Chinese Are Partisan Too

With Darwin came the realization that whatever traits humans share as a species are not gifts of the gods but outcomes of biological evolution. Reason, being such a trait, must have evolved. And why not? Hasn’t natural selection produced many wondrous mechanisms?

 —Dan Sperber and Hugo Mercier, The Enigma of Reason (2017)

The number of anonymous twitter handles worth reading can be counted on two hands. One of the few worthies tweets under the title “@itrulyknowchina.” He or she lives somewhere in China, has a better command of Chinese than I do, and often breaks stories on twitter long before journalists do. Earlier today, he/she typed up the following tweet storm:

The overwhelming majority of Chinese mainlanders, including or especially the educated, comparative liberal ones, have lost their brains on the issue of Hong Kong – genuinely buying into whatever the Party has ben selling. And this makes me really frightened.

Many bought into the foreign incitement bullshit. What kind of foreign “black hand” can whip 2 mln people onto the street on a single day and keep tens of thousands on the streets week after week? It’s just bullshit.

Plus, the “black hand” theory is so looking down on HK citizens – are they that stupid to be manipulated by a few “black hands”? What can drive these HK citizens except their own grievances and discontent?

There are so many bullshit theories that I just don’t want to go through one by one. Bottom line is the overwhelming majority of Chinese mainlanders including the elite ones have been brainwashed so thoroughly that they don’t have any critical thinking capabilities left on them.

They can’t tell black from white. They can’t tell right from wrong. And they don’t know what is good for Hong Kong and perhaps most importantly what is good for China (even within its most narrow definition) in the long run.

This phenomenon, namely that the hearts and minds of the overwhelming majority of Chinese mainlanders are under the fingertips and easily manipulated by the Party, is gonna have far reaching repercussions for China and the world in the long run.

Beijing is gonna feel ever emboldened, having been reassured by the “patriotism” it has seen on HK issue. It will therefore act more toughly and recklessly on external affairs. Nations across the world will find – have already found – China adopting a much togher stance.

China doesn’t have checks and balances built in internal politics, so one of the few little things that could vague check Beijing’s hand is the elusive collective “feeling” of its citizens. If Beijing is confident in manipulating public opinion, it fears nothing (not even USA)[1]

Dake Kang, a reporter for AP working out of Beijing, had a twitter thread on a similar theme:

Lots of foreigners saying they don’t understand how anyone could believe the gov’t line that HK protests are whipped up by foreign “black hands”.

Indeed the increasingly shrill and patronizing gov’t propaganda is angering HK protesters even more. So why do it?

The only reasonable explanation is that at this point, the gov’t no longer cares about foreign opinion, or even the opinion of HK residents.

They’re now mainly worried about what Mainland Chinese think about the protests.

In the early days of the protests, Chinese media was silent on HK. Images and news of the marches were vigorously scrubbed offline. At that point, their main concern was HK/world opinion.

But a funny thing happened: educated elite Mainland Chinese started hearing about HK

And though it’s a fool’s errand to try and measure public opinion in China, just anecdotally, many Mainland Chinese I spoke to weren’t hostile to the protests. A few were actually extremely supportive; others had complicated feelings; most didn’t know what to think.

My guess is that the gov’t realized that these protests may actually have the potential to appeal to Mainland Chinese. That freaked them out, and now they’re going all-out in winning Mainlanders back to the government’s side.

So even though their propaganda push now is extremely harmful to Beijing’s image abroad, and angering protesters even more, it’s full steam ahead, because at the end of the day legitimacy at home 》》》》》global opinion. It’s a worrying microcosm of why protests keep escalating

I don’t think most Mainlanders totally support Beijing on HK. The educated aren’t necessarily pro-protest, but many have nuanced opinions not reflected in state media. Many others haven’t decided what to think, opinions still very fragile. It’s a battle for hearts and minds. [2]

As I would prefer a world where intelligent people are not obligated to use twitter, I will do my part in building it by responding to these ideas as a good dinosaur should, by blogging.

My argument will make some people unhappy: it is not accurate or especially helpful to chalk Chinese beliefs about Hong Kong to state propaganda. We cheapen Chinese perceptions by doing so. It think it foolhardy to cheapen them so.

Do not misunderstand: The theory that the Hong Kong protests were the creation of a few American operatives is stupid. Its stupidity deserves only the briefest treatment. On the twitter wilds conspiracy mongers flash photos about thoughtlessly. The next time someone spams your feed with a hundred pictures of Julie Eadeh meeting with a group of protesters, ask them: just what do they think she gave them? Is she shipping the protesters guns? Gas masks? Crates of money to bribe protesters out of their parents homes and on to the streets?

The truth is that the Americans can give the protesters one thing only: information. An American FSO can inform them of what the official government position is on the Hong Kong protests, give them a sense of where American public opinion stands on the issue, warn them of what actions might lead to formal rebuke from the United States government, and perhaps (though I think it exceedingly unlikely) feed them actionable intelligence on the CPC, HKSAR government, or the police that they were not already aware of. The side that really benefits from this sort of meeting is not the protesters. It is the Americans. A political officer’s job is to report to Washington what is happening in the foreign country in which she is stationed, and why. In the Hong Kong of 2019, the fastest way to do that is to meet with people who are making things happen.

Which leads to the obvious question: if this theory is so obviously stupid, why do so many Chinese believe it?

The answer is simpler than “propaganda.” Simpler and scarier. If it was all a matter of propaganda and censorship, then the whole thing could be resolved by exposing Chinese to the truth. There are obvious snags here. Take those Chinese students in New Zealand and Australia that attacked the pro-Hong Kong marchers. They have escaped the Chinese censorship machine. Are they any better off for it? They are exposed—quite directly—to opposing narratives. Have they been moderated by it?

Censorship is the wrong lens through which to view this issue.

American readers, an intellectual exercise: think for about thirty seconds about your partisan opposites. In that thirty seconds, tally as many of crazy, unconscionable, obviously false things commonly believed by the other side’s rank and file.

Now: reflect on the American Great Fire Wall—but that is right, we do not have one. We are free to read whatever views we will. You cannot live in our country and not eventually come across arguments from the other side. You will come across the truth sooner or later. Whether you believe the truth when you find it is a different question.

So why do so many Americans believe stupid things?

We know the answer to this query. I have written about it before. Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber have written a superb book about it. Moshe Hoffman’s twitter feed (one of that service’s few other gems) is a daily exploration of it. Humans do not reason to find truth. Reasoning and rhetoric were useful adaptations in mankind’s evolutionary past because reason and rhetoric help us build coalitions. We argue to win. The telos of reason is victory. Every other application is a fortunate accident.

The important question in a political dispute is not “who is right?” but “who is on our side?” 

Incidentally, this is what those intimidation squads on Australian campuses are wondering:

Despite being the aggressors in this case, invading protesters’ personal space and menacingly shouting people down, the patriots perpetually framed themselves as victims. Citing an earlier incident in which a group of protesters in Hong Kong threw the Chinese flag into Victoria Harbor, the loudest of the patriots demanded answers from the Melbourne-based protesters for this offense, as if they had personally grabbed the flag from his hands: “Answer my question, are you on the same side as those people who threw our flag into the harbor?” Such accusations and pre-emptive self-victimization in turn provided cover for such blatantly threatening comments from the Chinese students as “We Chinese just want Hong Kong’s land, we don’t care about the people” and “We’ll upload video of this to Weibo, then see if you all are still alive tomorrow.”

Third, nationalism eats its own. “We are all Chinese” is not a statement of solidarity but rather a threat to embrace a particular ideological line based not in reason but in imposed identity. While the Hong Kong students were the main targets for harassment, particularly venomous hatred was reserved for fellow Chinese who failed to adopt a suitably hostile stance. In a moment that highlighted the troubling intersection of authoritarian nationalism and sexism, one student from the province of Sichuan who was speaking with protesters rather than yelling at them was shouted down as a “Sichuan sister” who “needs to be reported to the consulate.” The assembled group of patriots laughed as this student shook her head and stared down at the ground. Images of this student continue to circulate on Chinese social media today, with threats to report her to the authorities “in every province.” (emphasis added) [3]

This gets to the core of the issue. Americans think what is happening in Hong Kong is about opposing the communists and preserving their liberties; Chinese think what is happening in Hong Kong is about splitting China asunder.

I was on an American university campus when the Umbrella movement was in full swing. I had to physically intervene to prevent a Hong Konger and a mainlander (a Manchurian, of course) from getting in a fist fight at the university visitor center. I reflected on this incident later with an older Chinese student who had come to the school for a semester as part of an English learning program. “That was the most surprising thing when I came here to Hawaii,” she told me. “I knew people from Taiwan would be how they were; that was expected. But I was shocked the first time I heard a Hong Konger get up in class and answer the question ‘what country are you from?’ with ‘I am from Hong Kong.’ I had no idea they were like that. I had no idea we have so many traitors.”

Note the assumptions: Hong Kongers are basically the same as other Chinese, Hong Kong is just another Chinese city, and those who want it to be otherwise are traitors. That is the how the majority of Chinese feel about the issue. The innocent protester/undercover cop that was tied up in the airport last night will be understood through this lens: here is one of our very own citizens on our very own soil being abused in public, and our very own government is powerless to stop it! This is how the event will be understood before any propagandists attempt to massage the event for their own ends. It will be seen as an attack on China and its people—in other words, an attack on us. The protesters are them—the people who throw the Chinese flag in the harbor, the people who want to dash China into pieces, the people who should love China, but work constantly to frustrate its return to greatness.

Line these beliefs up. China’s interests are our interests. Hong Kong is a just another part of China. Hong Kongers are just another group of Chinese. Protests in Hong Kong hurt us. The protesters are traitors. They hurt our people at a time when they are engaged in a struggle with America. It is not very far stretch to stitch these things together and go one step further: the traitors get their strength from our other enemies. We face one grand effort to destroy us.

You do not need an especially effective propaganda machine to get people to believe this kind of thing. All people are primed to believe this sort of thing. Humans are eager partisans. Our race is ever ready to reason against its enemies. We vary in one thing only: who we believe those enemies to be.

The people of China have identified theirs.

EDIT 15/8/19: The original post misidentified the second tweet stream as belonging to Dake Kang, the political scientist, when in reality it was written by Dave Kang, one of AP’s Beijing reporters.

If you found the psychological angle of this post insightful, you might also like the posts “Reason is For Stabbing,” and “On Words and Weapons.”  If you would like to read more of the recent things I have written about China, try out the essay “Give No Heed to the Walking Dead,” or my translation of an important speech by Xi Jinping. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

[1] “itrulyknowchina,” tweets published on 4:18 AM, 13 August 2019. Accessible here:

[2] Dave Kang, tweet stream published 11:59 AM on 13 August, 2019. Accessible here: 1

[3] Kevin Carrico, Universities Are Turning a Blind Eye to Chinese Bullies,Foreign Policy 9 August 2019.

Leave a Comment


I've never been to China, so I can't speak about it. From personal experience, students (not sure about immigrants) from China in the US seem more nationalistic now, or at least more vocal than years past. Not even too long ago, Chinese international students were stereotyped as likely apolitically quiet and studious, not really ready to get "in your face" about politics, and now they are in some cases even bold enough to punch locals in the host country they're studying, like Australia.

Perhaps some students are emboldened by China's economic and geopolitical clout, or really likely the demographics of the students studying abroad have changed. Maybe a larger share of students really are more representative of the average Chinese citizen back home, who is increasingly nationalistic, and more likely to want to return to and defend the homeland before than those in the past — a larger share before really wanted to leave?

On the perspective of viewing some other ethnically Chinese folks as traitors, it's very interesting that you mention some feel more shocked by Hong Kongers rejecting being Chinese than Taiwanese. I know people in China are already pretty nationalistic on irredentism for Taiwan but it seems like on some level, even if their government says both are "part of China", they are more aware of Taiwan as a "separate" country versus Hong Kong and bordering Hong Kongers vocally rejecting being one of them hits home harder than Taiwanese doing so.

I know some, even if not a majority share of, people in China do often have the awfully racially nationalist view that all Chinese descendants (don't know how much is rhetoric or genuinely felt) should feel some sort of kinship with the PRC or be denounced as traitors but is there some kind of differing degrees of outrage felt with the Chinese diaspora criticizing China? If a Sichuan resident criticizes China it hits the "betrayal" button more than if a Hong Konger does, which in turn, more than a Taiwanese, more than a Chinese Singaporean, more than a born-and-bred Chinese American, more than a black or white American?

Why, Gary Locke was even criticized by people in China for criticizing China more than a non-Chinese-American would be, when he's clearly American through and through for three generations on his family line. The racialist view of some people in that regard almost seems like a glimpse into the backwards past for westerners when ethnically Germans were expected to be loyal to Germany the nation-state no matter how many generations or the idea of "mother Russia" for the Russian diaspora.

I know you made this analogy before for Taiwan, but perhaps Chinese in China are also like the English in England at the time of the American revolution, with regard to the HK protestors as revolutionaries and pro-China HKers like loyalists?

I think looking at things through an evolutionary lens leads to a rather cynical and fatalistic view.

Yes, people are eager partisans, it's true. But if you look at the modern West, at the very least, it is clear that people can be educated to appreciate the value of looking at the other side's point of view and trying to be fair. I mean, how do you explain Western leftists and their tendency to be too fair-minded to ever take their own country's side in an argument?

The truth is that human beings are highly malleable products of their social and cultural environment. Even if we do have a tendency to be partisan, it is by no means natural that this has to take the form of nationalism. In China it takes this form because this is what the population is taught day in and day out. In America, as you point out, people are partisan about their own political side as well.

When it comes to censorship, it is true that Chinese who move abroad and have access to uncensored information don't necessarily change their views very quickly. This is hardly surprising; once you have already developed a worldview you won't change it at the drop of a hat. What's more, the fact that the uncensored information on China that they come across is mostly produced by "foreigners" only serves to make them more defensive. On the other hand, I find that Chinese who have lived abroad for longer periods, like ten or twenty years, are much more likely to have abandoned the nationalistic mindset.

I still think that all the censorship in China is pretty essential to ensure that the public develops the worldview that the state wishes them to have. If people were exposed to uncensored information on issues like Taiwan or Tibet throughout the course of their lives, this would certainly have a serious impact on how they see things.

I was going to warn to archive those Tweets with before they were gone. I guess should been more pro-active

Taiwan should recruit these protesters into their military, time for another waisheng influx. It seems to me like an influx of HK "refugees" would invigorate Taiwan in many ways, though it would set them up for even more mainland backlash.

Long time lurker, really enjoy your posts.

I think your analysis here is plausible. Here are a few other possible factors.

1: Virtue signalling. Chinese mainlanders think that defending the motherland is expected of them. They have to be seen to do their duty.

2: Second order punishing. If mainlanders do not "protest" or "punish" (or be seen to do so) HK supporters, then they will end up getting punished even harder by PRC. (I think Rodney Stark has a paper on second order punishing.)

3: Resentement. Many mainlanders see HK people as spoilt, ungrateful, arrogant etc etc and so we are seeing some venting here by mainlanders.

On the foreign interference thing…… I think this one is complicated. In short, we do not know what USG is or is not doing. We do know that USG has a long history of this sort of thing. Nevertheless, the feelings of HK people are no doubt genuine, but it is raw materials for USG to work with. USG probably wants to create a patron-client relationship with the protesters and steer the protesters in a direction beneficial to USG interests, as it is currently doing over the Xinjiang issue.

China is quite right (tactically and morally) to protest any and all US interference; indeed, even if USG is not even doing what you allude to above (FSO work) China should still play that card because it is in their strategic interests to do so.

Propaganda tells people what side they are on. In this case, the Chinese people could have identified with the HK protesters–after all, the CCP has some terrible shortcomings as a ruling class. Even overseas Chinese students were thoroughly propagandized in their early years, continue to absorb CCP propaganda when overseas, have most of the their friends/family in China, and intend to return to China.
The techniques of the propagandists are improving much more rapidly than even "educated" people can keep track of or resist. Who owns the digital/AI surveillance/manipulation machine in a given realm owns the future of humanity within that realm. This ought to be frightening given how the primitive propaganda capacities of the twentieth century were misused, including by the West. We may never benefit from personalized medicine, yet personalized propaganda is today a brutally, insidiously effective reality.

Mr. Greer: I read that People's Army Police units are massing near Hong Kong. Have you heard what part of China those units are from?

Ji Xiang : I mean, how do you explain Western leftists and their tendency to be too fair-minded to ever take their own country's side in an argument?

These aren't folks who are sitting arounf rooting for their country and its elites but to be fair, they grudging give opponents the benefit of the doubt. They're people who largely blame these for any problems in their lives and the world in general and reflexively don't support it. Its no more an expression of fair mindedness than anti-elitist populism is.

There are people in the West on the left who show fair mindedness by being skeptical towards the left wing institutions to which they are loyal. But very few.