It doesn’t take much to set off Chinese social media, especially when foreigners are involved. The latest spark in a tinder-dry landscape were tweets by two Thai celebrities that have ignited a battle pitting China’s keyboard warriors against a united front of Twitter users from across the Asia-Pacific region. What might at first look like a pointless spat is exposing the weaknesses of China’s propaganda efforts when they cross the firewall.
Battles over national honor led by online pop fans are nothing new. During the Hong Kong protests last August, Chinese fangirls organized in order to hop over the firewall and spam pro-Hong Kong social media accounts under the auspices of defending their idol “A-Zhong”—a stand-in for the Chinese nation. In 2016, expeditions of angered Chinese keyboard warriors raided the Facebook pages of Taiwanese politicians after the Taiwanese K-pop idol Chou Tzu-yu waved Taiwan’s flag on South Korean television.
This time, coronavirus anxiety is in the mix. Last week, the Thai idol Vachirawit Chivaaree aka Bright, who has recently become popular in China thanks to his role in the Thai boy-love drama 2gether: The Series, retweeted a post sharing photos of the skylines in four “countries,” one of which was Hong Kong. This upset Chinese fans, who hold that Hong Kong is part of China, and they demanded Bright apologize, which he did. Just when the controversy seemed about to fizzle out, Bright’s rumored girlfriend, the Thai influencer Weeraya Sukaram, who goes by Nnevvy on Twitter, retweeted a Thai-language tweet questioning why China would not let foreigners investigate whether the novel coronavirus was leaked from a Chinese lab while at the same time accusing foreigners of having brought the virus to the country.
That pushed Chinese fans to surmount the firewall to hurl insults at those slandering the motherland on Twitter and Instagram. Chinese keyboard warriors insulted the Thai king, the Thai prime minister, and dismissed the country as poor and backward.
They were surprised to find Thais did not seem to care. In fact, many were exultant to have someone else lend a hand in disparaging their government, which many Thais despise, and even their infamously thuggish king, who is far less popular than his father despite harsh lèse-majesté laws. Soon the hashtag #nnevvy, which now has over 2 million posts, was full of Thai Twitter users making self-deprecating and often hilarious memes about themselves. In response to Chinese taunts of “NMSL,” which means something like “hope your mother dies,” Thais retorted that they have 20 mothers, a reference to the Thai king’s supposed harem. Chinese users were baffled by this, and some attempted to lecture their Thai enemies on the meaning of patriotism.
In addition to the Twitter incident, Chinese fans had unearthed one of Weeraya’s Instagram posts from a few years ago in which she had responded “Taiwanese” to a commenter asking what style of clothing she was wearing. This supposed recognition of a separate Taiwan from China was taken as another piece of evidence against Bright. (Chinese media uses absurd politicized circumlocution to avoid admitting the existence of Taiwan.) Thai warriors thus became fevered supporters of the sovereignty of Taiwan and Hong Kong, both of which China claims as its own. Moved by this show of solidarity, netizens from Hong Kong and Taiwan, as well as the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, and other Asian countries that have long-standing anxieties about Chinese territorial bullying, mobilized to join the #nnevvy war. A widely shared meme took a still from the classic anime Sailor Moon and overlaid various Asian flags on each of the magical warriors.
The #nnevvy war reflected a growing awareness and resentment outside the firewall, at least in Asia, of how exactly China seeks to influence public discourse.
Thai users and their allies referred to their opponents as “wumao,” the word used in China for internet warriors paid by the government (supposedly 50 cents a post, thus the name) to bombard platforms like Weibo with pro-Communist Party comments. In recent years, an increasing number of reports suggest, the Chinese government has been sending wumao over the firewall to post on Twitter—although, as a new investigation by ProPublica finds, the wumao may not be people at all but a collection of algorithms.
In fact, the Chinese partisans hopping the firewall to battle Thais were probably spontaneous rather than paid or organized. In the August expedition over the firewall, the keyboard warriors had enjoyed explicit encouragement and support from the Chinese government. But this time the Chinese government seemed to be encouraging netizens to hold back. On Weibo, the hashtag #ThailandInsultsChina mysteriously disappeared from the hot searches bar, and Diba, the Reddit-like forum partially responsible for organizing the August expedition, posted on Weibo explicitly discouraging Chinese from hopping the wall, saying that it would only embolden Hong Kong and Taiwan separatists. Clearly the Chinese censors felt it was a war not worth fighting, especially at a time when the authorities are trying to put out fires on multiple public relations fronts, from the mistreatment of Africans in southern China to the Communist Party’s culpability in spreading the coronavirus to articles claiming Kazakhstan for China.
Regardless of the actual authenticity of their opponents, Thais cheerfully enjoyed portraying their opponents as monolithic, insincere, and humorless. One meme showed a computer lab of men in army fatigues all typing “China #1” “Democracy also has problems” “CIA plant” and other staples; another simply changed the stars in the Chinese flag to NMSL. Memes also poked fun at the fact that Chinese have to use a virtual private network, which is illegal in China, to defend their country on most social media platforms. In one cartoon, a group of Chinese keyboard warriors surreptitiously climb over the firewall, yell about China’s superiority at a Thai sipping tea unimpressed, and hurriedly climb back over.
Overall, the memes painted a picture of Chinese as simply unequipped to withstand warfare outside of the firewall, having been coddled all their lives by the one-sided ideological bent of the Chinese internet. Some tweets noted Chinese trolls’ poor command of English and uncreative insults. In image after image, Chinese warriors were shown breaking down at the slightest mention of Taiwan’s independence, the Tiananmen Square massacre, or the coronavirus originating from their country.
China’s sound defeat in the #nnevvy war did not go unnoticed at home. While the #ThailandInsultsChina hashtag on Weibo was full of the usual outraged nationalism, just as many posts shared the memes from Twitter, praised the Thai sense of humor, and admitted that they contained some truth. Even self-identified patriots denigrated the keyboard warriors’ “uncivilized” tactics. “When you go over the wall to defend our country and all you can say is ‘NMSL,’ who is really shaming China?” one widely shared post asked. Other posters reprimanded their compatriots for being too “glass-hearted” or thin-skinned, noting that “the world has 7 billion people, not every one of them has to love China.”
The incident also prompted a degree of self-reflection on Weibo about Chinese internet culture. Many scolded the keyboard warriors for not understanding how online discourse works outside of the firewall, noting that Chinese attempts to report slanderous Thai memes to the Thai government were of no use because the outside internet is not as rigorously monitored as the Chinese internet. (“I guess we really are exporting our values,” one account reflected sarcastically about the reporting attempts.) Moreover, Chinese netizens explained, it was normal for Thais to say whatever they want about their government. Many shared “Prathet Ku Mee,” a popular Thai rap video in which the rappers curse the military government as evidence of this fact. “Only Chinese and North Koreans don’t dare to curse their government,” one comment reflected. In fact, Thai social media, especially about the king, is pretty heavily censored—and the rappers behind “Prathet Ku Mee” were threatened with arrest (although not actually detained). Still, the Weibo posts showed increasing awareness that dissent is not as taboo in other countries as it is in China.
The self-reflection exercised by ordinary Chinese citizens on Weibo may not make it to the highest levels of the Chinese state. The Chinese government is only becoming more aggressive, and it is investing increasingly in propaganda outside the firewall. But the #nnevvy war shows that no amount of investing in propaganda is effective if not coupled with a sophisticated understanding of the dynamics of the outside internet. It may be time to bring in some meme consultants.