Online Warriors Are a Risky but Useful Tool for Beijing

Andreea Brinza | 7 January 2022

When China’s Cultural Revolution began in 1966, the Red Guards were at its forefront. Under the spell of propaganda and nationalism, with the goal of helping Mao Zedong spread the red sprout of communism, the Red Guards—mostly adolescents, some as young as 14—started an assault on China’s society and its elites, from party leaders to teachers.

Asked to destroy the “Four Olds” (old ideas, old culture, old habits, and old customs), the Red Guards picked their targets, whether philosopher Confucius or military leader Lin Biao, based on both direction from the top and their own local vendettas and whims. One could end up in the crosshairs for being a political leader who opposed Mao’s policies or a farmer who dressed a little better than the rest of the village. Those chaotic times, which resulted in purges, deaths, and social disruption, left a deep scar on China and its people, visible even today in the Chinese Communist Party leadership’s fear of chaos and uncontrolled mass movements.

Today, decades after the Cultural Revolution, a new type of popular army has risen in China. Driven by the same nationalism and propaganda, the cyber-Red Guards, with the same mix of grassroots inspiration and direction from the top, are defenders of China’s delicate feelings. Whether they’re targeting a foreign company, a K-pop group, or a foreign basketball team, they bring back uncomfortable memories of Mao’s Red Guards and the fervor to punish offenders.

Today’s online legion is not as young as the Red Guards were, but they are mostly people born after 1980, who grew up with computers, phones, and internet but were also exposed to a huge amount of patriotic education and propaganda. They are sometimes called “Little Pinks,” though the original term no longer captures their diversity. The term wumao was originally coined to describe paid propagandists who work online for all levels of the Chinese state, but became slang for nationalist posters in general—leading to the coinage of the term ziganwu (roughly “self-supplying wumao”) to indicate that these posters don’t receive financial compensation for their actions. Regardless, what unites today’s cyber-Red Guards is a patriotic desire to protect China from perceived foreign attacks or slights.

Recently, companies such as Walmart and Intel were added to the list of Western companies targeted by Chinese netizens. Walmart allegedly ceased sale in its China locations of products manufactured in Xinjiang, because of suspicions of forced labor in the Chinese region. Intel also tried to distance itself from products from Xinjiang. These developments were amplified by a new U.S. law that banned products imported from Xinjiang, unless companies proved the products weren’t made with forced labor.

The online pressure from China was successful: Intel apologized to China for telling its suppliers not to source products or labor from Xinjiang. The pressure mixed grassroots efforts and state power: Walmart was targeted by China’s anti-corruption agency.

These weren’t unusual cases. Shortly after the European Union imposed sanctions on four Chinese officials and an organization involved in the abuses taking place in Xinjiang, China called on patriotic netizens to boycott H&M, a Swedish clothing company that in 2020 announced it would stop buying Xinjiang cotton because of the risk of it being sourced from forced labor.

In China, these boycott movements are supported by three entities: the government, the companies, and the masses. Although the central government keeps a relatively low profile during many boycotts, in reality the cyber-Red Guards’ uproar is used as a non-official tool to punish or pressure a country or foreign company. On the world stage, official sanctions or tariffs are promptly reciprocated and abusive economic measures can be easily reported to the World Trade Organization. But popular boycotts, seen as grassroots movements instead of government actions, are harder to counter, though sometimes just as efficient. The government might provide rhetorical support and state or party entities might even decisively amplify small organic campaigns—in the H&M case, a Weibo post by an account of the Communist Youth League brought the boycott to a wide audience. Regardless of official boosts, in China’s tightly managed online environment, no campaign could ever achieve success without the government allowing it to grow.

Companies and public figures are also involved in boycott movements in China. Out of their need to dissociate themselves from “toxic” issues and project a patriotic and trustworthy image, they ride the nationalistic wave. For example, H&M products were also boycotted by the e-commerce platforms Alibaba, JD.com, and Pinduoduo, which removed the products because of the public criticism. Xiaomi, Huawei, and Vivo app stores removed the H&M app from their offerings, while DiDi, Baidu, and Meituan erased H&M shops from their maps. Online publications might join the train to boost their traffic or image during the boycotts, as well.

The boycott of H&M was also led by celebrities, such as singer Wang Yibo, singer and actress Victoria Song, and actor Huang Xuan, who announced they were breaking their endorsement contracts with H&M. Celebrities also cut ties with Nike, which together with Burberry, Adidas, New Balance, and Zara were on the list of boycott targets. In the recent Intel case, singer Karry Wang broke ties with the U.S. company.

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This article has been previously published in Foreign Policy. You can read the full article on Foreign Policy’s website.

Photo Credits:  A statue of a Red Guard in China  (Flickr/Joe Wong)

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Andreea Brinza

Andreea Brinza is a researcher and the Vice President of RISAP. Her interests are related to the geopolitics, geostrategy and geoeconomics of the Asia-Pacific region and especially China. Her research focuses on the Belt and Road Initiative.

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