Lessons From China’s Online Hatred

Tea Leaf Nation
on May 25, 2012

It started bad, and got worse from there. Just over two weeks ago, an Englishman was apparently caught on tape attempting to force himself on a Chinese woman on the streets of Beijing. Days after that, anti-foreigner sentiment swelled on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, after Beijing police announced a campaign directed at foreigners living or working illegally in the city.

Yang Rui, putative world traveler

Then, about a week ago, Chinese television host Yang Rui (@主持人杨锐) ignited a full-blown controversy when he used his Weibo account to label a recently expelled foreign reporter a “bitch” (or something close to it), called for foreign “trash” to be cleaned out of the city, and made a series of incredible allegations that the ChinaGeeks blog has translated here.

Yang later issued a statement to the Wall Street Journal emphasizing that his words were aimed only at law-breaking foreigners. But anti-foreigner rhetoric persists in Chinese mainstream and social media, prompting name-calling, hand-wringing, and soul-searching on both sides of the cultural divide.

In particular, foreign observers are asking why Chinese social media has seemingly turned so nasty, so quickly. But the truth is murkier; Weibo has always been a splintered, cacophonous, trivial, hilarious, and profane maelstrom of 140-character half-thoughts.

For those of us who value massive, ongoing cultural exchange, this is somewhat disheartening. Yet as long as Weibo continues its reign as the king of Chinese social media, this may be the best we are going to get. The same characteristics that trivialize the exchange–character limits, social layer, ease of use–are what make it so popular.

Bite-size thoughts only, please

First, there’s that 140-character limit. Even in Chinese, it matters. Admittedly, the restriction pinches less in Chinese than in English; you could fit three Tang dynasty poems in one tweet, and still have a few characters left over for commentary.

He plays video games, and opines on geopolitics on the side

Most Weibo users are not poets, however, and they’re not trying to be. Netizens tweet between bites of lunch, or as they wait for the bus, or while they’re playing video games, or after they’ve had a few drinks, or after they’ve been dumped by their boyfriend or girlfriend. Often, they are writing from their heart or from their gut, and they’re not always thinking about the consequences their words might have in the wider world. It’s not an excuse, but it’s the truth.

Many netizens don’t perceive themselves as writing for a global audience at all. They may purport to hold strong opinions about international relations and military strategy, but in many cases they are writing for their friends. Remember that China’s social media isn’t bifurcated into Twitter and Facebook–instead, it is dominated by Weibo, a public-facing platform. If you want to vent to your friends on China’s premier social media platform, you also need to vent to everyone who follows you or even searches for a keyword your comment contains.

The “gamification” of speech

Weibo’s founders certainly hoped to make the platform fun to use, but they likely never predicted the extent to which speech on the platform would come to resemble a game of “top this,” with sometimes ugly results.  It’s what Kaiser Kuo called “perverse game mechanics” on the latest Sinica podcast (listen here; the discussion starts at 33:00). When sentiment is split, chatter on a given topic can resemble a dialogue, albeit one rife with curse words. Other times, as sentiment begins to tilt, it tilts further and faster the more extreme it becomes. Hoping to be noticed above the friendly fray, netizens vie to see whose tweet can be the most memorable, and that often means most extreme.

This man, caught in an attempted sexual assault, started the anti-foreigner tide rolling

While netizens who agree with the prevailing opinion rush in, those who disagree begin to leave. It’s not fun being the voice of reason in an increasingly ugly discussion, and many who could do so simply decide to go somewhere else. Why bother “playing the lute to a cow,” as the Chinese say, trying to convince those who are beyond convincing? Instead of explaining the horrors of war to thousands of Counterstrike-addled teens who claim they itch for armed conflict with the Philippines, why not find a new thread and discuss sports, or movies, or love, or a new book, or finance, or anything else?

This trend is especially obvious when the rhetorical punching bag is mute. Strident commenters are triply safe–separated from their target by anonymity, by distance, and by the absence of counterargument. Oddly, for the average user, it’s quite easy to criticize the central government, or its Ministry of Foreign Affairs; they’re not going to bother to write back. For their part, foreigners don’t have Weibo accounts, or can’t really read Chinese. Or so netizens thought.

Know your audience

Perhaps the recent controversy’s true value is as a reminder that we are all truly connected, even if some of us don’t always want to be.

Chinese netizens are rapidly learning that the foreign devils are watching. It’s every bit as easy to open a Weibo account from Washington, DC as it is in Beijing. (Okay, we lied. It’s actually easier.) Anyone who can read Chinese, or even use Google translate, can freely open this window into Chinese netizen sentiment and peer in, essentially undisturbed and undetected. Websites like the humble Tea Leaf Nation are dedicated to transforming the mass of Chinese chatter into bite-sized, English-language stories.

If that sounds a bit Orwellian, it isn’t. The foreigners are watching because they care. They’re watching because they know that netizen opinion, however flawed as a proxy for Chinese opinion, is one of the best available. They know that China is important, that its young Internet users represent its future, and they want to know where that future is going.

Words can still hurt

Unfortunately, speech isn’t actually a game. The facility of writing and sending a tweet belies its potential impact, as Yang Rui, and so many before him, have learned the hard way.

There are plenty of good (and legal) foreigners in China. Former NBA coach Bob Weiss coached the Shanxi Brave Dragons

The great bell of racism and xenophobia, even if struck obliquely, is not easily un-rung. It not only tilts the Internet’s perverse game mechanics in the wrong direction–leading to ever more outrageous opinions–but it creates an atmosphere of hostility both for countervailing views, and for the people/groups who are the targets of those words. In time, a profusion of these extreme views can become a self-fulfilling prophecy by redefining what is “extreme” and “normal,” even in more polite conversation.

This slight darkening of the atmosphere also risks undermining the trust that many foreigners living in China, and many Chinese who know or interact with foreigners, have worked hard to build. While a foreigner looking over her shoulder every time she leaves the house is likely overreacting to recent vitriol, it’s impossible, as a minority in a strange land, not to wonder: Are my neighbors watching me more closely now? Did they ever really trust me? Am I just imagining this? Or was there a dislike, or something worse, lurking beneath the surface, that I have finally begun to see?

A lesson learned, maybe

Precisely because the structure of social media makes it easy, each of us must stand individual guard against extremism. That requires vigilance and self-discipline. In particular, if this author could speak to purveyors of anti-foreigner hysteria, he would asks them this: Do the words you write represent the person you wish to become? More immediately, do the words you write cohere with who you say you are?

If the answer is “no,” re-think that tweet. You should be on notice by now: The rest of the world is watching. Perhaps it’s time to think of the Internet as a place where you should put your best self forward, rather than your worst.