The website Anti-CNN was launched in 2008 by a group of young Chinese students, led by Rao Jin, who was dissatisfied with the biased and distorted reporting of China by Western media. In 2009, former CNN Beijing Bureau chief Rebecca MacKinnon had an interesting conversation with the group of young Chinese behind Anti-CNN. She said ‘it will be very interesting to see how the Anti-CNN website continues to evolve,’ and that ‘Rao Jin has plans to develop an English-language platform – with a less provocative, more friendly name – through which his community can engage in dialogue and debate with the English-speaking world.’
Indeed, Anti-CNN has evolved three years on. The website no longer exists. In its place is April Web, which also comes with an English platform. They describe themselves as carrying across ‘the vision of the youth and Chinese identity while engaging in issues of global concerns,’ and ‘a media platform to meet and encourage healthy, constructive, and progressive minds for empowerment.’
At Radio France International, commentator Kai Wen has a recent piece about the group of young people behind April Web, labelled as China’s new generation of nationalists. Below is a full translation of the article.
After the Lhasa riots on 14 March 2008, a website called ‘Anti-CNN’ appeared in China. It heavily criticized the bias of the Western media while reporting on China, and won a wide following among young people. Subsequently, on 19 April, the Chinese communities in Paris, London, Berlin and Los Angeles held mass gatherings with the theme of ‘Supporting the Beijing Olympics, Opposing Media Unfairness’. This marked the beginning of a new generation of Chinese nationalists, and ‘April Youth’ has since then became their symbol.
Three years later, many of those who joined the mass gatherings have lost their political enthusiasm and returned to normal life. But not for ‘April Youth’. Quite the contrary, it has become more organized and institutionalised thanks to the internet.
Today, Anti-CNN, which was built by Tsinghua University graduate Rao Jin no longer exists. Its successor is ‘April Web’. Rao Jin is still the core member. He is surrounded by more than twenty like-minded young people, who manage an array of media including April Web, April Space, April Media, April Youth Forum and April Miniblog. Although its Chinese brand name is now called ‘April’, it is not difficult to find the ‘AC’ logo in its forums and spaces, reminding visitors of its Anti-CNN root.
It seems that this group of young people are outliers in the current Chinese system. On surface, by being administrators of a non-official website which relies on revenues from server hostings, they do not depend on the official system. But at the same time, they fiercely defend criticisms directed at the current system, ranging from issues like US foreign policy to German media reporting practices, and from the Wangfujing ‘Jasmine’ protests to the disappearance of Ai Weiwei.
These people are not mobs. In fact, much of the content managing team belong to the post-80s generation, most with undergraduate degrees, some even with Masters, PhDs or overseas study experience in Europe and the US. At the same time, among the major authors for the website, some have deep exposures to French culture, and others are even scholars teaching in overseas universities. But their broad knowledge and the fact that they are outside the officialdom do not prevent them from becoming staunch defenders of the ruling order.
Such paradoxical mentality is perhaps partially explained by a declaration published in April Media earlier this year. The declaration, called ‘History will Remember the April Youth of 2008’, said that ‘this generation of overseas student often struggles and competes alone. As individual overseas students, the difficulties, setbacks, discrimination, repulsion and hostility they face abroad far exceed those they face at home […] As they try in vain to integrate into the core circles of mainstream societies overseas, to develop and realize their dreams, they start to miss the motherland. And the rapid and miraculous development of China presents tremendous attraction for them. The inevitable consequence is the return of the overseas student community to racial and national identity.’
Like what the author said, this generation of young people eats hamburgers, wears Nike, watches NBA and listens with iPod. Spiritually and materially, they are a globalized generation without any precedents. But deep down, they are at a lost and nervous. Such illusions amid affluence, when combined with selective amnesia under the national education, create a longing for utopia, and an argument for the legitimacy of the political system. In the above-mentioned declaration, the author quoted Mao Zedong, ‘we must be prepared to take the blind alley, and to hurry on after walking though it!’ In another declaration, a young scholar from a famous law school in Beijing said in a Maoist tone, ‘we will discuss about the world order and offer our prescriptions in passionate words […] The Western-centric knowledge system is increasingly at odds with our experience. Let’s reconstruct the world’s image and embrace a wider world.’
Such trends are not only found in these declarations, but also in many aspects of the April Web. Looking at one of its most unique and emphasized video, which features Sima Nan, Sima Pingbang, Wang Xiaodong and Kong Qingdong, you cannot but wonder how a website labelling itself as representing the ‘Youth’s Vision’ could be so similar to Utopia Village (wuyouzhixiang), a leftist and Maoist website. In just three years, the newly emerging nationalists have merged with the generation ten or even twenty years older.
The evidence of this merging could also be found in the post-80s generation’s Global Times style of reasoning. Shortly after the disappearance of Ai Weiwei, the April Web has quickly shoot a three-episode interview series, ‘Onlooking Ai Weiwei’. The respective themes are ‘Anti-Chinese Arts are Darlings of the West’, ‘If Ai Weiwei and the Likes Succeed, China will be Worse’, and ‘Bashing China and Beautifying the West are just Business as Usual’.
‘April Youth’ defends Tsinghua University in the controversies surrounding a call for Tsinghua students to be party loyalists. Tsinghua student Jiang Fangzhou, also belonging to the post-80s generation, critically likened her fellows as ‘worldly cadres without independent thinking’ in a letter to the university. She illustrated the absurd situation in China’s higher education institutions with Wei Guo, a young student aspiring to enter the Central Propaganda Department in Chen Guanzhong’s novel, The Fat Years: China, 2013. They ‘are not unconcerned, only that they willingly defend the government – like defending treasures they are going to inherit.’
As always, inheritance is where family arguments stem from. Jiang Fangzhou’s concern may be a reflection of the conspiracy theories surrounding the fight for the inheritance. And it remains to be seen whether the ‘April Youth’ in these ‘fat years’ are really a bunch of idealists.