Written by Rowena He.
“They told me that I should not say ‘I am Taiwanese,’ they said I am Chinese.” A Taiwanese student shared with me and my students while we were having dinner together at the college dining hall, about her experience of being corrected by Chinese students each time she introduced herself. “I am sorry but I am confused.” She looked at me with her big innocent eyes. She continued to explain that on one hand she wanted to be included in the social circle of Chinese students as someone who was studying far away from home, but at the same time she was uncomfortable being told by her Chinese peers what her identity was.
This is just one of many incidents related to Taiwan in the context of Chinese students’ emerging nationalism in Post-Tiananmen China. Other incidents include the scripted public apology that young Taiwanese singer Chou Tzu-yu was forced to make, in which she reaffirmed her identity as Chinese, after waving a Taiwanese flag during a South Korean TV show in 2015. Chinese hyper-nationalist web warriors flooded her social media account and accused her of supporting Taiwan independence. Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s Facebook page was also subjected to similar attacks when she was re-elected in the same year.
An earlier version of the Chou Tzu-yu story happened outside Asia in 2013, when Taiwanese singer Zhang Xuan’s packed concert in the United Kingdom turned her from idol to enemy among mainland Chinese fans. When Taiwanese in the audience held up a “welcome home” banner for Zhang Xuan (who had previously herself been a student in in the UK), she spontaneously grabbed a Taiwanese flag from a fan and declared “This is my national flag.”
“No politics tonight,” a mainland Chinese student objected. The protests continued later in the form of online messages both inside and outside China. Some of her critics condemned Zhang for supporting Taiwanese or Tibetan independence; others warned that if she wanted to make money in China, she had better watch her words. There were more than accusatory words hurled at her. Her Beijing concert scheduled for the following month was canceled.
The Zhang Xuan incident once again illustrates the strength and virulence of Chinese student nationalism on the international stage: a Chinese student in the UK, condemning a Taiwanese singer, addressing an online community of Chinese youth, and ultimately (it appears) influencing events in Beijing. While claiming to want “no politics,” the Chinese student was herself engaging in an intensely political act.
Taiwan, of course, is not the only target of these global displays of Chinese student nationalism. For example, in 2017, Chinese students at the University of California at San Diego protested against the university’s decision to invite the Dalai Lama to give a commencement speech. On social media, these students compared the Dalai Lama to Adolf Hitler and Osama Bin Laden, and asserted that such a person should never be invited to speak on the most important day of their college careers. At the University of Maryland, a graduating Chinese college senior was verbally attacked by tens of thousands of her peers both at home and abroad after she indicated in her commencement speech that she enjoyed the cleaner air and freedom of speech in the U.S. The pressure exerted against her was so intense that eventually she was forced to apologize.
The rise of Chinese popular nationalism is largely a result of the elaborate and vigorous Patriotic Education Campaign that the post-Tiananmen PRC leadership launched in the early 1990s after the brutal military crackdown on the 1989 Tiananmen Movement, and the nationwide arrest and purge to reestablish that badly damaged legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) one-party dictatorship. Responding to central directives from Beijing, schools – from kindergarten to university – turned their classrooms into forums for patriotic education. Politics and history textbooks were significantly revised to emphasize China’s victimization at the hands of the West and Japan. State propaganda selectively commemorated past national glories, traumas, and humiliations to inflame popular emotions. The Campaign intersects with popular discourse through film, television, the print media, patriotic education sites (such as museums and memorials), theme parks and red tourism – pilgrimages to revolutionary historical sites the CCP considers sacred.
Among the key elements of this officially sponsored view of their nation that strike the chord of the Chinese students are the necessity of authoritarian governance. Despite what others may consider the moral and political drawbacks of authoritarianism, CCP leaders assert that they alone are capable of guaranteeing the country’s prosperity and unity, and keeping regions including Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Tibet as part of China. That the inculcation of such ideas or tropes is working is evident from the reactions of students who see themselves as patriots defending a victimized China against a conspiracy of disinformation. While Chinese students of the 1980s were critical of the regime and pushed for reforms, those under the impact of the patriotic education campaign and the mass media tend not to distinguish between the communist regime and the Chinese nation and reject any criticism of the regime as insults to the Chinese nation and its people.
Rather than promoting open-mindedness and tolerance, the internet appears to have enabled Chinese students around the world to share and reinforce each other’s nationalistic views and emotions while engaging in cyber-bullying of critical voices that they perceived as traitors. In the cases described above, those Chinese youths believed that it was their responsibility as patriots to protest and to re-educate the Taiwanese about their correct identity, and to defend the CCP as if they were defending China. The distortion of history in China is most evident when it comes to the Tiananmen Movement of Spring 1989.
It has been thirty years since the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre. Tiananmen remains a taboo subject in China today. Discussions in the media, on the internet, and in the classroom are banned. Even the actual number of deaths from the military crackdown remains unknown. In Taiwan, by contrast, the tragic events of 2-28, when thousands of civilians were killed beginning February 28 1947 – long suppressed during the era of KMT one-party rule – are now freely discussed and openly acknowledged in the free society that is contemporary Taiwan. When will a similar discussion be possible in the PRC, a discussion that is essential to heal the wounds of history?
The hijacking of history by the Chinese Communist Party, together with the manipulation of nationalistic sentiments, promotes historical amnesia, fosters a narrow and xenophobic nationalism, impedes reflection on historical tragedies and injustice, and stokes enthusiasm for China’s growing international assertiveness. And such state-sponsored made-in-China nationalism, compounded with the soft power exported through agencies such as Confucius Institutes, has profound implications for the future of China, its relationship with Taiwan, and the world.
Rowena He is author of Tiananmen Exiles: Voices of the Struggle for Democracy in China. She is currently a member at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. working on her next book on history, memory and nationalism in post-Tiananmen China.
Reflecting on the 30th anniversary of the massacre in Beijing in 1989, this article is part of a special issue looking at the connexions between this event and the social, political and cultural life in Taiwan.