Sinospace: China’s internet nationalism and Sino-Japanese relations

PSC Seminar


Matthew Thompson


PSC Reading Room, Hedley Bull Centre (130), corner of Garran Road and Liversidge Street, ANU


Tuesday, 20 August, 2013 - 12:30 to 14:00


Western commentators believed the internet signaled the beginning of the end for China’s authoritarian one-party regime.  Bill Clinton declared that China controlling the Internet would be ‘like trying to nail jell-o to the wall’.  But, these liberalist views proved to be wrong, or at least premature.  The State has shown it is able to control the Internet by creating a public sphere that is more Intranet than Internet, not a cyberspace but rather what I call a ‘Sinospace’.

Though largely controlled by the State, Sinospace is nevertheless providing opportunities to ordinary citizens, or ‘netizens’, to voice their opinions and challenge the State in the form of internet contention that sometimes become street protests.  The question therefore arises, just what impact is Sinospace having on State-society relations in China?  Are we witnessing a genuine civic discourse, where the State feels it needs to listen to the opinions of private individuals in order to legitimize itself?  Are we seeing a Harbermasian public sphere in China, and in Sinospace?

My thesis focuses on the impact that Sinospace is having on one element of State-Society relations – popular nationalism, within the realm of Sino-Japanese relations.  Since the demise of communist ideology in the 1980’s, popular nationalism has become both a source of legitimization for the state, and a vehicle through which citizens express dissent and even help shape policy responses.

In my thesis I analyse three case studies, including the 2003 Qiqiha’er Mustard Gas Incident and the 2005 protests opposing Japan becoming a permanent member of the UN Security Council.  However, my seminar will focus on my third case study- the 2012 protests that erupted in China following the Japanese government’s purchase of the Senkaku / Diaoyu islands.  An exciting opportunity arose to follow the first ever nation-wide anti-Japanese protests in Sinospace via Weibo (a microblog service often referred to as China’s Twitter).  It was the first time Weibo had been largely handed over to ordinary netizens to express anti-Japanese sentiment, discuss boycotting Japanese goods, and share photos of protests.  At the same time, moderate voices called for calm, and the State tried to guide ‘rational patriotism’.  I analysed how different online elements, such as the State, ordinary netizens, influential celebrities, and patriotic sites interacted in real time on this social media platform.  A slice of Chinese history was caught online, the exact likes of which had not been seen before

I ask whether nationalistic movements, like the 2012 protests, embody the elements of a true Habermasian public sphere in China, or it is a distorted form of the public sphere where public opinion on the part of rational individuals too often boils over into the irrational popular passions and mob nationalism.  Is it a distorted nationalism due to State interference in guiding ‘rational patriotism’?  Is popular nationalism really representative of the public’s opinion given the Internet can actually create ‘niche colonies’ rather than a real public sphere?   I then discuss how my findings on anti-Japanese nationalistic movements apply to the much larger topic of the impact of Sinospace on State-Society relations in China, and China’s behaviour in international settings.


About the Speaker

In 2012 Matthew’s fieldwork saw him relocate to Harbin, China for 6 months, followed by a 10-week ANU – Peking University (Bei Da) scholarship.  In 2013 he undertook a Japan Foundation Fellowship hosted by Tokyo’s Keio University where he researched Japanese perceptions of China and the Senkaku / Diaoyu islands issue. 

Matthew received a Bachelor of Arts International Studies (Honours) from RMIT University (which included two University Mobility in the Asia-Pacific (UMAP) scholarships to study at Nanjing University, China and Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang, Malaysia).  His Honours thesis was on China’s Energy Security.  He has a Grad Dip Education and a Master of Business Administration (International) from Deakin University.  His work experience has centred mainly in teaching environments (training and tertiary).  In 2010 he was awarded an APA scholarship to pursue a PhD in the Department of Political & Social Change at the ANU.

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