributed to the class instructor, professor Wu Xu, is that Americans will always lack the long-term view of the Chinese, on account of their nation’s short history (when Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence in 1776, China had existed as a unified state for two millennia).

The problem, Wu says, is that it is difficult to fathom the fenqing fury without a grasp of the historical context, especially so when, for the Chinese, “forgetting the past means betrayal”.

It’s a common refrain, and a highly debatable one; the Johns Hopkins students still question why so many fenqing are moved to fury by what outsiders would often deem as events in a distant past. Perhaps a more revealing approach would be to look at more recent influences, including how the fenqing have been educated.

But the newspaper reports on other viewpoints too and most return to a familiar theme at the root of fenqing fervour – its apparently contradictory combination of insecurity and self-confidence.

China as a nation is also not accustomed to being criticised, something that Rebecca MacKinnon (a Hong Kong-based academic and former television journalist) made clear in a dialogue with Anti-CNN.com, a popular Chinese language website, which was reprinted on MacKinnon’s own blog earlier this year.

The Anti-CNN.com website was set up by student Rao Jin last year in protest at foreign press coverage of the unrest in Tibet.

In particular, netizen anger coalesced around a CNN website photo which they said cropped out images of Tibetan rioters.

The Anti-CNN team now scrutinises a range of sources in what Rao says is a mission to “collect, classify and exhibit the misbehaviour of Western media.”

Like the Johns Hopkins visit, the meetings between Rao and MacKinnon (a former CNN Beijing Bureau chief herself) offered another opportunity to bridge some of the cultural divide. The debate seems to have been a good-natured one, with both sides seeking to understand the other better.

All the same, Mackinnon picked up again on Chinese sensitivity to criticism. “It’s part of life as a global power. It’s not going to stop and you’ve got to learn to live with it,” she told Rao and his volunteers.

The Chinese wanted to focus more on why the international press was so reluctant to give their country’s perspective on events when trouble flares. The recent situation in Xinjiang only upped the ante, and rekindled anger about a ‘Western news bias’. Bottom line: don’t expect the fenqing to fade away any time soon.


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