Cute Bunnies and Internet Gimmicks Are All Part of Plan to Make Chinese Youth More Patriotic
"Long live China; boycott US goods; China will never give up its land!"
A fuse was set off last summer when an international tribunal ruled against China over contested territory in the South China Seas, sparking a backlash that quickly grew out of control. As protesters targeted KFC restaurants all over China, the chaos was best epitomized by one protest in Tengzhou that involved a group of chanting elementary school students.
And that's where the line was crossed. China's media criticized the backlash as "irrational protests" while the Tengzhou story was debunked, showing that rumors are sometimes too fantastic to be believed. After all, how could nationalism begin as such an early age? Where would Chinese children get such ideas?
The answer, it appears, is the modern age equivalent of yesterday's babysitter and wise older brother: the internet.
Online cartoons and videos are specifically targeting Chinese youth with content that encourages patriotic and nationalist feelings. And the frontline to win over the hearts and minds of the Middle Kingdom also happens to be the cutting edge of the country's youth trends.
Bilibili is a Chinese video-sharing platform that caters to a younger demographic with a library full of cartoons and gags. But Bilibili is probably best known for its "bullet screen" feature in which comments submitted by users are superimprosed directly over the video content, shooting across the screen as though they were fired by a gun (shown above). Originating from Japan, bullet screen has become so popular with the Chinese youth that movie theaters began offering this feature two years ago.
But besides the stylized fashions and violence of Japanese anime, the youthful audience of Bilibili have demonstrated an appetite for videos that glorify their motherland. And Bilibili's boss wants to give it to them.
Bilibili CEO Chen Rui thinks that many of China's youth are "very patriotic."
"They lived a good life, they are well educated and sincerely think they live in a good country and love our country dearly," said Chen.
This patriotism is on display with one of Bilibili's most popular video series, The Chronicle of the Rabbit (那年那兔那些事). This animated cartoon about Revolution-Era China depicts Communist soliders as doe-eyed rabbits, Japanese imperialists as squawking mustache-toting chickens, and US soldiers as hawkish eagles.
But whereas some elements of The Chronicle of the Rabbit have been symbolized, other parts to the animated series are literal recreations. The Chronicle of the Rabbit uses content from the propaganda films of China's yesteryear and updates it as cartoons, making it more appealing for appreciative Chinese millennials.
As seen in the video, many scenes are depicted twice – once with human actors and another using cartoon characters –thereby embuing familiar historical events with new emotional associations:
"I cried a river over the episode about China during the Korean War (1950-53). Although it was only eight minutes long, it was so moving," said 25-year-old political science student Sunny.
"There's a lot in our history that is worth exploring, but many people, including myself, know little about it."
The animated series re-imagines the end of WWII with Communist China and Kuomingtang forces (depicted here as a round-headed bald child) ganging up on Japan (the yellow chicken) until the US drops an expressive atomic bomb:
The concept of using online videos to educate young Chinese about their history while instilling them with a sense of purpose is commonly seen in a number of patriotic videos on Bilibili, especially on the channel belonging to the Central Committee of the China Communist Youth League (CCYL).
One video featured on the CCYL Bilibili channel concerns China's relationship with its World War II counterpart, Japan. Beginning with historical footage and facts regarding Japan's brutal invasion, the video tells the viewer "China will never be slaves!" before moving on to current Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has been dismissive of Japan's WWII acts. The video ends by imploring the viewer to accept their responsibility to continue the "fight," which they gladly accept.
The comment "China will never be slaves" is seen blasting across the screen numerous times as is the comment "Never forget our national shame!" One netizen rationalized his online behavior by saying, "I watch Japanese anime, but it doesn't influence my disgust for their country."
Bilibili viewers are also schooled in patriotism in a video about the 2015 Beijing military parade. Animated using South Park-style and incorporating numerous internet memes, the video tells the viewer to be proud of the massive show of force because military parades are normal, citing a 4,000-year-old ceremony back before the establishment of the Xia Dynasty.
The video makes a point of bringing up counter arguments. In regards to the criticism that military parades are "corrupt customs of monarchs of old continents and a sign of beligerance," the video counters by showing a warplane dropping bombs of "freedom," "democracy," and "peace," insisting that these non-military parade-hosting countries "do things we don't want to see." The video also quotes the Art of War in explaining that a large military is necessary as a deterrant, explaining that "The realization of peace through subduing the enemy without fighting is indeed the best policy of all."
Borrowing the imagery of The Chronicle of the Rabbit, the video shows a yellow chicken representing Japan trembling in fear after a diminutive rabbit representing China "Hulks-out" and grows to enormous size, much to the delight of an applauding crowd:
The patriotic message of the military parade was well received by 23-year-old teacher Atang who told the Global Times she "cried the entire time she was browsering the Sina Weibo posts of that day."
But demonstrating a love for China isn't the only kind of love on display at Bilibili. The video series My Life, My China features a line up of high profile Chinese Communist Party members who explain to young Bilibili viewers why the CCP is "cool."
Xinhua editor Luo Jin tells the viewer the CCP "has the openness, the tolerance, to allow young people to play their role, to make changes," while SETV host Ye Qinglin simplifies the CCP as "a group of people who share the same aspiration: that is to make everyone's lives better."
The video isn't afraid to take on criticisms. After denying they have been brainwashed, CGTN anchor Ma Zechen answers his own question "Why is there only one ruling party? This is strange!" with: "I think you are the strange one. A group of people are leading us forward. How is that a bad thing?"
This open call for rationality has been heeded by Chinese youth who love their county, but only if done properly.
Unlike the KFC protesters from last year, Sunny describes herself as a "rational patriot" who "(does) her own job, and never meddle with things and cause trouble for the country and the society."
Atang feels the same way, saying: "I don't think being patriotic means saying slogans, or writing articles admiring the country. Instead, it's about the tears that well up when seeing the national flag, the unity of the people in face of disasters, and a simple 'it's so great to be Chinese' after experiencing everything."
As national pride moves from the streets to the bullet screen of Bilibili, it's clear that China wants a higher caliber of patriotism; that it grows from the barrel of a gun must be some kind of coincidence.
More stories from this author here.