A ruckus has ensued following a minor incident during singer Deserts Chang’s (張懸) concert at the University of Manchester, England, on Nov. 2, when Chang displayed a Republic of China flag on stage and was shouted at by a student from China.
The incident has kindled a blaze of indignant reactions from Internet users in Hong Kong and Taiwan, with many accusing young people in China of being brainwashed and fanatically nationalist among other things.
However, a comment about the incident from a student in China tells a different story. Those who think that young people in China are one big crowd of brainwashed, angry youth might like to read the message. They might discover that they have got the wrong idea.
The student’s message reads as follows: “Freedom is precious and very fragile. I don’t think the quest for freedom will ever end. If you agree with me and what I just said, please click on ‘like’ and share it to let the whole world know that young people in China are definitely not all the kind who would yell ‘No politics today!’ at Chang. They are not all the kind of people who have been made into mental slaves by political oppression and who do not care about politics or dare to talk about it, even when they are abroad.”
“There are other people in this country who want to stand up and do something, even if they know it is futile, and who keep up their moral and even physical courage and set out to achieve their ideals,” the message said.
In China’s online world, political control creates an environment in which it is hard for the voices of people who do not trust the government to get much attention. However, those who are familiar with the way the Internet works in China would say that if the Internet were not so tightly monitored and controlled, and if people were not so worried about speaking their mind, it is hard to say which side would have the loudest voice — the fervent nationalists or the likes of the student who wrote the message.
While some people get carried away with nationalistic fervor, most members of Chinese society say nothing, but their silence does not mean that they have no opinions. These days it is clear that some people in the government and society at large have realized that overheated nationalistic sentiments might turn into their opposite and could even cause trouble for the authorities.
As a result, two contradictory trends can be seen in what the Chinese government says and does. On one hand, Chinese media keep using the same old methods to whip up nationalistic feelings, but on the other hand the authorities can be seen doing everything they can to cool down popular nationalism when it looks as though it might get out of control.
This contradiction shows the predicament in which the Chinese government often finds itself. It comes under pressure from its supporters as well as those who have less faith in it, and a regime that exists without an electoral basis will eventually find that even its supporters cannot necessarily be relied on.
In an ever more diverse society, a government that thinks it can establish and consolidate its legitimacy by manipulating nationalism is only making trouble for itself.
This needs to be carefully considered when reading what Internet users have to say about Xinjiang, Tibet and other such issues.
Wang Dan is a visiting associate professor at National Tsing Hua University’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences.
Translated by Julian Clegg