Keyboard Crusaders Train Sights on Broader Issues
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2016-09-23 07:22:29

In January 2016, thousands of Chinese internet users flooded the Facebook pages of Taiwanese independence advocates with pro-China messages. Those affected included Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen, cable channel Sanlih E-Television, and the Apple Daily newspaper.

The participants initially came from two online fan communities. One, called Di Ba (literally “Emperor’s Bar”), was a discussion group hosted on the popular Baidu Tieba forum website and originally dedicated to Chinese soccer player Li Yi.

Others mainly identified with the “little pinko” community. Although this name was originally applied to users of the Jinjiang Literature City discussion forum — a site decked out in hot pink — it is now an umbrella term that has come to describe highly nationalistic internet users born after 1990.

Although the Di Ba fan group was once rather male-dominated and little pinkos were more likely to be women, such gender differences are now less obvious. In organizing their campaign online, the participants were reported as referring to it as a “crusade” (shengzhan).

Unlike the vulgar and aggressive trolling associated with such campaigns, most messages came in the form of images or GIFs showcasing the delicious food or beautiful scenery of mainland China. Participants also constantly reposted a series of slogans known as the “Eight Honors and Eight Shames,” an officially sanctioned moral code first promulgated by Hu Jintao in 2006.

According to interviews with the organizers, particular attention was placed on appearing civilized and reasonable throughout this crusade, in order to close the supposed “cognitive gap” that exists between mainlanders and Taiwanese.

As these communities have grown, fans have gradually developed their own styles of collective action, alongside a shared sense of identity.

Chinese mainstream media outlets, such as the Global Times and People’s Daily, responded with sympathetic opinion pieces praising these young netizens as “more confident than the older generation” and calling their behavior “an attempt to communicate with Taiwanese youth.”

Online crusades are coming to be recognized as an important form of collective action. In a similar recent case, leading Chinese actress and director Zhao Wei was forced to apologize for her decision to cast a colleague suspected of being sympathetic to Taiwanese independence. One poster called upon fellow crusaders to overwhelm Zhao’s fan community forums with spam and vulgar posts.

While international media were keen to portray little pinkos as blind followers of the “red” Communist Party, local media were guilty of ignoring the historical roots of these groups. In fact, the development of such “fandom publics” — fan groups that exert influence around a particular issue — stretches back over a decade.

In my recent book “The Internet and New Social Formation in China: Fandom Publics in the Making,” I show how internet crusades were initially launched against other fan groups as a means to contest divergent behavior and aesthetic choices between fan communities. Members of Di Ba took Li Yuchun, winner of the 2005 singing contest “Super Girl,” as the target of their first crusade. Before long, Li’s discussion forum had crashed under the weight of thousands of commercial or vulgar posts, sent from both real and fake accounts. 

A similar incident happened again in 2010 when the concert organizers for a Korean band, Super Junior, did not issue enough tickets to Chinese fans, leading to physical confrontations among concertgoers. Rival fan groups organized another round of spamming, which has since been dubbed the “June 9th Crusade.”

Through years of practice, online Chinese fans have learned how to mobilize large-scale crusades, which have later extended to public issues such as cross-Straits relations. In addition, the rise of social media sites has given them a broader platform than the original discussion forums.

The transferring of skills, organizational structures, and mindsets is common among China’s online fan communities. One chapter in my book describes communities of online translators who originally focused on entertainment media, such as foreign reality TV shows, but have now diversified into translating public issues and even giving open online courses.

The common pattern observed here is how fan groups transition to “publics” engaging with particular issues. At first, fans come together in appreciation of a shared object of interest, whether that be fiction, TV shows, movies, games, athletes, or celebrities. Online spaces such as Baidu Tieba have provided these fans with virtual venues in which to interact and share ideas.

As these communities have grown, fans have gradually developed their own styles of collective action, alongside a shared sense of identity. Identity dynamics can be highly varied; many Di Ba crusaders self-identify as diaosi (a slang term for men with similar connotations to the term “loser”) thanks to their affection for Li Yi, a mediocre soccer player who nevertheless once compared himself to the French superstar Thierry Henry. The community atmosphere is one in which parody and self-deprecation are the norm.

Little pinkos emerged from online literature forums, predominantly through female fans of “boy love,” or yaoi, a Japanese term referring to the fictional male-male relationships common in Japanese comics and cartoons. The shared identity of little pinkos signifies being cute, feminine, and passionately supportive of the people or objects that define their community.

It is thus evident that these anti-Taiwanese independence crusades were no different from how these fans act day-to-day. In a sense, their way of expressing fervently nationalist sentiment has clear parallels with the strength of feeling they have for the totems of their fandom.

In this case, it is no wonder that such online fan communities acted passionately against pro-independence advocates, because while the targets “worthy” of attack have diversified, the language they use to express themselves largely has not. When public issues become objects of fandom, those antagonistic to the cause can be seen as deviant from their fan identities. Therefore, we can expect to see new mechanisms for civic engagement and public opinion springing up on the Chinese internet, which will require time to be fully understood.

(Header image: VCG)