Chinese Cyber Nationalists Target Nobel Laureate, Water Company

Taipei, Taiwan — Online nationalism has been surging in China in recent weeks, with a growing band of cyber nationalists targeting the country’s first Nobel laureate in literature, Mo Yan, and the largest bottled water producer, Nongfu Spring.

The online attacks against Nongfu Spring began after prominent nationalist billionaire Zong Qinghou, the founder of the company’s key competitor, Hangzhou Wahaha Group, passed away on February 25.

Some netizens began comparing Zong with Nongfu Spring’s founder, Zhong Shanshan, the richest person in China, and it quickly grew into an all-out attack against Nongfu Spring. Some online nationalists claimed packaging of Nongfu Springs’ products contains Japanese elements, accusing him of being pro-Japan, while others focused on allegations that Zhong’s son is a U.S. citizen.

“If the successor of Nongfu Spring is an American, this company’s ideology is unacceptable,” wrote one Chinese netizen on China’s popular social media platform Weibo.

“I can’t accept that an American becomes the richest man in China,” another netizen Liu Jia-nan wrote on Weibo. “Even if I can’t change anything, me and my family can definitely stop buying Nongfu Spring’s products.”

The call for boycotting Nongfu Spring’s products has affected the company’s stock, which dropped more than 6% since the attacks began last month. Amid the turmoil, Chinese media outlets reported that Zhong Shanshan stepped down as legal representative of one of Nongfu Spring’s subsidiaries on March 11.

Chinese Nobel laureate Mo Yan, whose real name is Guan Moye, also came under attack from a self-proclaimed nationalistic blogger last month. Wu Wanzheng, who runs the account “Truth Telling Mao Xinghua” on Weibo, announced on February 27 that he planned to sue Mo for violating the Heroes and Martyrs Protection Law in China, which carries a maximum three-year jail sentence if found guilty.

In the indictment shared by Wu on Weibo, he accused Mo of glorifying the Japanese invaders in his novel “Red Sorghum,” which tells the story of a Chinese family during the Second Sino-Japanese War.

He also claimed that Mo tried to “smear heroes and martyrs of the People’s Liberation Army” during the Chinese Civil War in another novel. Wu demanded that Mo apologize, offer an equivalent of $0.14 U.S. dollars to each Chinese citizen as compensation, and have his books removed from shelves across China.

Mo and Nongfu Spring are not the only targets of Chinese nationalists’ online attacks in recent years. Several Chinese and global brands, including Chinese sportswear manufacturer Li Ning and Western brands such as H&M, Nike and Adidas, have come under fire for either having designs that resemble Japanese soldiers’ uniforms during World War II or for boycotting cotton from China’s Xinjiang region.

Some experts say for Chinese people engaging in online activities, “wielding the flag of nationalism” is like “a protective shield.

“Those people choose their targets very carefully and they know they can drive a lot of online traffic to themselves,” Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, told VOA in a phone interview.

He said in some cases, Chinese nationalists may feel a “moral righteousness” when they target certain businesses or individuals. “Unless the situation becomes too excessive, the overall environment would generally be permissive toward people who engage in these activities,” Yang said.

And while there used to be mechanisms to prevent content on Chinese social media from becoming too nationalistic, online content regulators are focused more now on removing critical opinions that may be deemed “unpatriotic” or “sensitive” by Chinese officials.

“There is no resistance to nationalistic content on the Chinese internet, and the reason why Chinese authorities don’t remove nationalistic content online is because it’s in line with the government’s narrative,” Eric Liu, a former Weibo moderator and an editor at U.S.-based bilingual news website China Digital Times, told VOA by phone.

After facing threats from the nationalistic blogger, Mo participated in an event with British writer Abdulrazak Gurnah in Beijing earlier this week, which was covered by several Chinese state media outlets. China’s state broadcaster CCTV also reportedly conducted an interview with the celebrated writer.

Separately, some Chinese netizens have come out to urge nationalists to stop targeting Nongfu Spring, while several state-controlled media outlets across China have published opinion pieces to call on nationalists to “stop the witch hunt against another business owners” in China.

Despite efforts from state media to push back against the online attacks, some observers said it’s unlikely the Chinese government will try to stop this trend. “The government would have punished those online nationalists if they want to stop these targeted online attacks,” Murong Xuecun, a prominent Chinese novelist, told VOA by phone.

“China’s free speech environment is already in a bad shape after a decade under Xi’s rule, and if the trend of targeted online attacks continues, the free speech environment in the country will likely further deteriorate,” the novelist said.

In addition to a deteriorating free speech environment, Liu at China Digital Times said this trend may create a chilling effect for many Chinese internet users. “The online environment in China will deteriorate to a point where many internet users may be concerned about becoming the target of such attacks,” he told VOA.

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