In the early days of the 2016 US election campaign, Fang Kecheng, a former journalist at the liberal-leaning Chinese newspaper Southern Weekly and then a PhD student at the University of Pennsylvania, began fact-checking Donald Trump’s statements on refugees and Muslims on Chinese social media, hoping to provide additional context to the reporting of the presidential candidate back home in China. But his effort was quickly met with fierce criticism on the Chinese internet.
Some accused him of being a “white left” – a popular insult for idealistic, leftwing and western-oriented liberals; others labelled him a “virgin”, a “bleeding heart” and a “white lotus” – demeaning phrases that describe do-gooders who care about the underprivileged – as he tried to defend women’s rights.
“It was absurd,” Fang, now a journalism professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told the Observer. “When did caring for disadvantaged groups become the reason for being scolded? When did social Darwinism become so justified?”
Around the time of Trump’s election victory, he began to notice striking similarities between the “alt-right” community in America and a group of social media users posting on the Chinese internet.
“Like their counterparts in the English-speaking sphere, this small but growing community also rejects the liberal paradigm and identity-based rights – similar to what is called ‘alt-right’ in the US context,” Fang noted, adding that in the Chinese context, the discourse often comprises what he considers anti-feminist ideas, xenophobia, Islamophobia, racism and Han-ethnicity chauvinism.
Throughout the Trump presidency and immediately after the Brexit vote in 2016, researchers on both sides of the Atlantic began carefully studying the rise of the alt-right in English-speaking cyberspace. On the Chinese internet, a similar trend was taking place at the same time, with some observing that the Chinese online group would additionally often strike a nationalistic tone and call for state intervention.
In a recent paper that he co-authored with Tian Yang, a University of Pennsylvania colleague, Fang analysed nearly 30,000 alt-right posts on the Chinese internet. They discovered that the users share not only domestic alt-right posts, but also global ones. Many of the issues, they found, were brought in by US-based Chinese immigrants feeling disillusioned by the progressive agenda set by the American left.
Not all scholars are comfortable with the description “alt-right”. “I’m sceptical about applying categories lifted from US politics to the Chinese internet,” said Sebastian Veg of the School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences in Paris. “Many former ‘liberal’ intellectuals in China or from China are extremely critical of Black Lives Matter, the refugee crisis, political correctness, etc. They are hardly populists, but on the contrary, a regime-critical elite. Are they alt-right?”
Dylan Levi King, a Tokyo-based writer on the Chinese internet, first noticed this loosely defined group during the 2015 European migrant crisis. “Whether you call it populist nationalism or alt-right,” he said, “if you paid close attention to what they talked about back then, you find them borrowing similar talking points from the European ‘alt-right’ community, such as the phrase ‘the great replacement’, or the alleged ‘no-go zones’ for non-Muslims in European cities, which was also used by Fox News.”
Shortly after the migrant crisis broke out, Liu Zhongjing – a Chinese translator and commentator who built a name through his staunch anti-leftist and anti-progressive stance – was asked about his view on the way Germany handled it.
“A new kind of political correctness has taken shape in Germany, and many things can no longer be mentioned,” he observed. Liu also quoted Thilo Sarrazin, a controversial figure who some say is the “flag-bearer for Germany’s far-right” in supporting his argument.
On 20 June 2017, when the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees posted about the plight of the displaced people on Weibo on World Refugee Day with the hashtag #StandWithRefugees, thousands of internet users overwhelmed its account with negative comments.
The UNHCR’s goodwill ambassador – Chinese actress Yao Chen – had to clarify that she had no intention of suggesting that China should take part in accepting refugees.
In the same year, another post appeared on popular social media site Zhihu, with the headline “Sweden: the capital of sexual assault in Europe”. “But,” author Wu Yuting wrote, “the cruel reality is that, with the large number of Muslims flocking into Sweden, they also brought in Islam’s repression and damage against women, and destroyed gender equality in Swedish society.”
Islamophobia is the main topic among China’s alt-right, Fang and Yang’s research found.
“By framing the policies as biased, they interpreted them as a source of inequality and intended to trigger resentment by presenting Han as victims in their narrative,” Fang said. “They portrayed a confrontational relationship between Han – the dominant ethnic group in China – and other ethnic minorities, especially the two Muslim minorities – the Hui and the Uyghurs.” He added: “It’s exactly the same logic and mainstream narrative deployed in the alt-right in the US: poor working-class white men being taken advantage of by immigrants and by minorities.”
Other researchers went a step further. In a 2019 paper, Zhang Chenchen of Queen’s University Belfast, analysed 1,038 Chinese social media posts and concluded that by criticising western “liberal elites”, the rightwing discourse on the Chinese internet constructed the ethno-racial identity against the “inferior” of non-Western other.
This is “exemplified by non-white immigrants and Muslims, with racial nationalism on the one hand; and formulates China’s political identity against the ‘declining Western other with realist authoritarianism on the other,” she wrote.
Anti-feminism is another issue frequently discussed by the Chinese online alt-right. Last December, 29-year-old Chinese standup comedian Yang Li faced a backlash after a question she posed in her show. “Do men have the bottom line?” she quipped.
The line brought laughter from her live audience, but anger among many on the internet. Although Yang does not publicly identify herself as a feminist, many accused her of adopting a feminist agenda, with some calling her “feminist militant” and “female boxer”, “in an attempt to gain more privilege over men,” one critic said. “Feminist bitch,” another scolded.
And in April, Xiao Meili, a well-known Chinese feminist activist, received a slew of abuse after she posted online a video of a man throwing hot liquid at her after she asked him to stop smoking. Some of the messages called her and others – without credible evidence – “anti-China” and “foreign forces”. Others said: “I hope you die, bitch”, or “Little bitch, screw the feminists”.
“When the Xiao Meili incident happened, a lot of feminists were being trolled, including myself,” said one of the artists who later collected more than 1,000 of the abusive messages posted to feminists and feminist groups and turned them into a piece of artwork. “We wanted to make the trolling words into something that could be seen, touched, to materialise the trolling comments and amplify the abuse of what happens to people online,” she said.
Xiao blamed social media companies for not doing enough to stop such vitriol, even though China has the world’s most sophisticated internet filtering system. “Weibo is the biggest enabler,” she told a US-based website in April. “It treats the incels as if they are the royal family.”
But Michel Hockx, director of the Liu institute for Asia and Asian studies at the US’s University of Notre Dame, thinks this is because such speeches do not threaten the government. “They don’t necessarily challenge the ruling party and spill over to collective action,” he said, “so there’s less of an incentive for social media companies to remove them. They are not told to do so by the authorities.”
King says that Chinese state censors also walk a fine line in monitoring such content: “The ‘alt-right’ tend to be broadly supportive of the Communist party line on most things. They do see China as a bulwark against the corrosive power of western liberalism.”
But their online rhetoric has offline consequences, he cautioned: “Things like ethnic resentment are something just below the surface, which can’t be allowed to fester. When it explodes, it’s very ugly.”