Lonely Boys and Losers: Are we overstating the fenqing phenomenon?

March 15th, 2009 · 80 Comments

This post is a response to two essays written this past weekend.  One on the blog Froogville that in turn sparked a response from Richard at The Peking Duck.  Below are my own thoughts, which began as a comment on TPD but ran long and so I’ve decided to post them here.

I don’t think that fenqing can be defined by a particular perspective or viewpoint.  Certainly adopting the CCP or Han nationalist worldview doesn’t make one a fenqing. Furthermore, it is far too simplistic to say that just because somebody accepts the CCP worldview on a set of issues this means they are “indoctrinated” or “brainwashed.”  But I would suggest that fenqing do share some traits in common with the CCP.  The CCP’s information/education environment is not only mono-message but actively hostile to dissenting perspectives.  Likewise, for me, the defining characteristic of a fenqing is not strong belief in a particular view, but rather an inability to accept that other valid perspectives might exist.

As with the CCP, a common strategy is to attack the speaker/writer rather than address an argument.  For the party, witness the continuing ham-handed attempts to paint the Dalai Lama as a “jackal in monk’s robes,” or the knee-jerk detention and intimidation of dissenters and protesters.  On a smaller scale, the fenqing follow the same playbook: Anti-CNN, ad hominem attacks on websites and blogs, Chinese exceptionalism (If you’re not from China, how dare you say…), all attack the messenger with very little said about the message.

The third characteristic reminiscent of the CCP (and the US government for the past eight years) is a consistent tendency to see complex issues in black/white with no room for nuance, complexity, or balance.  Fenqing bristle at the mere introduction of complexity into the discussion, so enmeshed are they in the certainty of a worldview cast in anti-intellectual stone fronted by a plaque that reads “New learning need not apply, I have all I will ever need.”

Finally, and this is perhaps of greater importance for historians, debate on history for fenqing, as it is for the CCP, is driven not by the spirit of historical inquiry and research, but by the emotional and political needs of the present.  The rich history of the Tibetan people is less important than justifying the PRC’s continued control over the region.  Anything that is irrelevant to that goal (or worse, complicates those claims) is attacked and dismissed.

At the same time, it’s easy to overstate the importance of the fenqing.  The fenqing are to most patriotic Chinese youth what the meth-riddled KKK rednecks on Jerry Springer are to the Republican party.  They are wildly overrepresented on the internet, and the web gives this whacked-out fringe a powerful megaphone that amplifies their voices and adds to their self-importance.

This is hardly scientific, but every once in awhile, if I get the chance, I’ll ask colleagues or friends about fenqing or show them some of the nuttier comments left on sites like The Peking Duck or Blog for China, and ask them their opinion.  “Lonely boys” is one of the most common replies, along with “morons,” “people of poor quality,” or “well-intentioned but without culture.”  Unscientific to be sure, but telling: I do think most of the fenqing are motivated as much by psychological warps as they are politics.  Young men (and there is a heavy gender component to this whole debate as might well be imagined), stuck in dorm rooms in Boston or Paris, socially isolated, sexually frustrated, and confronted with cognitive dissonance caused by the new information environment.  They huddle before their computer screens or clasp together in tight monolingual groups and vent.  (For that matter, that describes any number of “fenwai” in Beijing as well, but I digress…)

Last year I suggested this potential headline: “Angry Chinese youth finds girlfriend, loses virginity, decides ‘CNN not so bad after all.’”

Nationalism in China, especially online nationalism, is an important trend to watch.  While the PRC is an authoritarian government, it is not immune to the pressures of public opinion.  There is always the potential that in the event of an international (or domestic) crisis, online opinion, if left unchecked, could run ahead of the government position and so limit the options for a moderate response.  But if we are to accept that being a fenqing is less about a particular perspective than a style of debate, then it’s also clear that the fenqing are hardly the totality of the new Chinese patriotism.  They are a loud voice, to be sure, that is their modus operandi, but scratch the surface and they are quickly unmasked for who they truly are: lonely boys, bullies hiding behind ridiculous screen names, and anti-intellectual frauds.

Nevertheless, they can be hard to ignore, especially the online trolls that infest sites like The Peking Duck and others, though it’s wise to remember that despite the shrillness of their voices, the fenqing and the troll can best be compared to the short guy in the corner of the bar, whom all the women are ignoring, and so he decides to be as obnoxious as possible in the hope that somebody–anybody–notices him.  Frankly, it’s kind of sad, and so, I feel, are the fenqing.