Iron Blood

On 31 March 2006, a user named gjp0423 posted a photo of a car on the Tiexue (“Iron Blood”) bulletin board. On the back of the car – a small Honda – there was a sticker looking like a Chinese flag with a map of China turned upside down. The caption of the photo was: “Foreign businessman’s despicable behaviour: hanging the national flag upside down insults Chinese people.

The description of the Tiexue BBS uses a solemn language replete with stock phrases taken from official proclamations. It describes itself as

A virtual community website with military, history and current affairs as main topics, also offering content related to leisure, posting pictures, and entertainment. Tiexue’s founding principles are: “Cultivate steely determination, embrace hot-blooded sincerity, mold the Chinese national spirit!” (树钢铁意志,怀热血实诚,铸连中华民族魂!). We call upon and organize Tiexue users to support Project Hope (a project that uses donations to support schools in poor rural regions), poverty reduction and other activities for the public good that have long-term benefits for the development of the nation and the race, foster the superior culture of the Chinese race and strengthen national self-confidence. We support and advocate Tiexue users to start from the individual and become Chinese people with ideals, morality, culture, and superior qualities such as uprightness, kindness, and courage who contribute their strength to the great renaissance and peaceful rise of the Chinese nation in various ways.[1]

According to Zhou Yongming’s book Historicizing Online Politics: Telegraphy, the Internet, and Political Participation in China, Tiexue was set up by a student at the prestigious Tsinghua University in 2000. By the end of 2004, it had more than 233 thousand registered members, reflecting the wide popularity of military topics in China.

On the Tiexue site, posters are promoted to higher military ranks as they accumulate points. Their avatars are usually martial and threatening. (By contrast, the use of female pictures as avatars is actually prohibited, and Zhou reports in his book that a user was once “court-martialled” and suspended for a month for using the photo of a Taiwanese porn star.) A “subforum manager intern” called Junshi Daji (“Military Attack”) uses an avatar that looks like an Arab soldier with a missile on his shoulder. His rank is indicated by complicated insignia that include a shoulder plate with three stars and what looks like two military decorations.


He has accumulated 23,803 “work points” (a term that originates in the commune system of the 1950s), 894 “gold coins” (perhaps votes cast in his favour by readers) and ten “copper cash”. Another posters, in the rank of “general of the air forces,” has a fighter jet for an avatar.

Soon, gjp0423’s posting was getting enthusiastic responses. Nan’er Haoqi (“Proud Male”), whose signature file says “Recover Taiwan, Liberate All of China,” wrote: “Where is this car? I must go and bomb it.” Zyw513wyz responded: “If I bump into him I’ll make sure to follow his arse.” Only later did reid_lin point out:

This car belongs to the Heyuan City government in Guangdong Province. But I don’t think that’s a Chinese flag. Look a bit more closely and don’t start yelling if you don’t know what it is! What foreign businessman? What national flag? This is pure sensationalism (纯粹哗众取宠)!

Even so, responses in support of the posting continued to come in. Jimo Guoke (“Lone passerby” said: “Gotta kill’im, gotta kill’im” (该杀该杀). Beishi Zimu (“A Bei family character”) wrote: “He’s just 74 km from Canton. I am waiting for him in Canton!”

Military affairs are highly popular in China. Magazines dealing with weaponry and military strategy lie around barber shops next to the Chinese edition of Men’s Health. Mainstream newspapers, bookshops, and Internet sites have military sections, and China Central Television (CCTV) has a military channel. Universities – at which military training is compulsory for all students – have Military Lovers Societies (军事爱好者协会). Questions such as “When will the next war Japan take place?” elicit lively discussions on the Internet.

When Yan Xuetong, Director of the Institute of International Studies at Tsinghua University, called for increasing China’s military strength, his article received 804 responses from readers on’s military pages alone, and only 103 of those disagreed. Yan argued that the pace of China’s military development was too cautious, and advocated a more aggressive approach.[2] Yan is an influential academic, and his article attacked the post-Mao consensus: that economic growth is paramount for stability, and military spending should not threaten economic growth either by taking too much away from the budget or by destabilizing foreign relations and thereby scaring away investors. A corollary of this thesis is the widely repeated belief that China will not attack Taiwan because it has too much to lose if foreign investments stop coming. Yan was now questioning this “don’t rock the boat” theorem, and put forward his own “theory,” which was that “overall national strength” (综合国力) is a sum of “soft” (economic) and “hard” (military) strength. (“National strength” 国家实力 is a popular term in China; there is even a magazine with that title. “National strength” is supposed to be key to the survival, competitiveness and “greatness” of a nation, and it is the subject of incessant discussions by nationalists who debate what constitutes a “world-class great country” or “strong country” and how far China is from achieving that status.)

Most readers responded enthusiastically to Yan’s “theory,” one praising it as a “monumental contribution to the analysis of complicated social issues” that “everyone in our country’s social sciences should adopt as their own thinking and weapon”.[3] The most common arguments in support of Yan’s view were the following. First, now that China was prosperous, it had to ensure its defense because “America won’t stand by and watch as China’s economic power grows”[4] but will endeavor to take its wealth away, in the same way as it did to Iraq. Several posters compared China to a “bejeweled child,” a rich man without a bodyguard, a “fat pig,” or a “fat sheep”: “The fatter the sheep, the more the wolves: it must grow horns!”[5] Others suggested historical parallels to dynasties that grew corrupt and complacent in their wealth.

Second, China faced numerous threats; indeed, according to one poster, it was “encircled” by enemies: the U.S. and Japan, with some posters adding India or the Taiwan “splittists”. A number of posters appeared to believe that these enemies cannot wait to sink their claws into China’s body: “The Japs are sitting on needles; the Yanks are glaring covetously!”[6] “China must not allow chaos; if chaos occurs, Japan and the U.S. will invade at once, and Chinese will be again reduced to slaves without a homeland.”[7] China had to secure its territory, as well as the oilfields in the Sea of Japan and the islands of the South China Sea, against these threats. “So many countries promote the ‘China threat discourse,’ but we have never promoted the American threat discourse or the Japanese threat discourse. Can’t we talk about those?” [8] A number of posters expressed the belief that, “sooner or later, China will go to war with Japan and the U.S.”[9] One poster appeared to believe it was already happening: “The war with Japan requires us to increase our vigilance at all times!!”[10] Another wrote: “Don’t be afraid of war! It is peace that is the hotbed of corruption!”[11] “Poverty is not frightening,” argued a third; “what is frightening is when your compatriots lose their courage. When you lose your courage, then they bomb your embassy, then they can violate your territory and force down your plane, then they can enter your sees and invade your territory.”[12] The post that received the most clicks “in support” – 116, with only 13 “against” – was one that argued that, in case of a war over Taiwan, China must first strike Japan a decisive blow. [13]

Readers made specific suggestions as to what aspects of China’s military should be boosted: the army should buy or develop, for example, submarines, aircraft carriers, strategic nuclear weapons, intercontinental ballistic missiles and so on. They also proposed various means to raise funds for military spending. One suggested that the Chinese government should issue war bonds; another proposed that every income-earning citizen pay ten yuan towards military spending; a third offered ten thousand yuan for the “liberation of Taiwan Province;” a fourth recommended amending the constitution to allow sending Chinese troops abroad; a fifth proposed a “patriotic tax;” a sixth suggested that China withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. (In fact, officially acknowledged military spending has enjoyed double-digit growth in most of the past fifteen years.)

Dissenters mostly argued that China was still poor and needed to attend to the economy, education and health care first, or that taking on the United States in an arms race was unrealistic, or that the wisdom of the “peaceful coexistence” policy defined by Mao and Deng Xiaoping should not be challenged. Finally, a handful of respondents rejected military development outright: “Bullshit! Day in and day out they goad us into opposing America and increasing military spending, it’s like this is a way of criticizing America for supporting Taiwan independence. Why don’t you come out and say that education [spending] is important?”[14] “All of the articles I have read are like this: foreign countries talk about the ‘China threat,’ China talks about the foreign threat … if it goes on like this, there will be an arms race between countries, and the one with less overall strength will probably lose.”[15] And: “Ordinary folk don’t want war! Because they are always the ones to suffer! The only way out is even more opening, even more transparency!”[16]

Predictably, these people were “flamed” as traitors, fools, cowards, and Japanese spies (“Those who do not support Professor Yan must be remnants of the Japanese brood left behind in China”). But, remarkably, some of their postings received the highest support ratings, while the flamers came in for criticism. Nonetheless, only three participants in the debate rejected the very idea that China was currently under threat, and only one asked the seemingly logical question: “Even if we could beat America, why should we beat it? Would China’s international living environment become better?” (This poster received 51 clicks “against,” but also 18 “in support”.[17])

Interest in military affairs extends to history. The record number of online users at a given time on a site devoted to “German, American and Soviet strategy and military history during World War II,” called 战场军事社区 (Battlefield Military Community), has been a rather high 4,932.[18] The site’s rules prohibit using IDs, avatars and signatures that have “Nazi, reactionary or sensitive content,” but many avatars are photos of American, Soviet or German officers and generals (including Rommel himself), and nicks include “reichsrommel,” “polizeihal,” and “panzerlehr.” Interestingly, the three militaries seem to get along quite well: when newbie poster gohonest addressed Hitler with the words “Hero of the world, if China’s leaders today had a fraction of your spirit, then China wouldn’t be as weak as it is!”[19] few respondents were moved to support or oppose him, choosing to debate instead why Hitler was a vegetarian. Despite the fact that it clearly violates regulations (including the site’s own ban on Nazi speech), the posting was not removed – not because the government would consider it inoffensive, but because military websites in China are not – as in the West – part a violent fringe culture but quite the mainstream.

Avatars and ranks from the Battlefield Military Community site

Proud Male’s post saying “I must go and bomb” the car with the offending sticker –obviously not meant literally – does not sound strange in China. One participant in the discussion on tsunami aid to Indonesia on Tianya wrote, for example: “I want to be a suicide bomber and go to the Indonesian embassy.” When Chinese workers were kidnapped in Pakistan in 2007, some posters advocated military action there.[20] Even the cancellation of Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong’s visit to China during the SARS epidemic in 2003 – which was seen by some Chinese as a slight and a betrayal of ethnic bonds – elicited responses of “Bomb Singapore till she sinks!” and “nuclear warhead, ready! Fire” on a Singapore-based university BBS also frequented by mainland Chinese users.[21] Taxi drivers in Peking often talk about war with the United States as a real, and not unwelcome, possibility, or even as a natural outcome of China’s growing power; but some of the most extreme rhetoric on the Chinese Internet appears on BBS frequented by students overseas, including the United States. In 2005, a list of “traitors” (汉奸) – prominent political scientists, officials, and journalists, including a People’s Daily editor – circulated, among others, on the bulletin boards of Chinese students’ associations of Brown University, the Los Angeles area, and MIT. The “traitors” stood accused of a variety of sins: belittling the need of confronting Japan and the United States, opposing military intervention in Japan, supporting the “war on terror,” advocating democratic reforms, misappropriating state property (or wanting to do so), or criticizing imperial China’s treatment of nomadic peoples. Although to most educated Chinese readers, this list would have appeared like the rigmarole of a madman, it nonetheless elicited many supportive comments, including suggestions to execute the “traitors” right away. Since the list conveniently provided the e-mail addresses and telephone numbers of some of the incriminated individuals, it may have been their luck that the death threats came from rather distant locations, such as Baldwin Park and Denver.[22]

Apart from the disturbing keenness – at least at the level of talk – to embrace violence, paradoxically combined with explanations on how China is a peaceful nation that never bullied anyone, such comments reveal an understanding that nations are biological entities endowed with different capacities, competing for economic resources and hence political dominance. As one poster put it: “The history of mankind’s development is nothing but a history of a struggle to death; the strong survive, this is nature’s basic law!”[23] This view is as evident for ordinary Chinese citizens today as that they as individuals are endowed with different faculties and must compete for resources with each other. It is in these terms that the relationship between China and the United States is explained and understood in Internet chatrooms and the government pronouncements and media reports on the “arduous struggle” (艰苦奋斗) and eventual success of “yellow-skinned, black-haired descendants of the Yellow Emperor” are read.

The dominant view that underlies the discussion of Yan Xuetong’s article is that, after a series of Western powers, it is now China’s turn to emerge as leader in this Darwinian competition; but that this emergence is blocked by the malevolent machinations of the United States and Japan. The rather millenarian view of “it’s China’s turn” has recently been underscored by the twelve-part documentary Rise of the Great Powers, made following a Politburo decision in 2003 and broadcast on China Central Television in late 2006. The series described the rise of “great powers” from Portugal through Germany to the United States in a far more positive way than the customary focus on imperialism and exploitation. The fantasy of the Chinese following in the footsteps of the great globalisers of the past is, of course, shared by many Western commentators: Aihwa Ong argues even that the “globally modern Asian” has become the new ideal American subject in the era of flexible capitalism.[24]

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[2] “专家直言:中国绝对不能只重视经济发展不重视军事” (Straight talk from expert: China must not ignore military and focus on economic development only), originally in Huanqiu Shibao, reproduced on 16 January 2006. 

[3] Posted 16 January 2006.See the post here. The BBS does not automatically display usernames or nicks, so most postings are completely anonymous.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Posted 9 February 2006, ibid.

[9] Posted 16 January 2006, ibid.

[10] Posted 17 January 2006, ibid.

[11] Posted 16 January 2006, ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Posted 10 February 2006, ibid.

[15] Posted 18 January 2006, ibid.

[16] Posted 16 January 2006, ibid.

[17] Posted 16 January 2006, ibid.


[19] The comment was later deleted. See the thread here.

[20] Howard W. French, “Mosque siege reveals the Chinese connection,” International Herald Tribune, 13 July 2007, p. 2.

[21] Brenda Chan, “Imagining the Homeland: The Internet and Diasporic Discourse of Nationalism,” Journal of Communication Inquiry 29(4):336-368 (October 2005), here p. 355.

[22] They were posted on the LA Chinese Students BBS by Unforgiveness on 17 May 2005 and Yin Da Zhuren (“Great Director Porn”) on the following day. Both posts have since been deleted.

[23] Posted 16 January 2006. View thread here.

[24] E.g. Aihwa Ong, Buddha Is Hiding: Refugees, Citizenship, the New America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

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