Chinese Populist Nationalism: Nationalists Competition on Weibo about the Red Cross Scandal during the COVID-19 Pandemic

NIAS is delighted to invite you to another lunch talk, this time held by Dechun Zhang! Join us in meeting room 4.2.49 at City Campus and feel free to bring along your lunch.


The coronavirus has already affected worldwide. Nationalism is on the rise in China, while the Chinese government also has been severely criticized by public at the early stage of the COVID-19 pandemic. This study aims to understand populist nationalism in China through exploring what are the associations among nationalism, attitude towards a national scandal and the government during a national crisis. This study examines 6,886 Weibo posts regarding the Red Cross scandal during the pandemic through a quantitative content analysis and combined the in-depth reading of specific posts with computer-aided analysis of frequently appearing words and phrases. This study finds that nationalism was a catalyst of the public’s tolerance of the scandal. However, the event offered people the opportunity to demonstrate their dissatisfaction by participating in the populism nationalist discourse. Hence, Weibo provides a public sphere to marshal the nationalist sentiment for people to bargain with government. In other words, populist nationalism enables the public to balance defiance of and obedience to the state’s authority; moreover, it is the product of conflict between the state and the people. Hence, populist nationalism is a phenomenon that public that enjoy the facilities of the digital media to empower and legitimacy themselves in which to fulfil their goal.


Dechun Zhang is a PhD candidate at Leiden Institute for Area Studies at Leiden University in Netherlands. His research interests are political communication, media and politics, China’s digital nationalism and computational social science. His PhD project, “Rethinking China’s Digital Nationalism in the wake of COVID-19 Pandemic”, aims to investigate how COVID-19 has reshaped and influenced China’s digital nationalism. He is now the Assisting Managing Editor at Journal of Contemporary Eastern Asia and Social Media Editor at Journal of Visual Political Communication.