Mediated Events as Nodes of Articulation: The case of the Diaoyu Islands Dispute in Sina Weibo

Elaine Yuan


Image Credit: WikimediaCommons/Wikipedia


Recent political upheavals in “the Arab Spring” in the Middle East have greatly heightened research interests in the role of social media for social and political change. Existing discussions of the relationship between media and politics, however, tend to focus primarily on the roles of social media as technological platforms to mobilize people for drastic changes to established political orders. Such an approach often ignores the underlying historical and structural conditions under which these mediated events take place. Yet, these conditions provide indispensable contexts for us to understand social actors and their mediated practices by which everyday local life is transformed into political action.

Following this direction promoted by TVRI, this essay explores a recent episode of mediated activism in China. While there have been numerous cases of online public debates and protests resulting in significant political consequences in recent years, efforts to launch a local version of “Jasmine Revolution” to topple the Communist Party’s rule have aroused little response in China. To understand the dynamics of mediated activism in contemporary China, we need to take into consideration the specifics of historical and institutional transformations that have been taking place in China. Mediated activism in China has emerged in the social context of the development of a market economy, rapid urbanization, and growing social inequality. Against these broad structural shifts, the changing dynamics of everyday mediated practices have altered the configuration of social relationships and power dynamics in China, and consequently renewed the nature and content of politics itself.

This essay focuses on a media event surrounding the latest episode of the century’s long dispute between China and Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, a chain of eight unpopulated islands in the East China Sea. The dispute was rekindled when news of an attempt by the Japanese government to “nationalize” the islands in late 2013 incited strong responses in China. The Chinese government quickly denounced the attempt and refuted Japan’s claim over the islands. The media coverage in turn sparked increasingly nationalistic sentiments in China. Over the next few months there were a number of increasingly provocative symbolic actions as nationalist protestors in both China and Japan pressed their claims to sovereignty. Grassroots activists from Hong Kong and Taiwan broke through the blockade to land on the islands, which had been in the effective control of Japan. Thousands of people took to the streets to protest, targeting Japanese businesses in cites across China including Harbin, Shenyang, Hangzhou, Qingdao, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen. Yet the agitation was most palpable online. Millions of people took the Internet by storm with their strong emotions and opinions expressed via online forums and social media.


Image Credit: WikimediaCommons/Wikipedia

The current episode of the dispute has provoked much public debates and protests in China’s social media. Based on a computer-assisted latent semantic analysis of 100,000 Weibo postings, I am able to identify several major themes in the expressed online opinions about the dispute. First, the events provoked strong adversarial sentiments online corresponding to the drastic acts attacking Japanese business establishments offline, both of which are carried out in the name of defending the Chinese nation. Such nationalist discourses and practices need to be understood in relation to the both historical underpinnings and current social developments of Chinese society. Many postings on Sina Weibo demonstrate that popular imagings of the “nation” are both informed and skewed by online users’ selective reception of the official narratives of both the ancient and modern history.  For instance, “whoever dares to offend the mighty Han Empire, no matter how far he lives, will be executed,” a blood-raising vow from Chinese history books making the rounds on Weibo, was in fact a remark made by a legendary general in Han Dynasty, an era that was considered to represent the early peak of Chinese civilization (bc 204–220 ad). In contrast, the following post duly  reminded others to remember the humiliation experienced by the nation during Japanese invasion in WWII:

@ On the night of September 18, 1932, the Japanese Kwantung Army abruptly attacked the Beida camp and the city of Shenyang where the Chinese troops were stationed. The three provinces in Northeast China were soon occupied and colonized for 14 long years. On many informal occasions, September 18th was called ‘China’s national day of humiliation.

Moreover such nationalist representations are mediated by online users’ experiences of the country’s contemporary socioeconomic transition. For instance, many users invoke the image of “city inspector”, a role in China’s urban administrative system known for its brutal and often unfair law enforcement activities, to express their sarcasm towards the Chinese government’s weak stance on the dispute. The following posting expressed the sentiment shared by many.

@ When it comes to land use, the party has always dealt with us little guys by tabling the dispute and siding with developers. Now in the dispute over the Diaoyu islands, the party was shocked to realize that it had become the little guy itself, Japan was tabling the dispute and going right ahead with the development . . . Summon the city inspectors to destroy Japan by force.

While the observed popular sentiments structured by historical memories about China’s sovereignty are shared by most online participants, the social-political positions of online users affect how they imagine the nation, identify with the state, and engage in national politics. As the news and witness accounts break out in Weibo that the boycotts and accompanying street protests in some cities have become violent and out of control, the online opinions take a discernable turn. Many users begin to voice their strong disproval of and deep anxiety about the current developments of the events.

@ #The Diaoyu Islands belong to China# is the very reason that we should not hurt our fellow countrymen anymore, it’s shameful to hurt the foreigners too, if we keep doing this, the riots will go on, are we gonna become a country of terrorists?   

Subsequently, “rational patriotism”, a call for people to be “rational” when taking actions to express their patriotic sentiments, has become a strategy advocated and adopted by many to protect their private properties from being sabotaged by the protesting mobs on the streets. Such a strategy endorses a subject position that is based on the support of private property protection, which differs from the identity of “the people,” the general subject of altruistic patriotism. Moreover, it redefines “patriots” as rational consumers who could act patriotically by consuming wisely.

@ No one will doubt the patriotic passion in response to the insults imposed on our motherland, no one won’t understand our fellow countrymen’s fury and protests when our motherland is antagonized. For a nation without guts is doomed to be abused, a nation forever stays on the low is fated to be bullied. But, here is a painful question we have to face—can we defend the Diaoyu Islands with those irrational activities?

@ We Chinese bought those Japanese products before the Japanese acting bitchy. So be “rational patriots” don’t hurt our country’s own interest.

These voices, we would like to argue, reflect both the material position of emerging social strata as conscious property owners and sensitive consumers and their subjective disposition in broad contemporary Chinese society. The definition and implications of China’s rising middle class have been a contested issue for researchers. However, social identity is little more than social construction in an ongoing process of social activity (Calhoun, 1991). In this sense, class is a “happening” rather than a matter of socioeconomic structure. Along this line of argument, the postings are signs of the emerging consciousness of new social strata in the making.

Existing research has tended to characterize online nationalism in China from two opposing perspectives. Some firmly believe that it is manipulated by the Chinese government and characterized by irrationality and parochialism (Zhao, 1998). Others maintain that it originates from counterhegemonic spontaneous grassroots social movements, which embodies democratic platforms for a civil society (Wu, 2007). However, as the case of the mediated events of the Diaoyu islands dispute has demonstrated, online popular nationalism carries imaginations, opinions, and efforts of political participation in national affairs by China’s emerging new social strata. The proliferation of digital media has direct bearings on subjective expressions of such strata reflecting their objective social positions. With diversification of information access and fragmented online networks of association and conversations, such strata construct and express their identities in an increasingly vocal way. The precarious social strata reflect the fluidity and fragility of contemporary social structures in Chinese society (Huang, 2008). The making of new middle class as a group with a distinct identity and consciousness is dialectically intertwined with the rise of collective socio-political actions on the Chinese Internet.

In summary, there was ample evidence that online public opinions about the dispute should not be dismissed simply as an outcome of government manipulation or official ideology of nationalism. Instead, these opinions indicate the growing awareness of various subject positions that correspond to the objective material positions various online strata assume. Finally, the essay argues that while online activism in China is more likely to be episodic and spontaneous in format, such popular mediated events serve as nodes of articulation, a process by which different positions, opinions, and understandings get momentarily intertwined to provide a general and complex outlook of the current events and their social implications. Such a process is necessarily cultural as the understandings of the events are mediated by the meaning and value systems of various social groups. The process is also inherently social as the events are participated by various social groups and as a result the relationships among them are significantly altered.  While social media are mainly a mobilizing device for pre-existing movements that have recently adopted online tactics in Western societies, they provide both the form and substance for online activism in China.

Note: This essay draws on materials that have been published in the following two book chapters. Yuan, E. J. & Feng, M. (2014). Public opinion in Chinese social media: The Diaoyu Islands dispute on Sina Weibo. In T. A. Hollihan (ed.), The Diaoyou/Senkaku Islands Dispute: How Media Narratives Shape Public Opinions and Challenge the Global Order. New York: Palgrave. Yuan, E. J. (2014). Media, activism, and the new political: A critical review of scholarship on mediated activism in China. In W. Chen & S. D. Reese (eds.), Networked China: Global Dynamics of Digital Media and Civic Engagement. New York: Routledge.

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