What appears to be a harmless social media phenomenon spreading among Chinese young people risks to furtherly endanger the already tense relationship between USA and China.
Over the last decades, globalization has spurred a vast and powerful spreading of the Western culture, bringing it almost to every corner of the world with the related values of democracy, freedom, individualism and faith in capitalism.
Lately, however, many countries have been experiencing new waves of anti-American nationalism, fueled by the willingness to revive their traditional culture after damages and crashes caused by the expansion of Western values. This phenomenon has started developing particularly in the countries of the Middle East, where it has eventually taken the form of violent Islamic extremism, but it has recently arrived also in China in a more apparently harmless form, through the so called “ziganwu”.
Who are zingawu?
Ziganwu are young bloggers who use the social media platform of Weibo, one of the most popular in the country, to spread nationalist anti-American contents, and who believe that the rise of China will take place only when the country will be able to gain back its traditional cultural status and prevail over the corruption of the Western society.
One of the most famous ziganwu is Guyanmuchan, a young girl renowned for the violent attacks launched against the USA and Europe. The blogger vehemently accuses the US of imposing itself politically and culturally to its allies, especially to the European Union, considered “on the dog leash” to America.
It’ important say that the American influence is not limited to the countries which are more related to it, spreading enough to poison the cultural identity of many other nations in the world, including China. According to the ziganwu, issues like feminism, human rights, multiculturalism, and democracy are a Western cultural imposition, which has determined the corruption of the Chinese society, as well as the rise of pro-democracy separatist movements in Hong Kong and Taiwan, which threaten the political stability of the chinese nation.
The only way to achieve liberation from this hegemony and to gain back cultural superiority would be then the revitalization of traditional Chinese culture from its very basis and from the tiny aspects of every-day life.
Many ziganwu suggest, for example, that people should go against Western “fast food nationalism” by rejecting to drink milk for breakfast or to eat fast food and embrace instead the Chinese food tradition.
The reaction to this Western hegemony is not only related to these trivial aspects: people should not only display unconditioned loyalty to China and to its regime, but also live in harmony with each other and support their country under any circumstance.
For this reason, among the main targets of ziganwu attacks there are those Chinese people living abroad who support democracy and separatist movements, or simply express an opinion which diverges from the state ideology. These people are considered traitors of China and allied with the Western enemy.
Why does this raging nationalism come from for such a young generation?
Ziganwu are mostly Millennials or from Generation-Z, and they have grown up in the moment of China’s economic revitalization within a globalized world, and, from a very early age, they have witnessed president Xi Jinping’s strong promotion of Chinese patriotism.
From the beginning of his mandate, the aim of the president has been to renew Chinese national identity and to spread pride among the people.
The concerning fact, however, is that this increasing nationalism is being fueled mostly by the remembrance of past humiliations received from Western hegemony and from Japan in the last two centuries, which reduced China to a condition of almost insignificance in the international system untill very recent times.
According to the president, the communist party is nowadays the successor of Chinese traditional culture, committed to make China a power able to fulfill its traditional mission of “guardian of civilization”, and to transform the nation into a world power capable to gain respect and influence at a global level.
Social media’s power
Social media have become nowadays a very efficient tool for spreading these ideas, and the government realized that as well: a few years ago, the so called “wumao” started spreading highly nationalist contents in their blogs, similarly to how ziganwu does nowadays. The difference with the latter, however, is that the wumao soon revealed to be trolls paid to spread state propaganda, whereas the ziganwu are actual people who are sincerely committed to those principles.
This increasing anti-American feeling portrayed by the youngest generations, not only in China but also in many other nations of the world, is the demonstration of a hard truth which is becoming more and more real as time goes by: the USA are on the edge of decline.
The hegemony which the starred and stripped republic has exercised in the last century has been not only political, but also cultural. Since the end of WWI the US have spread the idea that the values intrinsic to their culture, deriving from the Western thought, are universal and should therefore be adopted worldwide.
Adopting a realist point of view however, it would seem reasonable that the “sacred mission” pursued by the US in bringing freedom and democracy to every corner the globe has been just a pretext to exercise a political and cultural hegemony around the world, shaping the international community in a way for it to be more compliant to its national needs.
However, the pressure exercised by a single country on the entire world cannot last for long: the international cultural resistance to American hegemony shows that the US are due to fall in a future which is not far.
However, there is another aspect to consider which is far more worrying: as history teaches that whenever a hegemony is on the path of decline and a revisionist power is on the rise, the two end in conflict with each other. US and China are believed by many to be on the track of what is called the “Thucydides Trap”, as the popular republic is threatening the American economic and military primacy, which has been stable for almost an entire century.
Moreover, whenever a situation as this happens in the international system, the countries involved tend to develop a nationalist spirit fueled by reciprocal hostility. The most famous case till now is probably the nationalist tension which characterized Europe before WWI and in particular the aggressive patriotism of the German Empire, a revisionist power, against the British Empire.
The ziganwu phenomenon is therefore to be included within the frame of China’s aggressive nationalism, guided by the will to achieve international primacy and to gain revenge against the oppressive powers of the West. Furthermore, according to a Realist perspective, nationalist ideologies are just tools for central state governments to prompt support from below to power-seeking policies, and eventually to spur willingness to fight among the population.
Consequently, there might be a chance that Xi Jinping’s effort to revitalize Chinese culture and to spread anti-Western feelings towards the people, might overshadow a dangerous outturn to the relationship between China and USA.
To sum up, the ziganwu phenomenon, apparently a harmless social media phenomenon mostly led by young age impetus and patriotism, represents much more if framed within the current nationalist political situation in China and within the tension that currently exist with the USA.
It represents that a new generation is not willing to bend to a foreign hegemon and it is strongly committed to a revitalization of China and to gain revenge for past humiliations. It also represents that this new generation might be willing to fight with conviction in case of a war between the US and China, which nowadays is progressively becoming a concrete risk.
In addition, US acceptance of a newly reduced position in the world, and China’s containment of its nationalist expectations and international primacy achievements are unforeseeable variables that are going to both shape the future of the international system and determine whether or not this world is going to face what could turn into the most destructive conflict ever.
by Adriano Belfiore
China: The patriotic ‘ziganwu’ bloggers who attack the West