The South China Sea has long been the focus of simmering maritime disputes between China, which claims sovereignty over almost all of the sea, and its neighbors in the Asia-Pacific, each with smaller overlapping claims. But strains between China and the United States have increased since February, when satellite images revealed that Chinese vessels are engaging in a massive reclamation project to turn submerged reefs into small islands capable of supporting airstrips. Now a small but vocal group of nationalist web users are seizing on what they view as the latest provocations in the region — and with its own harsh rhetoric, Beijing risks painting itself into a corner to appease its strongly nationalist citizenry.
Since May, tensions between the United States and China have escalated further. On May 20, a U.S. surveillance plane flew over one of the disputed regions with a reporting crew on board, who caught on video the Chinese navy warning the plane eight times to leave the area. On May 25, Foreign Ministry spokesperson called on the United States to “end its provocative behavior.” Then on May 26, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter called for China to halt its island reclamation activities, calling China “out of step” with international norms and indicating that the U.S. military will continue to operate in the South China Sea — comments which he repeated at the May 30 opening address of the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue, a high-profile security forum held annually in Singapore.
The official trading of barbs has also spurred a barrage of nationalist comments on China’s web spaces, where grassroots nationalism flourishes. “Where is the Chinese airforce?” Yue Gang, a military commentator with more than 750,000 followers on microblogging platform Weibo, demanded in a May 21 Weibo post. “Isn’t intercepting airborne bandits part of its mission?” A number of Weibo users expressed frustration that the Chinese response to the U.S. plane had been merely to issue warnings. “The United States is feeling out China’s bottom line,” commentedone user on May 22. “Repeatedly issuing warnings only encourages America’s reckless provocations.” And a May 26 PLA Daily article — also popular on military fanboy forum Tiexue — deemed the U.S. surveillance flight “bare-naked provocation.” The most popular comment in the related Tiexue discussion called for China, in response, to “slowly tighten the economic squeeze [on America], politically isolate it,” and militarily to “screw America over” until it “calls for a halt.”
Fervor had not cooled by May 29, when, in reaction to Carter’s speech, the state-run and often fervently nationalist Global Times published an editorial insisting that “China is a peaceful country, but it’s not a ‘giant pet’” that can be tamed and used for America’s own interests. The unsigned editorial went on to state that the United States is “openly using military provocation to create disputes” and is “testing China’s determination” to oppose this challenge. But there was still opportunity for China to maneuver, since, in the view of the Global Times, “U.S. military and diplomatic circles may not yet be in agreement — the United States will first evaluate China’s reaction, and then decide” what course of action to take.
Carter’s demand that China cease land reclamation also seemed to attract particular online derision. One popular Weibo post by digital news outlet Today’s Headlines on Carter’s speech attracted more than 1,800 comments. A number of users mocked the defense secretary’s words, laughing at the idea that the United States would be allowed to dictate China’s moves. “Oh no, I’m so scared,” wrote one usersarcastically. “Now we’re just going to have to reclaim even more corral reefs.” Other comments were more directly hostile. “We love peace,” wrote another user who goes by the onlike moniker “True Citizen,” “but we’re not afraid of war. You cross us, and we’ll punish you.” Some comments suggested the tensions may be causing a deeper alienation among Chinese netizens. “I used to think that America was just opposed to the Communist Party, without any hostile feeling towards average Chinese people,” wrote one user. “Now it seems that the United States is opposed to the survival of the Chinese people.”
Yet more cautious voices do resonate widely online despite the prevalence of intense nationalism. In a highly up-voted May 21 comment in response to news of the U.S. surveillance flight, one male Weibo user in the southern province of Guangdong outlined the real-world consequences of what military retaliation would actually mean for China. “If we were really to fire [on U.S. aircraft],” he wrote, “it would damage the image of China’s peaceful rise, and it would justify the U.S. rhetoric about the ‘China threat.’ If it led to war, our economy would go into recession.” But even if it didn’t lead to war with the United States, the user concluded, China would be subject to “another round of international embargo. Would you enjoy that?”
And despite the tough official rhetoric, Chinese authorities have at times sought to distance the government from nationalist bombast that seems to cross an unspoken boundary. A May 25 Global Times editorial raised alarm among American observers by asserting that “war was inevitable” if the United States continued to demand that China cease its construction in the South China Sea. Yet the Global Times, while state-owned, cannot be equated with official policy positions, a fact that Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying pointed out in a press briefing the day the article was published. While the press briefing record is available on Foreign Ministry website, some social media mentions of the Foreign Ministry’s response to the Global Times editorial have been selectively deleted.
Authorities have continued to employ selective online censorship as anti-American sentiment has appeared to be high in recent weeks. It quashed a popular article in late May, after users of massive mobile chat platform WeChat widely circulated a screed titled “America’s eight tricks to destroy China and split it into six different countries,” which received more than 100,000 views within a day of its posting on May 28. Unsourced and unattributed, the piece claims that the United States has been waging a “cultural Cold War” against China, using Chinese-Americans as pawns and undermining China’s dignity, history, and government. It’s an essay that has existed online for several years and has never been treated seriously by any respected outlet. Yet its recent resurfacing indicates that tension in the U.S.-China relationship is currently touching a popular nerve — and that suspicion of the United States continues to run deep in some quarters. By June 1, the viral WeChat rendition of the article had been removed.
Such censorship may indicate not just a prudent clarification of official policy, but also an attempt to place an upward limit on the grassroots nationalism that thrives on the Chinese Internet. Apart from the risk of miscalculation in the South China Sea that could result in military conflict, China faces the danger of inflaming nationalist sentiment at home beyond its capacity to control it. Nationalism has long been a double-edged sword for the ruling Chinese Communist Party, which has bolstered its legitimacy by portraying itself as a national defender against foreign aggression. Chinese leaders can also effectively use swells in domestic patriotism for diplomatic ends, by pointing to “nationalist sentiment and popular protests to justify their tough stance and refusal to compromise,” Jessica Chen Weiss, assistant professor of political science at Yale University, wrote in a 2014 article in Foreign Policy. But popular patriotism at home can backfire against the party. If expectations for action against a perceived aggressor outpace the government’s willingness or ability to act, popular anger may turn against the party itself. A public “determined to restore China’s standing in the world,” wrote Weiss, “is not as predictable or firmly under party control as outsiders might imagine.” To quote a Chinese proverb, once one has started riding a tiger, it’s difficult to dismount.
That means that if it’s not careful, Beijing may be setting itself up for a difficult choice in the South China Sea — risk conflict with the world’s greatest military, or appear feeble, a cardinal sin among the country’s nationalists. To be sure, the vocal and vociferous ranks of nationalist web commenters cannot be taken to represent Chinese sentiment writ large. But as everywhere else, the loudest voices are the likeliest to get noticed. “The Chinese government should clearly tell America not to poke and pry in South China Sea affairs,” wrote one Weibo user in Beijing on May 28. “China doesn’t fear war — it only fears being weak.”