The vulgarity of the posts cannot be reproduced here. Horton was dismissed as a loser, while questions were raised about his sexual and mental competence. Commenters also suggested that Horton be assaulted by a dog and nearly unanimously expressed wishes that he would die soon — as one commenter added, the sooner the better.
This moment would seem to be an ideal time for China’s censors to step in and stem the flow of vitriol. Yet rather than cracking down, the official media gleefully joined in the Horton pile-on. The reliably provocative state-run Global Times called Australia an ‘offshore prison’ existing ‘on the fringes of civilisation’, adding that ‘no one should be surprised at uncivilised acts (such as Horton’s) emanating from the country’.
Earlier, the People’s Daily website had also run a commentary celebrating the ‘little pinks’ (xiao fenhong) who reportedly led the crude assaults on Horton. ‘Little pinks’ are reportedly a majority female online community of millions of vocal nationalists who harness the power of social media to defend the state. ‘A cultural phenomenon like the little pinks is intertwined with the nourishment provided by our national internet environment’, this commentary revealingly read.
‘On the one hand, thanks to the rapid development of our internet industry, it is becoming ever more convenient for young people to get online. On the other hand, thanks to the state’s elimination of unhealthy negative information, our online space is becoming more clear and bright. This provides an ideal environment for the growth of little pinks’.
Such an idealised nourishing online environment, cleared of all unhealthy trends, could not seem further from the malicious comments seen on Mack Horton’s social media pages. Yet this official narrative alerts us to a rarely recognised reality of China’s internet censorship regime.
We are all too familiar with cases of internet users imprisoned for eminently reasonable proposals for political change. But the average internet commentator in China is able to get away with saying almost anything, no matter how horrific, so long as one’s comments accord with the ultimate form of political correctness: nationalism. Hard leftist online forums, for example, regularly feature calls for violence against public figures labelled as ‘traitors’. While comments from these ‘traitors’ are regularly censored as unhealthy, incitements to violence against them remain distressingly unscathed.
This is the catch-22 of seeking socio-political stability through nationalism: it is inherently an unstable ideology. Certainly on the surface, nationalism can be a stabilising value that places faith in the Chinese Communist Party leadership as the wise guides toward the goal of national revitalisation.
Yet nationalism is always far more than submission to powerful leaders. It is also a highly affective phenomenon, mapping out insiders and outsiders, enemies and friends, the twists and turns of which are reliably unpredictable. A state that relies upon nationalism for stability is making use of a fundamentally unstable ideology. And a state that relies upon nationalism for legitimation also opens itself up to de-legitimation as ‘not nationalist enough’.
The issues emerging in China’s political future from this catch-22 are even more complicated. The Chinese Communist Party has been employing nationalist ideology for decades. This ideology has successfully convinced many of its constituents that a transition to democratic governance is a Western conspiracy aiming to curb the country’s otherwise unstoppable rise on the global stage under the Party’s sagely guidance.
However, by cultivating generations of xenophobic nationalists as the core of public opinion, the Party has in fact made the prospect of sudden democratisation a scary thought. A government that actively responds to and is guided by sentiments of the type we saw in the Mack Horton affair is potentially even more disconcerting than the current regime.
Examining this paradox of nationalism in China today, it becomes apparent that any future political change must start from cultural change. This would allow for a wider and considerably more open airing of viewpoints beyond the current politically correct, nationalist perspective. But such cultural change remains highly unlikely so long as a party that relies upon nationalist ideology for legitimation remains in power.
The world’s second largest economy remains in the thrall of increasingly frequent moments of nationalist conflict, as we saw in the Mack Horton controversy and a number of other moments of nationalist discord in recent months. The reliance upon nationalist thought has not only placed the country’s social and political development in a deadlock, but has also placed China’s neighbours and fellow states in a nationalist catch-22 beyond any clear resolution.
Kevin Carrico is a Lecturer of Chinese studies at the Department of International Studies at Macquarie University.