With her reassuring smile, Chinese blogger Guyanmuchan makes a friendly figure on Weibo.
The young woman has a devoted following of 6.4 million fans on the Chinese Twitter-like platform, where she posts footage and videos on the news.
But her brand’s cute aesthetic – her page features a dreamy image of a girl posing in the woods – belies her often acid tone.
The European Union is “on a leash” for America, according to a recent post. The rise in Covid rates in the US state of Texas was evidence of a “civil war” in which “Americans are currently killing each other with biological warfare,” said another.
Guyanmuchan is part of a new group of bloggers known as “ziganwu”, whose rise to fame on Chinese social media has been inextricably linked to the rise of Chinese nationalism.
Their name refers to the infamous army of “wumao” trolls who are paid to spread state propaganda – but the difference is that the “ziganwu” do it for free.
Their ferocious posts and videos, shared by tens of thousands of fans, often criticize Western countries and the media. Issues such as feminism, human rights, multiculturalism, democracy were also examined which are considered to be the “corrupt” Western influence on Chinese society.
Even those who are seen as promoters of “separatism” such as pro-democracy activists from Taiwan and Hong Kong, as well as activists, intellectuals and experts, are often targeted.
Their goals included writer Fang Fang, known for its searing account of the early stages of the Wuhan epidemic that attracted international attention. In a post that went viral last year, blogger “ziganwu” Shangdizhiying accused her of “giving us the deepest stab in the back” and creating “one of the greatest weapons used by anti-Chinese forces to defame us” .
More recently, top medical expert Zhang Wenhong became a target after he seemed to suggest China should learn to live with Covid, as it contradicts official policy.
Several bloggers promptly retrieved an old thesis and accused him of plagiarism, a charge from which his university later cleared him. The suggestion that children should drink milk for breakfast was interpreted as a sign that he rejected traditional Chinese breakfast and its values. “Isn’t this too much worship of the West and flattering foreigners?” wrote Pingminwangxiaoshi.
Such posts, dozens of which can be posted every day, are often short and exciting, which is why they go viral, experts say.
“This is fast food nationalism,” says Chinese social media analyst Manya Koetse. “People eat a bite, share it and then forget it.”
Many see the rise of Chinese patriotic sentiment as a result of the growing tensions between China and the West, but that’s only half the story.
While nationalism is on the rise in many places in an increasingly globalized world, in China it has coincided with President Xi Jinping’s strong promotion of Chinese identity and the rapid ubiquity of social media.
Many of the “ziganwu” are “often young, raised with an education full of patriotism and pride of China, and have fueled these historical memories of national humiliation,” says Ms. Koetse. “So you have an explosive mix of anti-foreign and pro-Chinese sentiments with an emphasis on Chinese culture and identity.”
Their rise in importance is surprising given that China has also imposed ever stricter rules on online speech, resulting in heavy censorship of activists and ordinary citizens. “Sensitive” posts are regularly deleted from platforms such as Weibo and WeChat.
In stark contrast, rumors that tend to promote the Chinese government’s official line appear to have more freedom, observers say, and in some cases even amplified by state media republishing their content on social media or reprinting their essays.
It is not known whether these “ziganwu” have direct links to the state, but some have been invited to attend events or received honorary titles from provincial governments.
Guyanmuchan, whose real name is Shu Chang, first made his mark in 2014 with an essay titled “You Are a Chinese Person” that was widely circulated by the mainstream media. She has since appeared at a blogging event hosted by the Yantai City Government; held a conference organized by the state news agency Youth.cn; and was one of several bloggers named “Internet ambassadors” by Guangdong Province in July.
He did not respond to a request for comment from the BBC.
The “ziganwu” are only part of a complex ecosystem.
Much of the patriotic discourse in Chinese social media, especially Weibo, is still driven by state media which can shape discussions by creating and promoting a single hashtag, as they did during. the backlash of Xinjiang cotton.
But there are many small groups of influencers who also fuel the indignation machine, including digital artists, smaller media companies, respected college professors, and even foreign vloggers.
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of China internet regulation encourage users to actively promote party propaganda, so many of these influencers are simply leveraging this system, notes Harpre Ke, analyst at think-tank Doublethink Lab.
“You can be an opportunist. If I want to become a career social media influencer, that’s how I can become famous in this toxic nationalist environment that is being created,” he said.
While they may not get paid directly by the state, these influencers still benefit from having their profiles boosted in the national media and use this recognition to build their personal brands, analysts say.
With an increase in readership, they can earn significant amounts from advertising or paid content. Dr. Fang Kecheng, an academic of journalism and communications, estimates that a social media account with more than a million followers could earn the equivalent of a few hundred thousand dollars a year.
The state benefits in return. For example, by having “ziganwu” hold talks, the state “invites them to do their ideological work for them, so these bloggers become icons of success and role models. [of propaganda]”says Mr. Ke.
Social media platforms like Weibo and Wechat play a role by recommending and promoting posts that encourage loyalty to the Communist Party, says Dr. Fang, and will also reap commercial benefits. “It increases user engagement and activity, so it’s a great strategy for them,” he says.
But influencers follow a very fine line and have sometimes strayed too far in their fervor.
In recent months, some “ziganwu” posts have been deleted that hypothesized that Covid had leaked from a US laboratory and others that would have attacked Zhang Wenhong. A passionate essay calling for radical communist reforms went viral and was brought up by the state media, but then briefly censored following online controversy.
“Sometimes the rules of what you can and can’t say are very obscure,” says Ms. Koetse. “It can take just one post on Weibo to make these influencers disappear.
“They may be useful for official speech as long as their personal beliefs are in line with the official position, but when they are seen as no longer useful or perceived as against [the government’s] speech – they will go away. “
But many are ready to play this high-stakes game.
At the end of September, Guyanmuchan was suddenly banned from posting new content on his Weibo page for 15 days, with the platform claiming to have “violated community guidelines”.
He immediately promoted an old post directing readers to an alternate page, where he continued to post his daily torrent of jarring posts.
“I created this little account,” he wrote. “In case something happens.”
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