Right-wing Populist Discourse on Chinese Social Media: Identity, Otherness, and Global Imaginaries

Chenchen Zhang

Social Science Research Network. January 2019 [Link]


The past few years have seen the emergence of a right-wing populist discourse on Chinese social media that combines the claims, vocabulary, and style of right-wing populisms in Europe and North America with previous forms of nationalism and racism in Chinese cyberspace. In other words, it provokes a similar hostility towards immigrants, Muslims, feminism, the so-called ‘liberal elites’, and progressive values in general. This article examines how, in debating global political events such as the European refugee crisis and the American presidential election, well-educated and well-informed Chinese internet users appropriate the rhetoric of ‘Western-style’ right-wing populism to paradoxically criticise Western hegemony and discursively construct China’s ethno-racial and political identities. Through qualitative analysis of 1,038 postings retrieved from a popular social media website, this research shows that by criticising Western ‘liberal elites’, the discourse constructs China’s ethno-racial identity against the ‘inferior’ non-Western other, exemplified by non-white immigrants and Muslims, with racial nationalism on one hand; and formulates China’s political identity against the ‘declining’ Western other with realist authoritarianism on the other. We conclude by conceptualising the discourse as embodying the logics of anti-Western Eurocentrism and anti-hegemonic hegemonies. This article 1) provides critical insights into the changing ways in which self/other relations are imagined in Chinese popular geopolitical discourse; 2) sheds light on the global circulation of extremist discourses facilitated by the internet; and 3) contributes to the ongoing debate on populism and the ‘crisis’ of the liberal world order.

This project receives funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Grant Agreement No 722826.