China Army 2012
Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers. Reuters

China’s new, unilateral Air Defense Identification Zone has ratcheted up long-standing tension in the East China Sea, particularly over a cluster of tiny islands. Stirring up anger at Japan and the U.S., Chinese media, and grassroots social media, have played up patriotic and nationalistic language.

A particularly impassioned post that went viral on the social media platform Weibo, titled "You Are Nobody without the Motherland," reflects the current mood. The post, which was first seen in mid-November, called on all Chinese citizens to be wary of “Western anti-China powers,” which “could take advantage of social instability to harm Chinese people.” It added, “Proactively safeguarding national sovereignty and territorial integrity must become the consensus of every citizen.”

The post came amid the back-and-forth military flexing of Japan, the U.S. and China over the cluster of islands in the East China Sea, known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China. Beijing’s recent decision to unilaterally establish an air defense zone that includes these islands is seen by the Chinese as reclaiming what is rightfully theirs. But Japan remains steadfast in claiming the islands as its own and has shown this by flying fighter jets over the area; the U.S. did the same.

Though Japan (and Taiwan) are the rival claimants, the anonymous post targets the U.S. as a conspirator against China’s global growth. The post said the U.S. was attempting to initiate “internal chaos” in China, adding that “China became the biggest threat to the U.S. after a collapse of the former Soviet Union. Their plots have long been known to all.”

According to the South China Morning Post of Hong Kong, several state-run news publications have rallied behind the post, fanning Chinese patriotism among citizens. The PLA Daily, the paper of the People’s Liberation Army, Xinhua News and Guangming Daily have all run commentary on the viral post. The Guangming Daily wrote that complaints and critics of the government were “disturbing noises” among the chatter and that patriotism should become the “deepest emotion” for every Chinese.

While government critics are plentiful in China, particularly online, some believe that such criticism is an essential sign of patriotism.

In an op-ed for the New York Times, Beijing-based author Yu Hua attempted to explain the growing sense of patriotism and confidence seen following the ADIZ announcement. “In my view, the significance of this step is not the warning to Japan, but the patriotic stance it represents,” he writes. “For a long time a strain of popular opinion in China had criticized the government for being weak on the [island] issue. The new stance can be seen as a response to these sentiments.”

Yu noted the source of patriotism and criticism: the Chinese blogosphere. “Some people still aren’t clear about the difference between nation and government. And so anyone who aims a criticism at the government gets denounced as a traitor,” he wrote on his microblog. “Let me make an analogy: The nation is like one’s parents, and the government is like a steward; loving the steward and loving one’s parents are completely different things. One can’t change one’s parents, but one has every right to replace the steward.”

When it comes to the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, Yu cited a slogan that he saw during an anti-Japanese protest that explains why the strong government stance is a something of a win-win scenario for the Chinese public. “Let’s fight! If we win, we get the Diaoyu Islands; if we lose, we get a new China,” the slogan read. In this case, the “new China” implies the overthrow of the Communist Party.