The minute I sat down to write about China’s “little pinkos,” I remembered the sunny afternoon 17 years ago when my friend called me up, in a voice brimming with exhilaration, and took me to a massive rally outside the U.S. Consulate General in Shanghai.
On May 7, 1999, NATO aircraft bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, killing three Chinese reporters. Although the former U.S. President Bill Clinton apologized for the bombing and claimed it was an accident, many Chinese people viewed it as an intentional provocation on the part of the U.S. government. The bombing outraged the public and sparked massive anti-U.S. demonstrations around the country. Thousands of teenagers like me were astounded by the scale of these demonstrations.
I joined a rally composed mainly of college students on May 8, though I didn’t even know where Belgrade was at the time. As I was still in high school, I mimicked the behavior of the college students, shouting slogans, waving flags, and even throwing stones at the consulate. It was the first time that I had really experienced the passionate thrill of patriotism.
Nowadays, when using the derogatory Chinese term for little pinkos, xiaofenhong, people seem oblivious to the surging nationalist movement during the late 1990s. The phrase refers to a high-profile group of predominantly young female Chinese web users, who use the internet as an arena to defend their patriotism. Little pinkos gained fame following a series of actions taken against foreigners in the past year. Among other high profile incidents, an Australian Olympic gold medalist swimmer found his Facebook page swamped by little pinkos demanding an apology after he called Chinese rival Sun Yang a “drug cheat.”
At home, the group is well-known for its unconditional endorsement of the Chinese government’s position and impassioned defense of it against all criticism. On Chinese microblog platform Weibo, patriotic posts are common: “I’m not interested in politics; I just love the country.” “No one person is above the nation.” “Loving the country is not a job, but a faith.”
The little pinkos’ aggressive actions and their voluntary subordination of the individual in deference to the state have brought them into conflict with many liberal intellectuals who hold that the well-being of the individual is of greater importance than the good of the country. The popular image of little pinkos in public stands in stark contrast to how cute the name sounds. People often think of this group as a bunch of under-educated youngsters, ignorant of history and politics, who are unconcerned with real political issues so long as their own national identity is protected.
Admittedly, concerns about the resurgence of Chinese nationalism are not ill-founded. Nevertheless, from a historical perspective, there is nothing new about the aggressive activities of the present generation of nationalists and their conception of the relationship between the individual and the state. From the May Fourth Movement in 1919 to the May 8 anti-U.S. demonstrations in 1999, Chinese young people have always stood at the forefront of nationalistic movements. In this sense, the little pinkos’ fierce sentiments and aggressive behavior may not be much different from that of their predecessors.
In the three decades since reform and opening-up policies brought radical changes to Chinese society, it has commonly been believed that liberal values like individual autonomy, critical thinking, and human rights have gained unprecedented progress in the country. So when a new wave of nationalism recently swept the country, many liberal elites were surprised to discover that they might have been overly optimistic about a transition toward political liberalism in China.
Despite the pessimistic views of the little pinkos, the bright side is that their rhetoric has opened up a new discursive space in which patriotism and patriots may be seen as a problem. As a result, young patriots have been forced into a debate in which they are required to defend the legitimacy of their beliefs and actions.
For a long time now, many Chinese have tended to view patriotism as an ultimate goal for which the sacrifice of other values is justified. This has been largely due to the dual influences of traditional culture, which have privileged collectivism, and to a well-orchestrated patriotic education campaign led by the Communist Party since 1949. At least at the grassroots level, patriots are therefore rarely held up as objects of public ridicule. The emergence of little pinkos as a derogatory term signifies a nascent disdain for such patriots, as well as for what has conventionally been considered noble behavior, indicating that even nationalism may even be problematic under certain circumstances.
At present, Chinese social media is beset with passionate debates over what defines “genuine” patriotism in China, what actions an “authentic” patriot should take, and whether patriotism should be conditional or unconditional. For those involved in the conversation, love of one’s country is no longer a self-evident idea, but something that may sometimes be right and may sometimes be wrong; in short, something debatable. In order to convince others — especially those who do not hold such strong patriotic attitudes — China’s young patriots have to confront such questions.
Controversy surrounding patriotism has been well-documented in China. In the early 20th century, for example, the Chinese scholar Liang Qichao asserted that the needs of the nation-state should supersede those of the individual in his writings “On Liberty” and “The New Citizen.” In comparison, Du Yaquan, the editor-in-chief of The Eastern Miscellany, one of the most important scholarly publications of republican-era China, saw individuals as the foundation of the state and criticized the idea of sacrificing the interest of the individual for that of the state.
Most of the time, however, this debate was confined to intellectual circles and seldom reached the general public. But nowadays, as ordinary individuals feel empowered to make their voices heard, Chinese patriots should be prepared to encounter skepticism, criticism, and even contempt from others for their beliefs. In the face of this, they have to learn to offer strong, convincing arguments to explain and defend their behavior.
From this perspective, the distinct feature of this wave of nationalism is that the actions of the little pinkos may raise mass awareness of the problems of patriotism. This in turn may cause thousands more people to find, upon reflection, that unquestioned patriotism can lose its appeal. For intellectuals, this is a perfect moment to invite ordinary people to engage in a constructive dialogue on topics of the self, state, and society. To do this, they will have to learn new ways to discuss basic political ideas with young patriots, and avoid deriding them as irrational or impetuous.
This article was edited for content on Sept. 23, 2021.
(Header image: A Chinese girl poses in front of a large decorative flower arrangement after the official flag-raising ceremony at Tiananmen Square, Beijing, Oct. 1, 2015. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images/VCG)