Since the last decade, China’s economy has risen to become the second largest in the world after the United States, and the narrative of “the rise of the East and the decline of the West” has become popular in Chinese society. At the same time, anti-Western and anti-U.S. hegemonic narratives are gaining popularity on the Chinese Internet (C. Zhang, 2020), which significantly influences young Chinese people’s perceptions of Western countries and the liberal world order.

From 2018 to 2020, the United States has repeatedly imposed sanctions on the Chinese company Huawei, which has triggered strong nationalist sentiments on the Chinese Internet. On May 15, 2020, when the U.S. Department of Commerce re-announced sanctions against Huawei, a post on this topic was generated on the Zhihu community that received more than 25 million page views. The Zhihu community is a very popular social Q&A website (similar to the “Quora” community) where many Chinese young people express their opinions. According to Zhihu report, users aged 20-39 years old account for 79% of users (ZhihuReport, 2021). Zhihu is considered to be an amalgamation of the most intellectual and critical forces among young Chinese, and views expressed there are often disseminated to social media such as Weibo and WeChat (Peng et al., 2020; Ru & Hu, 2016).

We conducted a qualitative content analysis to analyze this post with 25 million page views and answer two questions: 1. What are Zhihu netizens’ views on the sanctions imposed by the US on Huawei? 2. How does anti-Western centrism influence young netizens’ narrative about the anti-hegemonic order and inspire nationalist sentiments? The goal was to learn their views on the liberal world order and examine how anti-Western centrism influences their nationalist narrative.

Literature Review

The Practice of Anti-Western Centrism in China: Deconstruction and Questioning of West

Anti-Western centrism means opposing Western centrism by deconstructing Western politics, economics, culture, history, technology, etc., while strengthening the nation’s self-confidence (Chinadragonvideo, 2019). Western centrism, also called Eurocentrism, refers to the implicit belief in seeing the world from a European perspective. Eurocentrists believe that Western civilization is the most advanced and typical civilization in the world and that only Western talents can lead scientific and technological progress and promote the development of human civilization (Blaut, 1993; Hobson, 2012; Ren, 2006).

The question of Western centrism has been known since the beginning of the 20th century. Among the most famous scholars in this area are Spengler and Toynbee, who both suggested that Western centrism is a hallucination of Westerners with “egocentrism” (Spengler, 1991; Toynbee, 1987).

At the beginning of the 21st century, with the great success of the Chinese economy, the Chinese are eager to be recognized and respected by the world. However, as the West believes that a “rising” China will inevitably “threaten” the world order, China’s demands are ignored (N. Zhou, 2012). Under these circumstances, anti-Western centrism in China began to strengthen. First, in official propaganda, the Chinese government deliberately emphasizes the superiority of the Chinese system and the rigidity and over-programming of Western democracies (Chinadragonvideo, 2019). In the field of science and technology, it emphasizes China’s achievements in applied science and technology while downplaying Western achievements in basic science. Especially in the last decade, the Chinese government has deliberately promoted “national superiority” as part of the nation’s great rejuvenation to boost China’s national self-confidence.

Second, many Chinese scholars began to deconstruct the influence of Western centrism to reconcile it with China’s prevailing concept of national rejuvenation (GuanVideo, 2020a; Jin & Liu, 2010; Lv, 2020; Ma, 2019). Among the most prominent scholars are Zhang Weiwei, Eric Li, Wen Tiejun, and Chen Ping. They have all studied in the West or worked and lived there for a long time. In particular, Zhang Weiwei’s views on deconstructing Western centrism or similar viewpoints have resonated widely among young Chinese (Freymann & Wong, 2021). Zhang Weiwei argued that the practice of anti-Western centrism in China has two dimensions: One is the recognition and reflection of the nation, the other is the questioning or denial of the West (Chinadragonvideo, 2019). The speeches of the above scholars have been viewed by more than 18 million viewers on the video website Bilibili. With the joint participation of official and academic circles, anti-Western centrism has a significant impact on Chinese youth.

The Practice of Anti-Western Centrism: A Strong National Identity

A strong national identity is the basic psychological foundation of nationalist narratives. Since the late 1980s, when the CCP began to feel the impact of the democratization wave, it has deliberately increased popular education about the history of national humiliation in order to deflect people’s yearning for Western democracy and promote their patriotism (Chen et al., 2020; Modongal, 2016). In the Chinese context, the roughly 100 years from the Opium War (1840) to the end of World War II, described by the Chinese as a humiliating period of imperialist attacks, harassment, and divisions, are the “main narrative” of modern Chinese history (Callahan, 2004). This collective “national shame” (Zheng Wang, 2014) has been redefined in the Chinese context and transformed from an irrational emotion into a social practice that can easily inspire resistance against the enemy (Callahan, 2004).

Similarly, the psychological representations of historical events that trigger a sense of success and victory can also unite a large group of people (Volkan, 1997). In the 21st century, China’s various development achievements have triggered a strong sense of national pride and glory. For example, China successfully hosted the 2008 Olympic Games and the 2010 World Expo, launched a human-crewed spaceship, developed artificial intelligence, and more. This kind of national glory (national superiority) has always been emphasized in the narrative of the Chinese dream, so people believe that the development and achievements of China’s high-tech industry are not only the great national glory of the Chinese people, but also a realistic proof of the elimination of historical shame (Yang & Zheng, 2012). In particular, China’s successful fight against the COVID-19 outbreak has almost reached the peak of Chinese national pride and identity (Zhenyu Wang & Tao, 2021). In this case, everything from geopolitical conflicts to non-recognition by the international media and other incidents that harm China’s interests are seen as insults to China (Zhenyu Wang & Tao, 2021).

Questioning the Liberal World Order

In 2017, the U.S. government accused China of “changing the liberal international order.” Since then, the “threat to the international order” has become the focus of discussion in Western academic circles. Some scholars argued that liberal internationalist values are being challenged by emerging illiberal forces (Blackwill & Wright, 2020; C. Zhang, 2020; Zhao, 2019), while others pointed to the obvious existence of existing unjust rules (Austin, 2017; Gao, 2020; G. Zhou, 2020). In these debates, most of the opinions come from experts and academics without considering the views of ordinary people. Therefore, we hope to explore the opinions of ordinary people.

For critics, the liberal international order not only originated in the European empire and colonial history characterized by violence and domination, but also perpetuated the hierarchical legal relationship through a series of “world political binaries” (Austin, 2017, p. 5). The dualisms are Western and non-Western, liberal and non-liberal, civilized and barbaric. Nordin (2016) argued that others are not seen as radically different in the Eurocentric international order, but either threatening or simply behind the historical queue (Nordin, 2016).

Chinese scholars have also participated in the discussion of these liberal international orders. For example, Zhou Guiyin (2020) argues that the liberal international order remains unshakable even though the United States often uses its power wantonly to solve problems (G. Zhou, 2020). Another Chinese scholar stated that the paralysis of global governance mechanisms revealed during the COVID-19 disaster will profoundly affect the international order dominated by the United States and the Western world (Gao, 2020).

Methodology

The post on Zhihu’s website, What do you think about the possibility that the US will ban Huawei completely, and any company that uses U.S. equipment to make chips and sells them to Huawei will be sanctioned?[1] published on May 15, 2020, was selected. As of March 10, 2021,we collected responses with more than 10 likes (thumbs up) as research data to ensure sample popularity and representativeness. Finally, 327 responses were selected for the analysis, with the highest number of likes being 42,581 and the lowest being 10. It is worth noting that of the 327 responses, 56 were from Huawei stakeholders (according to their own statements).

In this study, qualitative content analysis was used to analyze the data. This is a research method that subjectively interprets the content of textual data by coding and identifying systematic classifications of themes that focus on the communicative features of language and focus on the content or contextual meaning of the text (Downe-Wamboldt, 1992). In this study, each response was treated as one coding unit. Coders formed four coding themes by reading the coded data as a whole: 1) motivation for U.S. sanctions, 2) symbolism of Huawei for Chinese technology, 3) strong anti-hegemony sentiment, and 4) solutions to U.S. sanctions. Next, the researcher extracted the contextual content of each response or the core idea of meaning refinement. As this process continued, different codes were formed for each theme, as shown in Table 1.

Table 1. Coding Themes and Codes
Coding themes Codes Representative quotes
Speculations about the motives of the USA Fear of losing the technological edge The intention of the US to strangle Huawei and China's high-tech industry is obvious, because it fears that its technological advantages will be surpassed by China.
To destroy China's economic development environment The predatory logic and behavior of the United States is essentially to destroy China's economic development environment and contain China's rise.
China's ideology unacceptable The United States cannot tolerate a non-democratic superpower living the same life as Americans and can only hope that the Chinese will always be outgunned.
To win the election This is Trump's trick to use sanctions against Huawei to canvass his own election.
Huawei's symbolic significance for Chinese technology Huawei is the representative of China's high-tech At the enterprise level, Huawei is currently the benchmark for China's high-tech enterprises and the ceiling for China's high-tech enterprises.
Huawei is the representative of the Chinese spirit Huawei is no longer Huawei, but the representative of China. By attacking Huawei, the United States is attacking China.
Strong anti-hegemonic sentiment The shameful history of China's past The United States has always been so domineering. It believes that it can still bomb our embassies abroad, as it has done in the past, and even lets its military planes fly over the South China Sea at will.
Question the unfairness of the existing international order The logic of the United States is that China will always be a major exporter of labor and a supplier of raw materials.
Solutions to U.S. sanctions Chinese government must reciprocally sanction U.S. companies If the US is unable to bring down one Chinese company with the strength of the whole country, it is even more impossible to bring down China; if China is unable to save one company with the strength of the whole country, what about national rejuvenation?
Call on Chinese to buy Huawei products as much as possible I could replace Huawei phones and Huawei products for myself and my family. After all, Huawei is the Huawei of China.

Finally, the researcher classified, summarized, and ranked the core ideas extracted among all the codes according to the coding themes, thus obtaining the results of the content analysis. It is worth noting that in this study, each coding unit may include multiple coding themes, so the proportion of coding themes in the coding results is calculated separately. In addition, in order to avoid a priori theories that could affect the researcher’s ability to be innovative in developing themes, an in-depth literature review was postponed until most of the data collection was completed to prevent the introduction of bias and perceptual concepts.

Descriptive Results

What Is the Motivation of the US Sanctions Against Huawei?

Regarding the motive of U.S. sanctions, the results (as shown in Table 2) indicate that 53% of the data suggests that the true purpose of U.S. sanctions against Huawei is to slow down the development of China’s high-tech industry. More specifically, first, U.S. sanctions against Huawei are due to a fear of the US losing global technological leadership and influence. Second, by imposing sanctions on Huawei, the US can undermine China’s economic development environment and contain China’s rise. Third, the US does not want China to overcome the middle-income trap and become a developed country, because China’s social system and ideology are different from Western democracies. Fourth, Trump has drawn the attention of the American public to the partial victory in the US-China trade war by imposing sanctions on Huawei, hoping to gain more support from voters in the 2020 presidential election.

Table 2. Coding Results
Coding Themes Core Ideas Number of posts that align with the core idea (N=327) Proportion
Speculations about the motives of the USA The real purpose of U.S. sanctions against Huawei is to slow the development of China's high-tech industry. 174 53%
Huawei's symbolic significance for Chinese technology Huawei is a pioneer in China's high-tech industry and an important symbol of China's industrial modernization. 170 52%
Strong anti-hegemonic sentiment The United States triggers a national war between China and the US through the Huawei sanctions, and the US is hegemonic and imperialistic. 203 62%
Solutions to U.S. sanctions China must sanction American companies on the basis of reciprocity to restore China's dignity. 183 56%

Moreover, the coding results showed that 52% of the responses depict Huawei as a pioneer of China’s high-tech industry and an important symbol of China’s industrial modernization. Of the posts, 33% praised Huawei’s journey as a model for the success of China’s economic development model and Huawei represents the spirit of China. They highlighted that although globalization has opened up similar opportunities for every country, only China has achieved great success because its success is based not only on globalization but also on the hard work and wisdom of the Chinese people. The following response received 14,520 likes:

The Chinese only took 40 years to complete the industrialization process, while the West took 200 years to complete the process. The reason is that we are more industrious than Westerners that we worked overtime while Westerners are on vacation or sleeping. We strive to pursue the top technology in each field and will not give up unless we achieve our goals. (Huawei employee Mr. Lv)

Netizens who claimed to be Huawei employees displayed a strong sense of mission and honor. They stated that although Huawei’s globalization process has been severely affected, Huawei will not simply collapse. On the contrary, they believed that Huawei will never give up and will be encouraged by the US sanctions to be more creative and innovative.

Even if I often need to work overtime, I still choose to work with the company to face the US sanctions because I think it is my lifetime honor to be able to contribute to the motherland and a great company like Huawei! (Huawei employee - Anonymous)

How Do Zhihu Netizens View the Behavior of the US?

The US imperialists are very arrogant, they can be unreasonable anytime and anywhere. If the US takes reasonable action, it must be forced to do so. (Mao Zedong, 1953)

In this study, Mao Zedong’s remarks about the US were quoted 37 times, reflecting the general anger of young netizens towards the US. Overall, 62% of the data was characterized by strong anti-American hegemonic sentiment. This sentiment is reflected in two points: First, they frequently mentioned China’s humiliating past, highlighting in particular the US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia and the airplane collision in the South China Sea. Second, they emphasized the irrationality of the existing international order. They claim that the US has always been a hegemonic, imperialist country with a consistent hegemonic logic. In particular, they emphasize the unreasonable division of labor in the existing international order and their anger at China’s subordination to the world order. The following opinion has 24,579 likes:

According to American logic, China is positioned as a cheap supplier of raw materials and shouldn’t develop a high-tech industry, let alone surpass the United States technologically. China should even “obediently” accept high value-added products from the United States to make big profits in the Chinese market. (Lu Senbao)

Netizens stressed that in the last 70 years, the US has successfully crushed the Soviet Union and suppressed Japan with the help of the hegemonic system. Accordingly, American hegemonic thinking was cultivated and led to its intolerance of the progress and development of other countries, causing it to fall from the beacon of human technological progress.

The United States has fallen to the point of using state power to sanction a Chinese high-tech company. How can a country that is increasingly closing itself off continue to be a beacon of technology for humanity? (Shenpeng)

Of the comments, 56% suggest U.S. sanctions against Huawei are a national war against China. Americans want to contain China’s rise by suppressing China’s technology. In these responses, they argue that the Chinese government must (should) take action to sanction U.S. companies in return.

Among specific sanctions at the national level, they suggested that the Chinese government impose sanctions on U.S. aircraft, electric vehicles, agricultural products, and U.S. bonds, and even suggested that China stop exporting rare-earth elements and chemical commodities to the US. At the industry level, they suggest that all Chinese high-tech companies should prepare to decouple from U.S. technology. At the level of public opinion, they argue that China should maintain its foreign policy strategy of wolf warrior to prevent the US from threatening China as it did in the past. These suggestions show young people’s dislike of the U.S. hegemony and their expectations that the Chinese government can be tougher. Some of these narratives even hint at the consequences of the Chinese government not sanctioning the United States, namely disappointment and resentment at the weakness of the Chinese government, as in the following example:

The defeated countries of Japan and Germany even protected Toyota and Mercedes-Benz after World War II. If China, the world’s second largest economy, is now unable to use its national power to protect a company, how can we speak of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation? (Fang Hongjian)

This response received 42,981 likes and shows that the history of humiliation has shaped the young generation’s strong national self-esteem. China’s past of being humiliated by Western countries has made them resentful and disappointed. They therefore hope that today’s China can be tough and regain its lost dignity.

Discussion

The above descriptive results clearly show the netizens’ condemnation of American hegemonic thinking and dissatisfaction with the liberal world order. We draw on Zhang Weiwei’s views on the two dimensions of anti-Western centrism in China to interpret the narrative logic of Zhihu netizens.

The Role of National Identity

Due to the rise of post-materialist values, netizens believe that Chinese self-confidence is no longer limited to the ancient glory of Chinese civilization, but to a pragmatic and rational economic approach (Callahan, 2012; Gries, 2004). The Chinese national characteristics of “diligence” and “wisdom,” combined with a pragmatic economic approach, are often credited for the successes of China’s economic development. For example, young netizens in this study believe that “China has completed the 200-year industrialization process of the West in 40 years, not only because of the opportunities brought by globalization, but also because of the diligence and intelligence of the Chinese people,” and “Huawei’s success is not due to the theft of Western patents, but to the technological transcendence achieved by the hard work of Huawei employees during holidays and breaks in the West.” Their emphasis on the unique and outstanding two national qualities of “diligence” and “intelligence” is not only a recognition of traditional Chinese values, but also implies criticism of the relatively lazy work efficiency of the West.

Netizens emphasized that the purpose of U.S. sanctions against Huawei is to undermine China’s economic development environment by slowing the development of China’s high-tech industry, and ultimately to curb China’s rise. This narrative logic could be attributed to two factors. One is the “informed nationalism” which means that the nationalism of well-educated people in China is often influenced by an interest-driven game paradigm (including comprehensive national strength, national interests, and the rules of the liberal international order) (Y. Zhou, 2005). In the eyes of netizens, U.S. sanctions have damaged the national glory created by the growth of comprehensive national strength, harmed national interests, highlighted China’s weak position in the international order, and, more importantly, they have destroyed a good economic development environment in which young people can realize their personal values. As a result, the nationalist feelings of netizens have been aroused.

Second, the national glory and national superiority that the CCP deliberately emphasized in the Chinese Dream have also promoted the rise of nationalist sentiments. Huawei’s achievements in 5G are seen as a technological beacon of which the Chinese are proud, and it is also a realistic proof that the historical shame of China lagging behind the United States technologically has been eliminated. In addition, after 40 years of development, China’s comprehensive national strength has reached 70% of that of the US, which has led China to create objective conditions for equal dialogue with the West, especially the US (Fatma & Bharti, 2019). Therefore, U.S. sanctions are seen as an insult to national pride.

Moreover, national humiliation education has shaped the sense of national humiliation in the Chinese people and has become the psychological basis of nationalist sentiment. As Callahan said, from an early age, every Chinese person has learned about their own shameful history through various channels such as history books, TV series, museums, etc. (Callahan, 2004). These events triggered frustration and humiliation in most Chinese people. In this study, Mao Zedong’s assessment of the United States was cited 37 times by netizens, and netizens frequently mentioned the Sino-American conflict of the past 30 years, which shows that the image of American imperialism and hegemonism has deeply penetrated the hearts of most Chinese. Faced with the U.S. sanctions against Huawei, people naturally think of the national humiliation of the past.

However, “the United States has little understanding of this deep-rooted humiliation of the Chinese, which is the main reason for the current tensions between China and the United States” (Wireman, 2000). This is also mentioned by John Glaser, Director of Foreign Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, who believes that the U.S. government’s attitude toward China over the past 30 years has always fluctuated between contemptuous arrogance, sincere cooperation, and unabashed competition. This has kept Sino-American relations in a less than friendly state (Blatt, 2018). Under the combined effect of national glory and national shame, strong nationalist sentiments are aroused.

Questioning the Absolute Progressiveness of the West

Resistance to the West is an enduring theme of Chinese nationalism (Chen et al., 2020). Especially in the last 10 years, with China’s great economic success and improving international status, as well as the propaganda of “anti-Western centrism” by the Chinese government and academia, the popular perception toward the West has changed greatly. In the past, for example, young Chinese people praised the progress and technology of the US while criticizing China’s backwardness and conservatism (Fish, 2017). However, now, their admiration for the West is rapidly decreasing (Li, 2021; Y. Zhang et al., 2018). Some young Chinese people question or even deny the absolute progressiveness of the West. Specifically, in terms of political systems, for example, they believe that democracy has become a source of chaos in the world, social division, and national unrest (Freymann & Wong, 2021). In the economic sphere, they are strongly influenced by Stiglitz’s view that “the neoliberal economic model is dying due to a lack of effective adjustment” (GuanVideo, 2020b). In the cultural sphere, they argue that Western extreme individualism is accelerating the fragmentation of Western societies (Freymann & Wong, 2021).

This trend has undoubtedly affected the national pride and self-confidence of the Zhihu netizens, who question the absolute progressiveness of the West. For example, they believe that “the arrogance of the United States has caused it to fall from the beacon of human technology” and that “the United States has sanctioned Huawei out of intolerance and jealousy” and so on. Obviously, the narratives spring from an intuitive feeling after comparing the technological strength of the US with China’s ability to catch up. However, while it is reasonable to question the absolute progressiveness of the United States, it is an obvious fact that the United States is still far ahead of China in terms of comprehensive national strength and technology. To conclude only by Huawei’s leading position in 5G technology that the US has fallen from the beacon of human technology exposes the arbitrariness and naivety of the Zhihu netizens.

Conclusion

Given that the Zhihu community is a very popular Q&A website where Chinese youth share their views, this study conducted a qualitative content analysis of 327 popular responses to a popular post with 25 million views about the United States’ sanctions against Huawei to examine the Zhihu netizens’ views on this event. The results showed that 53% of the responses suggested that the Huawei incident is a deliberate act of hegemony by the United States and is direct evidence that the US is deliberately destroying China’s economic development environment to slow down China’s rise, as well as a typical manifestation of the injustice of the liberal international order. Of the responses, 62% showed strong anti-U.S. hegemony sentiment. They emphasized the shameful history of Sino-American relations and the injustice of the existing international order. Also 56% of the responses believed that U.S. sanctions against Huawei are a national war between the two countries. They therefore demanded that the Chinese government sanction U.S. companies in return to restore China’s dignity.

Further analysis of the above results showed that the logic of these views on the liberal international order and the U.S. hegemony is obviously influenced by the following: 1) The mentality of national glory derived from comprehensive national strength led them to believe that U.S. sanctions against Huawei are an obstacle to China’s rise. 2) National humiliation psychology led them to view U.S. sanctions as a constant insult to China. 3) China’s superiority created by China’s comprehensive national strength and its scientific and technological achievements in recent years has boosted their confidence to challenge the West’s absolute progress.

In general, it can be said that the nationalist sentiment and narrative logic of the netizens are strongly influenced by anti-Western centralism. In their narratives, not only is American behavior strongly criticized from the perspective of national identity, but a strong sense of national superiority and contempt for the absolute progressiveness of the United States is also evident. From these findings, it appears that the trend of public opinion toward “rise in the East and fall in the West” and the strategy of great national rejuvenation pursued by the Chinese government in the past decade (which mainly emphasizes the sense of national superiority) has indeed had a profound and absolute influence on some young people in China. This has further strengthened their nationalism. However, it is well known that nationalism is a double-edged sword. Its strong and convenient appeal not only can build support for the country, but also can betray the government if the state appears weak or willing to compromise with foreign countries (Gries, 2004). In this study, the attitudes of Zhihu netizens showed the effects of the double-edged sword of nationalism: they feel shame and resentment when the Chinese government does not sanction American companies in the same way. From this, we deduce that the Chinese government should be more cautious about arousing nationalist sentiments.

This study has two limitations. First, the Zhihu community data collected in this study could be the result of a rigorous scrutiny by the Chinese government. Second, the conclusions of this study are only the opinions of Zhihu netizens on specific events and are not universal, as nationalist sentiments in China are often stimulated by specific events.


  1. This post on the Zhihu website can be found here: https://www.zhihu.com/question/395075061