Tea Leaf Nation

Patriot Flacked

Why a nationalist screed warning of Western encroachment has just gone viral in China.

"You are nothing without your motherland." It's a trite phrase, one that seems unlikely to stir the blood of even the most dyed-in-the-wool nationalist -- but it has found recent currency in China. An essay with that title has been making the rounds on the Chinese Internet since mid-November; it then went viral in early December, with state media giving the rant widespread play. The spike in attention occurred just before a visit from U.S. Vice President Joe Biden at a moment of rising tensions between China and the United States; and the timing may not be an accident.

The 2,100-character, 18-paragraph screed stirs up patriotic Chinese sentiment using a combination of fear mongering and selective history that nationalists anywhere would likely recognize. To wit, it cites the falls of the USSR, Saddam Hussein, Muammar al-Qaddafi, and Hosni Mubarak as examples of Western powers subverting uncooperative regimes and leaving their countries in shambles. And it warns that Chinese people should be on guard against the United States and other Western powers, because they are trying to bring down the Communist Party and plunge the country into chaos.

"The Americans took down the USSR and eliminated its largest rival," the essay warns. "Now China has become the country that poses the biggest threat." The American response, according to the essay, has been to "cook up the Diaoyu Islands controversy," a high-stakes tiff between China and Japan over the ownership of a few small islands in the East China Sea. The essay insists it is a "well-known fact" that the United States' goal has been to foster "domestic trouble inside China in order to subvert the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party," or CCP. If the U.S. plot were to succeed, "total chaos" would result. 

The essay's claims may sound outlandish, but defenders of the CCP are unabashed in exploiting just this type of sentiment. The People's Daily, the party's primary mouthpiece, published an abridged version of the essay in its Dec. 4 print edition, while official Weibo (Chinese Twitter) accounts of state-run Xinhua News Agency, nationalist outlet Global Times, and popular local newspapers have all shared versions of the essay within the past five days. Xinhua even selected a few approving comments from Internet users, including this gem: "Without our motherland, we will have no dignity!"

The high level of state media support strongly suggests that the Chinese government approved the surge in attention, according to Jessica Chen Weiss, an assistant professor of political science at Yale who studies nationalist protest in China. She notes that the post's language is "squarely directed at the West," as opposed to Japan, the usual target of Chinese nationalist ire. On Nov. 23, China declared an "air defense identification zone" in the East China Sea that included territory disputed with Japan; the United States responded on Nov. 27 by flying unarmed B-52 bombers through the space without informing Chinese authorities. Such a tense climate, Weiss notes, might provide "an opportune time to showcase" the post.

None of this means the essay's popularity was purely engineered -- the crude logic it employs has a receptive audience in China even without peddling from state-owned media. While China has surpassed Japan as the world's second-largest economy and is now poised to take its place as a world power, many Chinese still cannot shake a deep-seated, almost primal fear that their country will again be reduced to a state of utter weakness and dispiriting humiliation at the hands of Western powers and Japan. The anxiety is rooted in China's historical subjugation by foreign powers in the 19th and 20th centuries, in particular what Chinese call the "century of humiliation." That period saw invasions by British and Japanese forces and a resulting series of unequal treaties that ceded valuable swaths of Chinese territory to foreign control.

The unsettling and nagging fear of disorder is pervasive among Chinese citizens. Many see enemies perpetually gathering at the proverbial gate, restlessly plotting to carve up China's territories, subjugate its people, and plunder its resources. "I like this essay. I have seen a lot of dissidents calling for democracy and liberty; they are ignorant and brainwashed by god-knows-what," one commenter wrote on Weibo. Another agreed that the essay lies "rooted in reality" and asked rhetorically, "You think if China becomes Libya, you will get liberty, democracy, human rights and equality?"

That's not to say all commenters bought into the essay's simple logic. Some evinced a more nuanced understanding of Chinese patriotism. "Please do not confuse the three separate concepts of motherland, government, and ruling party," one web user wrote. "I will love the first but not the others." Mindful that the "motherland" is nothing but an abstraction without its inhabitants, another turned the essay's core claim on its head: "Without us, the motherland is nothing." 

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Tea Leaf Nation

Vanity Fail

Look past their funky threads and outlandish hairdos. China's alienated young migrants are here to stay. 

On Nov. 5, a Chinese blogger posted three photos of a young man in spiky hair for his 1.6 million followers on Sina Weibo, China's Twitter. "Caught a live shamate on the street today," he wrote gleefully, adding that their hairstyles "look like the molecular structure of some virus." Meanwhile, a music video called "Shamate Meets Wash-Cut-Blowdry," a reference to the group's often-maligned hairstyles, featuring leggy girls gyrating to the tune of Korean pop-singer Psy's song "Gentleman," has received more than 2.4 million views on Youku, China's YouTube. (Predictably, comments to the video poked fun.) These shamate are the young migrants lost in China's great urbanization push, a subculture whose numbers are unknown, but surely growing.

To hip Chinese sensibilities, shamate -- named after a deliberately nonsensical transliteration of the English word "smart" -- are anything but. Baidu Baike, China's Wikipedia, describes a shamate as a young urban migrant from one of the tens of thousands of podunk towns scattered across China. These men and women are in their late teens or early 20s, often with middle-school educations and few marketable skills, working low-paying jobs in the big cities, like a barber, security guard, deliveryman, or waitress.

A shamate's single most distinguishing (and derided) feature is his or her exaggerated hairstyle: curly perms, shaggy blow-outs, or spiky do's, all held together with considerable abuse of hair coloring or wax. Clothing bought from a street market, some body piercing, and an off-brand cell phone often completes the look. Shamates usually linger in the social purgatory of small hair salons, smoky Internet cafes, or street market stalls in China's big cities, not quite fitting into the world of shiny office buildings and expensive department stores that surrounds them.  

Shamate's outré fashion choices reflect something much deeper: collective alienation, a byproduct of China's massive urban migration push and the country's widening class divide. While roughly half of China's 1.4 billion people live in cities, the consultancy McKinsey projects the number of urban residents to grow by more than 350 million in 2025; more than 240 million of those new additions will be migrants.

Following the Third Plenum, the latest Communist Party conclave, Chinese leaders indicated plans to address the enormous pressure such mass movement is expected to place on public services. But policy measures are unlikely to end the acute social displacement urban migrants experience. Unlike diaosi, Internet slang that roughly means "loser" but which China's middle class has re-appropriated as a self-deprecating joke, shamate is still an insult. The shamate fashion sense is not considered avant-garde or hipster, but rather cheap and kitsch, a sartorial representation of the group's awkward lives on the fringes of China's cities.

Of course, it's nothing new for a subculture to shock the general public with its unconventional fashion sense -- think Goths in the United States or Shibuya girls in Japan. Indeed, the shamate trend reportedly began as early as 1999 as a half-baked imitation of unorthodox getups donned by certain Japanese youth. But shamates face special challenges in China. Not only is conformity expected and education highly prized, but young migrants in cities are less likely to have the parental supervision or community support that would enable them to exit the underclass. That's partly why China's urban yuppies and educated elite -- overrepresented in popular micro-blogging platforms like Sina Weibo, film and book discussion communities like Douban, and social networks like Renren -- feel safe in mercilessly mocking shamate. 

In one viral blog post, a writer with the web handle Evil Cat Y describes spending a year "undercover" as a shamate. The post depicts a "highly organized" coterie where longtime members are given titles like "technology director" or "CEO." Serious shamate often try to outdo each other with thick makeup that might resemble a U.S. punk rocker, living by their noms de guerre like Ghost Monster or Leftover Tears. According to Evil Cat Y, women outnumber men, and often look for mates in online shamate groups.

The shamate phenomenon has grown large enough that its boundaries have blurred. For some members of the subculture, being a shamate is a part-time gig, an eccentric skin that can be willingly shed for job interviews or other formal occasions. But most casual observers are unlikely to make the fine distinction between a consummate shamate like Ghost Monster and a delivery boy with dyed hair -- they are both called shamate because they are both young migrants perceived to occupy a low rung on the social ladder.

The end result of this cumulative disdain is the widespread online shunning and jeering of shamate, remarkable in a country where Internet life has traditionally provided a haven for outcasts. Evil Cat Y observed that, because of cyber-bullying, serious shamate have "retreated" from China's major online communities to QQ Space, a social networking site comprising private groups popular in small cities, and have even imposed waiting periods or approval processes before admitting new members in order to sniff out harassers. As a result of their mockery and resultant seclusion, Shamate have become a silent group in China's normally noisy Internet discourse.

As China continues its relentless urbanization, alienation and displacement will continue to plague its growing migrant population. If these big-city migrants further disengage from mainstream society -- or fail to find meaningful ways to integrate -- the shamates' spiky hair and body piercings may no longer be a laughing matter to their neighbors. 

Fair Use/Shangdu.com