After the heart-rending tragedy in Christchurch, New Zealand, I found the incident to be a trending topic on the Chinese internet, where kind citizens sent sympathies and prayers to the victims as well as their fellow Kiwis.
But as I scrolled through the microblogging platform Sina Weibo, another thread of responses swamped my timeline—this time, malicious, hurtful, and Islamophobic words were burning my eyes. Extremist views condemning Muslim victims and lauding the gunman, which one would only expect to find in the darkest corners of the internet, were among the most popular comments on China’s biggest social media platform.
This was hardly a surprise. As a longtime observer of the Chinese internet, I am used to seeing conservative-leaning views when it comes to discussions on Western politics. During the 2016 US election campaign, many Chinese conservatives, like their American and European counterparts, supported the rise of Trumpian nationalism.
Zhihu, a Quora-like social media platform once known for its elitism, developed an overwhelming abhorrence of Western progressivism, with an unprecedented number of Chinese nativists condemning liberals who sympathize with immigrant, Muslim, and LGBT communities in the West—whom they tauntingly call the baizuo, or “white leftists.”
The xenophobia on the Chinese internet reflects how the worldwide rise of ethno-nationalism has slipped unnoticed into China, and it is not contained within the boundaries of Western politics. China has a significant population of Muslims, many of whom belong to historically Islamic ethnicities; while there is no official figure, the Pew Research Center has estimated it at 2% of China’s total population.
Upon hearing the term “hate speech,” one immediately thinks of white ethno-nationalist “trolls” on the English-speaking internet. But the Chinese web has its own hate speech problem, too, and the Chinese public is unfortunately more susceptible to its influence.
Unlike the public education in the US that emphasizes America’s long history of striving for equality (which attracts conservative criticism of liberal bias), Chinese schools offer almost no discussion of race and multiculturalism; this is partly due to the country’s racial homogeneity and the Soviet-style ethnic policy that it emulated. When most Chinese—who remain unfamiliar with these notions and are less alarmed by extremism—find themselves engaging in online discussions, rampant online hate speech can conveniently fill that void.
Another piece of the puzzle is biased censorship. American free-speech fundamentalists often draw parallels between the removing of online hate speech, which some progressives advocate, with government-imposed censorship like China’s. This is a misunderstanding: When Chinese internet companies use both humans and technologies to bowdlerize politically sensitive views, hate speech remains unchecked as it seems to pose little threat to China’s predominantly Han society. By ignoring hate speech—for whatever reason—China’s censors are effectively giving the greenlight to the authors of xenophobic Weibo comments and racist WeChat articles, who are used to following the censor’s ethical judgments.
The feminist writer Zheng Churan observes a correlation between China’s emerging nouveau riche and the rise of xenophobia. “As the economy continues to grow, a small portion of people have grown rich in accordance with the opening-up policy, and a bigger portion are waiting on their road to riches,” Zheng wrote. “Those who have attained ‘wealth’ all think they deserve the level of respect that white people get—or the respect afforded to the big capitalists in white-people countries.”
What perhaps differentiates hate speech on the Chinese internet from that on Twitter and Facebook is that the former is seldom addressed. In the US, there is strong advocacy for undermining the internet presence of extremists, and activists constantly pressure social media to take down accounts whose behaviors blatantly violate a platform’s terms of service.
But in China, institutionalized effort against racism and xenophobia is almost absent. The China Central Television (CCTV) Lunar New Year gala, which is the nation’s most-viewed TV program, once featured a Chinese actress in blackface while having a black actor play a monkey; despite criticism—some from black people who live, study, and work in China—it failed to provoke any nationwide discourse.
Similarly, while the all-black cast of Black Panther gained praise in America, many Chinese moviegoers pulled no punches in expressing their discomfort with the movie’s “blackness.”
The Chinese who are wary of the spread of Islam—or even more ridiculously, that of sharia—in their own country launched campaigns against halal foods, what they call “anti-halalification”; they once protested Meituan after the food-delivery service offered halal packaging for Muslim users. Some proponents of this movement turned their anger into hurtful hate speech against Chinese Muslims.
One would expect to see a visible backlash against such Islamophobic campaigns, but there was hardly any. (The absurdity of such imaginary wariness becomes conspicuous when one confronts the reality: Pork is everywhere in major Chinese cities, and you’re much less likely to spot a person wearing a burqa in Beijing or Shanghai than, say, New York City or London.) The Chinese internet, despite all the political censorship that it is known for, has yet to see any notable activism against—and hardly any discussion surrounding—xenophobia.
In an environment where anti-hate speech values are absent in education, online hate speech often leads to more hatred. And as some Chinese web users begin to embrace xenophobic views, there are actions that responsible Chinese internet companies can take. Like Twitter and Facebook, they can use algorithms to detect hateful comments and prevent them from appearing at the top; they can punish users for producing these comments. But most importantly, they have to start off by taking social responsibility, recognizing the problem, and taking concrete steps to resolve it.
With recent Chinese emigres continuing to use WeChat as a news source even after moving to the West, the effects of Chinese social media stretch beyond China’s borders. Despite what President Trump thinks, ethno-nationalism should be seen as a growing global threat. And in this case, the Chinese internet shouldn’t be the lawless Wild West where such behavior thrives.