Emotional Mobilization in Chinese Online bottom-up Populism
Populism is a buzzword of our time and has attracted the attention of politicians, commentators, and scholars alike. In democratic contexts, populist politics focuses on charismatic leaders, such as Donald Trump in the U.S., Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Geert Wields in the Netherlands, and Marine Le Pen in France, etc. Except for these charismatic leaders, we also witness the rise of populist parties, which gradually move from marginalized positions to mainstream politics. Populist politics in democratic contexts can be viewed as a top-down phenomenon in which charismatic leaders and populist parties act as mediators, pitting the people against corrupt elites and established institutions. Except for this top-down understanding of populism, there is also a bottom-up approach to populism, which is demonstrated in social movements, such as the Occupy Movement, the Umbrella Movement, the Arab Spring, and the Indignados Movement. The dynamics between online connective actions and offline collective actions further mobilize the majority of people as underdogs to participate and engage in these bottom-up populist social movements. For example, in the Occupy Movement, the commonly used slogan is "We are the 99%." This slogan attempts to evoke the emotional resonance of normal people as underdogs who are facing systematic social and economic inequality. Here, people's emotions are stirred by the fact that the gap between the 1% and the 99% is getting bigger and bigger.
Due to the distinctive social-cultural background, the Chinese political system seems relatively “immune” to the rise of populist leaders and populist parties. However, China, indeed, has also witnessed the rise of populism in the past two decades. It is defined as online bottom-up populism. The rise of online bottom-up populism is closely related to the popularity of the internet and digital media. The affordances of digital media provide people an unprecedented channel to express their voices, emotions, discontents, and appeals online. The people, covered by the semi-anonymous features of digital media, become netizens and express their concerns online directly, thus raising further public concerns and public discontent. In online bottom-up populism, the netizens serve as the mediators between the people and the elite, appealing in the name of the people. This distinctive bottom-up nature of Chinese populism offers a novel perspective on populism, particularly in the context of digitalization and platformization, both of which are driving forces in today's world.
Online populist protests in China do not depend on resource mobilization or political opportunities, but on emotional mobilization. Emotional mobilization here refers to the process of organizing collective activism by contentious groups who experience the same issues of social injustice, economic inequality, arousing public sense of grievance, indignation, and relative deprivation. In contrast to bottom-up populist social movements in democratic contexts, populist protests in China are limited to online, as offline movements are normally under strict restrictions. As a consequence, emotional mobilization has become an important strategy for online populist protests. As Guobin Yang argues, the emergence of online protests is a process of emotional mobilization, which heavily depends on "those expressive forms and content that may produce among internet users such emotional responses as joy, laughter, anger, sadness, and sympathy."
The aim of emotional mobilization is to stir up the emotions of "disadvantaged" groups and create a unified group feeling in order to get netizens to do or get involved in a certain act, like reposting, commenting, or advocating for official investigations to be open and accountable to the public.
Indignation is one of the main emotions that drives people to engage in online populist protests in China. The widening gaps between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless, the privileged and the underprivileged, evoke people’s indignation towards the corrupt elite. For example, on January 17, 2020, a Sina Weibo user posted several photos, posing in front of a luxury car inside the Palace Museum (center of Beijing) with the flaunting words, "On Monday, the Palace Museum was closed, so I hurried over, hid from the crowds, and went to play in the Palace Museum." The Palace Museum, as one of the most important historical heritage sites, has banned vehicles from entering its grounds since 2013 and is closed for routine maintenance on Monday. The woman violated the car-driving ban, which is in sharp contrast to another incident that occurred in 2013 when the former French President Francois Hollande and his girlfriend visited the Palace Museum and their car was stopped from entering its grounds. Shan Jixiang, who was the curator of the Palace Museum at the time, explained that the car-driving ban was a matter of cultural dignity. He pointed out that the Buckingham Palace in the United Kingdom and the Versailles Palace in France both prohibit cars from entering their grounds.
The woman driver’s post soon went viral, and the flaunting behaviour ignited public discontent and indignation. This is an exemplar online populist case in China as it allows us to explore how netizens’ online connective actions and how their discourse pitted against the rich, privileged elites builds pressure. In order to mobilize more people to participate in an online protest against the privileged elite group, netizens connectively exposed the personal background of the woman driver. As more background was exposed, such as that she failed in her master's degree defense, resigned from Air China as an employee, and owns a luxury mansion in the United States, netizens became more indignant towards the corrupt elites. The narrative outlined how a member of the rich elite, who is not well educated and not hardworking, has the privilege of visiting the Palace Museum on Monday with a luxury car, while normal people have to get in by waiting in a long queue on working days. This sharp contrast sets off a public outcry and forms an emotional antagonism. Despite the Palace Museum responded quickly, informing that stricter management will be implemented to prevent similar incidents from happening again. This vague response fueled more public indignation, as it failed to address public concerns. Why was she allowed to drive into the Palace Museum? Is this a loophole in management or a flaunting of privilege?
Online bottom-up populist protests in China serve as a “pressure valve,” allowing the people as underdogs to express their indignation and concerns about key social issues, as this may release the pressure of Chinese “social volcano.” In particular, the punishment of the culpable elites, to some extent, assuages and compensates for public indignation. The punishment of individualized corrupt elites comforts and compensates public indignation, avoiding online populist protests’ appeal for institutional changes. In this case, in order to calm public outrage, the curator of the Palace Museum apologized to the public and said two senior managers were suspended for investigation. Once the public's emotional demands have been partially satisfied, online populist protests will gradually calm down.
The Palace Museum is located in the Forbidden City (center of Beijing). It used to be the palace of the emperors of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing dynasties (1644-1911) and a symbol of royal power. The Palace Museum is one of the most important historical imperial palaces and world heritage sites in China / Shot by Peiyuan Zhou.
/Kun He, Alice News
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