Journalism Becomes a Victim of China’s New Nationalism

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By William Nee

After a half a century, very few Chinese people have reconsidered the correctness of this war, just like back then the company of soldiers didn’t doubt the ‘wise policy decisions’ of their superiors.”

On October 6, investigative journalist Luo Changping made this comment on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like service, when discussing the historical circumstances depicted in a new Chinese blockbuster, The Battle at Lake Changjin. The film, which was commissioned by the China Film Administration, the Central Military Commission, and Communist Party propaganda departments, portrays the actions — depicted of course, as noble sacrifices — of People’s Liberation Army soldiers in the Korean War. The titular battle was one of the first in which the Chinese side fought against American and U.N. troops after entering the war. It has been a huge commercial success, garnering $633 million in its first week and a half at the Chinese box office.

The Chinese authorities have since detained Luo, a popular online celebrity with 2 million followers, merely for his comments. To the Chinese government, his offense was deepened by his wordplay. Instead of using the term “company of frozen ice sculptures” (bingdiao-lian) to describe the soldiers who froze to death in the battle (which took place in freezing-cold temperatures) as looking like ice sculptures, he used “company of sand sculptures” (shadiao-lian). In China, the term “sand sculptures (shadiao) has taken on the Internet-slang meaning of “foolish person” or “idiot.”

On one level, this is yet another example of the Chinese government’s egregiously violating the right to freedom of expression. But on another level, it provides an ominous clue into how the Chinese Communist Party controls history and may use the new criminal charge of “infringing upon the reputation and honor of heroes and martyrs,” which was added to the Criminal Law only earlier this year, to silence uncomfortable questions about its increasingly militaristic foreign policy.

Under the heavy pressure of a nationalistic backlash, Luo issued an apology on October 7. But that was not good enough. By October 8, Chinese police announced that they had criminally detained Luo on the charge of “infringing upon the reputation and honor of heroes and martyrs.” He was formally arrested on the same charge on October 22.

Chinese state media and government platforms also unleashed a torrent of criticism of Luo’s comments. They were denounced on the national TV network, CCTV; in the PLA’s main newspaper; on the Communist Youth League’s platform; and in other outlets. And as some Chinese commentators have noted, no one was willing to speak up for Luo in an atmosphere of nationalistic denunciations.

The criminal detention of Luo Changping is a blatant violation of freedom of expression. The Chinese Constitution guarantees freedom of speech. The type of speech Luo issued is also expressly protected under international laws and standards, which deem such speech questioning the legitimacy of war efforts as protected. U.N. experts on freedom of expression have noted that this right protects speech that can “shock” or “offend” some. Criticism of one’s own country can seem “offensive.” But, after the horrors of World War II, international law has sought to create space for citizens to criticize war efforts in the face of a wave of pro-war propaganda.

But the controversy over these comments also reflects how General Secretary Xi Jinping’s China aims to control the political situation through controlling the historical narrative. One commentary on the popular portal Tencent denounced Luo as engaging in “historical nihilism,” a term Xi has coined to denounce criticism of the Communist Party’s history.

The framing of “historical nihilism” is mainly about politics and power, as even Xi Jinping himself has made very clear. Xi famously stated:

Recently domestic and foreign hostile forces have often written falsely about China’s revolutionary history and New China’s history, doing their utmost to attack, defame, and slander it, with the ultimate aim of causing confusion in people’s hearts, inciting the overthrow of the Communist Party leadership and Our Country’s Socialist System. . . . Think back: Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate? Why did the Communist Party of the Soviet Union collapse? A major reason is the wholesale denial of Soviet history, of Soviet Communist history, a denial of Lenin, denial of Stalin, committing historical nihilism — and confusing [people’s] thoughts.

Once you understand this mindset, one that sees historical issues as important political problems, you shouldn’t be surprised that criticism of the “wise policy decisions” of past leaders — most likely meaning Communist leader Mao Zedong — would result in such a furious backlash.

But just as importantly, the Luo Changping case shows how the Chinese government may use the newly created crime of “infringing upon the reputation and honor of heroes and martyrs” to control public opinion during times of nationalistic fervor. With the U.S.–China rivalry heating up, it’s notable that the Central Military Commission, led by Xi Jinping, decided to make a nationalistic blockbuster about the Korean War, which is still referred to in China as “Resisting America and Assisting Korea.”

To some extent, the movie helps perpetuate a nationalist fervor that is hostile to the United States and ready to accept the patriotic sacrifices of war. As Xi Jinping consolidates power and digs in his heels for conflict with the U.S., and as China expands its military footprint to the South China Sea, Bhutan, India, Central Asia, and Africa, and threatens Taiwan, the government appears keen to silence any dovish voices in public opinion who indirectly call for the “correctness” of war to be “reconsidered,” or who question the “wise policy decisions” of leaders.

Even though the crime of “infringing upon the reputation and honor of heroes and martyrs” was incorporated into the Criminal Law only on March 1, it was being used for nationalistic ends even before Luo’s arrest. In the first reported sentencing under the new crime, on May 31, Qiu Ziming, a popular Internet commentator (or “Big V”) in China, with 2.5 million followers, was sentenced to eight months in prison after he made comments online in February regarding a border skirmish China had with India in June 2020. After the deadly clash, China concealed its casualty numbers for months, finally stating in February that its death toll was five. Qiu Ziming questioned the death toll and speculated that it may have been higher.

Like the Luo case, what happened to Qiu Ziming shows how the Chinese government has tried to criminalize opinions unsupportive of its military endeavors to foster an atmosphere of nationalistic jingoism. The new criminal charge of “infringing upon the reputation and honor of heroes and martyrs” builds on the 2018-enacted People’s Republic of China Law on Protection of Heroes and Martyrs, which sought to punish those who “distort, disparage, discredit or deny the deeds and spirit of heroes and martyrs,” according to Chinese state media. Qiu Ziming more directly questioned current events, while Luo Changping doubted the wisdom of China’s involvement in the Korean War. But by extension, he was casting doubt on senior leaders who decide the fates of countless lives — including those doing so today. Those leaders couldn’t allow such dissent.

It’s true that the very tight control of public opinion and swift gagging of voices for peace do not necessarily mean that the Chinese government will inevitably launch a new military conflict. However, it seems likely that there will be little space for Chinese citizens to question the government’s pro-war propaganda or the tragic consequences of war in the face of Xi Jinping’s own “wise decisions.”

William Nee is the research and advocacy coordinator at Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD), where he carries out research regarding a wide array of human-rights concerns affecting human-rights defenders in China.

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