Chinese Nationalist ‘Hawks’ Form Online Volunteer Army Against ‘Enemy Forces’

A profile picture of online voluntary army.

A profile picture of Dai Xu online voluntary army.

The scene is familiar: groups of commentators stirring up the sphere of public opinions into hustle and bustle on China's Internet. By insulting individuals and distorting facts to further provoke conflicting opinions, these groups have forged a battlefield, pushing netizens into squabbles online, or even arranging scuffles offline.

These types of Internet commentators often appear as “online youth civilization volunteers,” backed by the government-affiliated Central Communist Youth League, the 50 Cent Party (Wumaodang) or independent supporters of the government known as “ziganwu.”

On Weibo, the online civilization volunteers and wumaodang keep a relatively low profile—their names and profile images usually look just like those of ordinary netizens.

But a new force, the “Chinese online volunteer army” staffed by members of a nationalist right-wing network group, is now springing up. The volunteer army, organized in the manner of a military division, was initiated by the followers of Dai Xu, a Chinese army senior colonel who has advocated for a self-organized liberation army to beat down foreign enemy forces online. Each division of the group has its own social media account marked with scarlet national flags and propaganda slogans on its profile pages. It even has its own anthem.

This volunteer army positions itself as the force defending national interests and China’s dream, a concept invented by China’s president Xi Jinping in 2012. Its mission statement says:

【中国网络义勇军宗旨】支持习主席,助力中国梦。捍卫国家利益,弘扬爱国主义,聚合正义力量,打击第五纵队是网络义勇军的宗旨和目标。目前,网络义勇军已经有多支主力队伍,戴旭网络义勇军各师、义勇军后援团、华夏主攻团、网络义勇军先锋团、新上甘岭志愿军等。

[The mission of Chinese online volunteer army] The mission and objective of the online volunteer army is to support Chairman Xi, Realize China's dream. Defend national interests, promote nationalism, assemble positive energy, beat down the fifth column [spies and traitors of imperialist forces]. Currently, the online volunteer army is composed of several divisions: Dai Xu online volunteer army and its divisions, back-up division, Hua Xia attack division, Pioneer division, new Triangle Hill volunteer army [Triangle Hill is a major battle site during the Korean war against the U.S military forces in the 1950s].

The hawk

Dai, a retired colonel and a commentator for the state-run tabloid Global Times, is known for his hawkish views on Chinese foreign and military policies. He has no known involvement with the volunteer army, but has expressed approval of their activities.

In June’s interview, Dai sounded the alarm about “western hostile forces” infiltrating and westernizing Chinese ideology, as the following excerpt says:

美国的“战略先遣队”在其总部的统一指挥下,有的渗入中国高级智囊机构,误导中国政策的顶层设计,让中国经济沿着低技术的畸形道路发展,以避免对美国的高技术战略构成挑战,目的是让中国成为西方的经济殖民地;有的打入中国各高校和学术研究机构,以资助研究为名,对中国的一些学者进行“洗脑”,然后通过这些学者发表各种反共、反华的不良言论。其中,法学界和政治学界、历史学界等领域是他们渗透的重点;有的进入互联网领域,借助外资短期内控制大型商业门户网站,利用网络传媒和新媒体平台大肆散布历史虚无主义错误思潮,误导社会民众;更有甚者,已成功渗入中国的主流媒体和国家机关,暗中做着损中利“西”的无耻勾当。

Lead by their headquarters, some “US strategic advance divisions” have infiltrated leading Chinese think tanks that mislead the top design of Chinese strategies, and divert Chinese economic development into being dependent on backward technologies, to ward off the Chinese challenge to US high technology sector. They [strategic divisions] aim to make China a western economic colony. Some [of the strategic divisions] have sneaked into colleges and research institutions, under the guise of supporting research, to brainwash some scholars who support “anti-communism and anti-China” views. Their infiltration focuses on the spheres of law, politics and history. To mislead people, they use foreign capital to control commercial Internet portals, and spread the wrongful trend of historical nihilism by using online and new media. Some [of the strategic divisions] have even successfully penetrated into Chinese mainstream media and government agencies, and have been doing sinister business that damages Chinese interests and favors the western world.

Hu Xijing, the chief editor of Global Times and a well-known nationalist figure, expressed his support for Dai back in 2013:

戴旭是中国军人学者中的著名“鹰派”。我在很多时候都不同意他的观点,但我觉得,中国舆论场上应当能容得下几只“鹰”。

Dai is a famous Hawk amid Chinese military scholars. Most of the time I disagree with his opinions, but I feel China’s public sphere sorely needs a few such “hawks.”

The rise of the volunteer army

Despite the fact that Dai’s conspiracy theories usually call for concrete and trustworthy factual support, his political rhetoric caters to the steady rise of nationalism and is now taking shape in the form of the self-organized volunteer army online.

Dai explained why he supports the online volunteer army in an article last July:

今天,一些西方国家借助网络优势,不断在世界上制造颜色革命,将世界局势搅得动荡不安。习近平指出,意识形态斗争极端重要。……中国共产党在抗战中“严厉除奸”加强统一战线,重塑英雄主义和爱国主义,让义勇军精神穿越时空,激扬于当今网络时代。

Today, some western countries use the Internet and its advantages to instigate color revolutions, stirring up chaos throughout the world. Xi pointed out that the struggle for ideology is extremely important… During the anti-Japanese war, China’s Communist Party “harshly purged spies” to strengthen the unified front in the battle. [Today we] restore heroism and patriotism, leading the spirit of the volunteer army through time and space and reigniting it in today’s cyber era.

In fact, Dai Xu Online Volunteer Army, the largest division of the Chinese Online Volunteer Army, was the group's earliest initiator. Members of the Online Volunteer Army division named after Dai explained how it was formed in a Weibo post:

“网络义勇军”一词是由戴旭对应“捍卫网络上甘岭”所提出的,对网络上自发反击敌对势力的爱国网民的统称,是在戴院长的感召下自发形成的。以“戴旭”命名是表达广大网络义勇军对戴院长的敬爱与支持,并非戴旭本人发起。无特定组织形式,仅为了便于团结和号召更多的爱国者一同加入捍卫国家利益的行列。

To defend the “online Triangle Hill,” Dai advocates the formation of “the online volunteer army,” which stands for the patriotic netizens who were inspired by Dai and self-organized to engage in online battles against hostile forces. The army was not initiated by Dai but is named after him to express our respect. [We] do not gather in a specific form, our intention is to unite and call on more patriots to defend national interests.

Online battles

Celebrities who express their opinion on Weibo, China’s largest Twitter-like platform, often become targets of the volunteer army's attacks.

Ren Zhiqiang, a real-estate tycoon and a member of the Communist Party, nicknamed “huge cannon,” is a recent target of the army's activities. Last September, Ren rebuked the Communist Youth League's idealization of communism by recalling his sufferings during the Cultural Revolution.

A few days later, an article by Yi Guoming titled “Being Aware of Ren Zhiqiang’s Sophistry” condemned Ren for garbling the concept of communism and advocating for western democracy. The volunteer online army then started a round of attacks on Ren by sharing the article online and echoing the author’s views.

The group also deviates from the official Chinese government and Communist Party line, which stresses the importance of civilized online behavior. The volunteer army even defends online trolls, like Hou Jusen, the infamous member of “online civilization volunteers,” who picked quarrels online and engaged in street fights in the name of patriotism:

国家有戴院长这样的军人,有候聚森这样的青年学生,有捍卫网络上甘岭的网络义勇军,国家一定会强大,让我们铭记国耻,奋发图强!

The state, which has an official like director Dai, a youth student like Hou Jusen, and the online volunteer army defending the online Triangle Hill, must be powerful. Let’s always remember national stigmas and struggle for a stronger country!

With statements like these, the volunteer army advocates patriotism online— by distorting opinions, smearing netizens or even supporting violence, and mostly disregarding laws. For some, it has created a kind of safe space and asylum for mobsters and thugs.

Pointing to the clamor created by Dai and the voluntary army, a Weibo user argued:

戴旭和这群网络渣子所谓的爱国就是围攻谩骂对不公平和腐败现状不满,对政府提出批评的人,这群垃圾什么都不做只对体制阿谀奉承,是真汉奸。

The so-called patriotism Dai and online thugs claimed is to besiege and insult the people who criticized the government for today’s injustice and corruption. These thugs, who did nothing but flatter the system [of state], are indeed traitors.

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