How China manufactured nationalism in triumph over Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhaou’s return

The celebration is part of Chinese State media’s carefully manufactured nationalistic narrative

Megha Pardhi October 04, 2021 17:06:12 IST
How China manufactured nationalism in triumph over Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhaou’s return

Meng Wanzhou. AP

"If faith has colour, it must be China Red," said 49-year-old Meng Wenzhou, after returning to China after almost three years. Triumph in her speech and nationalism in the air around her couldn't have been more evident.

Meng Wanzhou, Chief Finance Officer (CFO) of Huawei, returned to China on 25 September after she was arrested in December 2018 in Canada following an extradition request from the US, on charges of with fraud and misleading HSBC over Huawei’s business dealings in Iran in violations of American sanctions on Iran. She pleaded “not guilty” to charges but accepted that some information in her presentation to HSBC was false. She returned after the United States (US) agreed to drop the extradition request. The nationalist rhetoric of China's triumph in securing Meng's release was overflowing everywhere from state media to social media. Social media was abuzz with news of Meng coming back to the "motherland" to the extent that on 25th Sept, 26 of the top 30 hot searches on Weibo were related to Meng.

While netizens admired China’s diplomatic efforts for securing her release, others were swooning over the very public display of affection by Meng's husband, Liu Xiaozong. The nationalistic fervour among netizens is perhaps best exemplified by a cartoon by Chinese cartoonist Wu Heqiling. It depicts a woman dressed in yellow being rescued from a huge shark-like creature, with its skin coloured as the US flag, by officers in a red helicopter. The cartoon went viral in China and even the Embassy of People's Republic of China in Sri Lanka shared it on Twitter. State media in China left no stone unturned in covering Meng's return. The hours-ling live broadcast of her landing at Bao’an airport in Shenzhen also featured a live flight tracker. Over 400 million people reportedly watched the live broadcast.

The celebration is part of State media’s carefully manufactured nationalistic narrative.

State media and Chinese diplomats have repeatedly described this case as an example of “bullying” by the West. They presented the arrest of Meng and US policies targeting Huawei as China battling injustice. State media like Global Times and its editor-in-chief Hu Xijin were at the forefront of such narratives, arguing that the Huawei case was an indicator of the US intention to “sabotage China’s economic development.”  Such attempts have evidently been successful in mobilising nationalistic sentiment among Chinese citizens.

The official propaganda machinery is still churning out such narratives. For starters, the media is projecting this as China's victory over "oppressive" tactics of the US and its allies. For instance, Chinese diplomats and media have repeatedly argued that Meng's release was secured due to the "consistent attitude of the Chinese government" and "mounting pressure on Canada."
State media also projected massive public support for Meng's release.

An article in Global Times argues that over 15 million netizens from over 100 countries, including the US, UK, Australia and Canada, signed a petition launched by the Global Times on 18 August. In addition to the above, state media initially did not cover the simultaneous release of Canadian citizens Micahel Kovrig and Michal Spavor as Meng returned to China. Later, it spent energy refuting the connection between the cases. This is evidently because it puts an asterisk over the whole unilateral victory narrative being pushed by the state machinery.

In fact, for state media, China did not make any concessions to the US to secure Meng’s release. An article in Global Times quotes an expert who asserts that the US is making concessions this time, not China. Finally, state media has also been trying to capitalise on the French discontent over AUKUS and how the US bullied French company Alstom like Huawei. The face of this propaganda is Alstom and the arrest of Alstom's executive Frederic Pierucci in 2013. The state-affiliated media is churning out similarities between the treatment of Huawei and Alstom, narrating stories on suppression of tech companies and unfair treatment by the US.

Second, claiming victory in Meng’s case became easier because it was carefully crafted as bullying over the course of the US-China Trade War in the past few years. The blacklisting of Chinese companies by the Trump administration further strengthened the narrative of the Washington-led west oppressing China’s technology companies. At one point in the trade war, netizens in China called for a boycott of Apple products in support of Huawei. Despite Ren Zhengfei, founder of Huawei, calling to support American companies, the anti-American trend was strong in China.

Targeting Huawei also brought out memories of the opium war and the unjust treatment of China after that. Chinese diplomats aided with state media-fuelled this narrative of historic injustice on China and its similarity with the Huawei case. For example, CGTN published an opinion piece which argued that the campaign to crush Huawei is the new Opium war. Hong Kong lawmaker Kenneth Lau also expressed a similar opinion. Hence, strong anti-American sentiment fostered in China over the last few years.

Moreover, various measures taken by the Communist Party of China (CPC) in the last decade to build a “moral” and sanitised version of the internet also contributed towards the quick mobilisation of nationalistic sentiments amongst netizens. From censoring controversial keywords to rewarding positive and pro-government narratives, CPC has employed various methods to slowly steer Chinese netizens away from controversial topics and towards its own version of “moral” and “civilised” internet. Even the news of Meng’s arrest was toned down initially and the posts on Weibo and WeChat demanding action on Meng’s arrest were removed.

Only a few articles by official media were kept available. This allowed state media to efficiently build their own narrative around the events of Meng’s arrest. Even though instances of online activism still occur occasionally, the process of “sanitizing” and “civilising” internet is still going on. It is evident from the new guidelines “Opinions on Strengthening the Construction of Network Civilization” released by the State Council and General Office of Central Committee of CPC which emphasizes creating a “civilised cyberspace” based on Marxist values.

Lastly, narratives of heroism and sacrifice for the nation strengthen the feeling of nationalism. Heroes and heroines become a symbol of nationalist ambitions and capabilities. Their pain is the nation's pain, their suffering is the nation's suffering, and their victory is the nation's victory. The sympathy for the heroes binds the nation, and their cause becomes a rallying cry. The "princess of Huawei" is the new heroine of China. Meng seems to have embraced this role quite effectively. Her speech at the Bao'an airport was full of symbolism typically associated with nationalism. She thanked Xi Jinping for caring about her and caring for all Chinese citizens abroad. She said "Motherland, I am now back to you" and "I felt speechless the moment my feet touched Chinese soil.” The references to "motherland" and "Chinese soil" are classic nationalistic symbols.

China has successfully turned the blacklist of Huawei and Meng Wanzhou’s arrest to further strengthen the nationalist sentiments in the country. These sentiments were no doubt useful in placating the anger over the management of the COVID-19 pandemic. The state-sponsored media and Chinese diplomats played a huge role in building the nationalist narrative in the US-China Trade War using Huawei’s case. The scale of celebrations on Meng’s arrival is also a result of the internet censorship and civilizing process decades in making. Hence Meng’s return became a symbol of the national victory and a triumph that is manufactured but appears organic.

The author is a Research Analyst (China Studies) at Takshashila Institution. She tweets @pardhimegha21. Views are personal

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