For years the Chinese government has used its grip over the media to tell its people that the South China Sea historically and rightfully belongs to it and that the US is behind a plot to undermine that.
So earlier this month, when an international tribunal in The Hague determined that China had unequivocally been violating the sovereignty of neighboring nations with its self-proclaimed nine-dash line in the South China Sea, Chinese people were outraged. They were conditioned for it.
And in their condition, they have started exercising their anger on the American things they can touch: American brands.
Smashing iPhones has become one of the more popular ways for people to display their disgust.
“During the altercation, the attacker also accused the Nike-shoed man of being a spy and selling out the Chinese people to foreign interests. A bystander carrying a Nike bag was quick to get out of the way.
“Curiously, nobody on the subway attempted to stop the fight and mediate the situation.”
Over at The New York Times, the word is that KFC has also become a major target for anti-American protests:
“The first sign of the KFC campaign was a banner unfurled on Sunday outside an outlet in the northern province of Hebei. ‘Boycott the US, Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines. Love the Chinese people,’ the banner read. ‘What you eat is KFC. What is lost is the face of our ancestors.”
— China Business Watch (@ChinaBizWatch) July 18, 2016
The Chinese government has been as defiant as its people.
“Chinese President Xi Jinping said China will not accept any proposition or action based on the decision Tuesday by the South China Sea arbitrary tribunal,” the state media outlet Xinhua News reported after the ruling.
“Xi said the South China Sea Islands have been China’s territory since ancient times. China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime interests in South China Sea, in any circumstances, will not be affected by the award.”
The Chinese government has called for order through its state-controlled media, but it hasn’t denounced the protesters’ sentiments by any means.
“Any action that promotes national development can rightfully be called patriotic,” People’s Daily expressed in an op-ed article. “But so-called patriotism that willfully sacrifices public order will only bring damage to the nation and society.”
Still, People’s Daily said:
“In the farce of the South China Sea arbitration, we take a tit-for-tat approach, but still hold the moral high ground. We have passion and rationality in equal measure. The government and society voice the same staunch position, based on reason and evidence. Together, this provides a foundation on which China can build a new type of patriotism.”
This kind of language is important because it attacks something intangible that the US has been working on in China since the 1970s: soft power.
US products and brands are the physical manifestation of Western ideas exported to distant places. Chinese President Xi Jinping has throughout his presidency been hard at work discrediting Western ideas and replacing them with this “new kind of patriotism” that People’s Daily was talking about.
This goes for education and scholarship at all levels, where Western ideas are getting pushed out.
“Think tanks should stick to Marxist ideology, follow the CPC’s leadership, and provide intellectual support to help rejuvenate the nation,” a report by Xinhua said back in January 2015.
In a memo called “Cybersovereignty Symbolizes National Sovereignty,” the Chinese army, the People’s Liberation Army, declared war on Western ideas on the internet (emphasis ours):
“Western hostile forces and a small number of ‘ideological traitors’ in our country use the network, and relying on computers, mobile phones, and other such information terminals, maliciously attack our Party, blacken the leaders who founded the New China, vilify our heroes, and arouse mistaken thinking trends of historical nihilism, with the ultimate goal of using ‘universal values’ to mislead us, using ‘constitutional democracy’ to throw us into turmoil, use ‘color revolutions’ to overthrow us, use negative public opinion and rumors to oppose us, and use ‘de-partification and depoliticization of the military’ to upset us.”
So go ahead people – stay angry. Just try not to break anything too valuable.