China’s online nationalist army

Entry type: Single project

Country/area: Japan

Publishing organisation: Nikkei Inc.
Published on Nikkei Asia(asia.nikkei.com) and Nikkei(Nihon Keizai Shinbun, nikkei.com).

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 2022-12-29

Language: English, Japanese

Authors: Data Analysis; Kenji Asada and Aiko Munakata
Reporters; Marrian Zhou, Cissy Zhou and Grace Li
Editor; Michael Peel
Web Direction; Shohei Yasuda
Design, Marking-up and Illustration; Yuri Morita
Programmers; Masayuki Shimizu, Marina Nakagawa and Ryohei Senzaki


Kenji Asada and Aiko Munakata were the data journalists. Kenji studied at Columbia University’s J-school in 2019 and has been on Nikkei’s data team since. Aiko worked on data analysis at the Japan Center for Economic Research and has been with Nikkei’s data team for two years.
The reporting team comprised Marrian Zhou in New York and Cissy Zhou and Grace Li in Hong Kong. All speak Chinese fluently. The editor was Michael Peel, Nikkei Asia executive editor (on secondment from the Financial Times).
Designers Shohei Yasuda and Yuri Morita have both received multiple awards for web design and illustrations.

Project description:

This project is a highly original examination of how online nationalism has grown in China during Xi Jinping’s leadership – and is changing in a potentially explosive way. Ultra-patriotic social media personalities attack foreign governments and big companies – and sometimes call for even harsher actions than Beijing takes.

We focused on the keyword “ruhua” – “insulting China” – to highlight a crucial shift in messaging on the popular Weibo digital platform. Where once state institutions led the way, now individuals – some of them officially-backed – play a much bigger role. That increases the risk that social media nationalism could spiral out of control.

Impact reached:

The story has had a big impact since its publication just a few weeks ago.

The project had more than 60,000 page views on the Nikkei Asia website with an average time on page of 4 minutes 33 seconds as of January 16, 18 days after publication. These figures are multiples larger than median benchmarks for feature articles.

The Japanese translation of the story published by Nikkei had secured more than 220,000 page views, as of January 17. A version of it also appeared as the lead story in Nikkei’s flagship newspaper, which has 2.5 million readers.

The story was highly praised by overseas Chinese watchers, including prominent scholars focusing on China studies. The story was widely shared in China too, where most people are prevented from accessing most overseas media sites. Some people said they were shocked how a Japanese media outlet could know China so well, with all these telling details on its social media.

Bill Bishop, a noted China watcher based in the U.S., recommended this story highly to his many paid newsletter subscribers. He wrote: “Nikkei Asia has put together an excellent report on the rise of online nationalism since 2012, and especially the increasing use of the accusation of ruhua 辱华, or “insulting China”.”

Li Qi, a U.S. based journalist who has 82,000 Twitter followers, said the project was a “Top notch data visualization from @NikkeiAsia.”

Stewart McDonald, a member of the UK parliament, tweeted: “Fascinating research and data analysis on the CCP’s online army of fanatics from @NikkeiAsia … Throws up all sorts of concerning questions.”

Prof Kazuto Suzuki, a renowned international political scientist at the University of Tokyo, tweeted: “Interesting article that captures the history of the closed Chinese speech space through analysis of social networking sites.”

Techniques/technologies used:

We first of all chose “ruhua” as the key search term because this term has been frequently used by Chinese nationalists over the past few years. It has been deployed to attack foreign governments, western companies and Chinese businesses. Examining the occurrence of this particular phrase also showed how widespread, wide-ranging and aggressive online nationalism has become these days.

We used open source tools (Weibo Search, Weibo Scraper, etc.) available on Github to gather information on social networking sites. For data analysis, we used Python, and for data visualization, we used free tools such as RawGraphs 2.0.

We used D3.js to produce the beeswarm chart and network diagram. The palette was designed to be as accessible as possible to readers with color vision deficiencies. We made good use of general HTML and CSS, and devised a stress-free way to tell the story through scrolly-telling.

Context about the project:

It is very hard to examine public opinion in China because of the information controls imposed by the government. We used open-source tools (Weibo Search, Weibo Scraper, and so on) available on Github to gather information on social media and explore trends in public opinion. The idea of focusing on the keyword “ruhua”, or “insulting China”, which is often used by nationalists, was important in this analysis.

At the start of our research, we were able to obtain data on posts containing the term ruhua on Weibo. Around November 2022, just after the Chinese Communist Party Congress, it suddenly became impossible to retrieve this data. We therefore based our analysis on the data we had obtained and – fortunately – stored before Octorber 2022. It is not clear why the data became impossible to retrieve.

It is difficult for journalists in Mainland China to do this kind of research. Journalists based in Tokyo, New York and Hong Kong worked closely together to complete this article.

After publication, some online nationalists targeted the reporters on the project, who are all either Chinese nationals or of Chinese heritage. The nationalists did not allege any factual inaccuracies but instead accused the reporters of offering “intelligence” to the Japanese and being “traitors” to their motherland. Nikkei and Nikkei Asia are closely monitoring developments and making efforts to prevent further harassment.

This is unfortunately a sign of the pressures journalists of Chinese heritage face when they do this kind of reporting. It also reinforces a main point of the piece: that the behaviour of some online nationalist elements in China is aggressive and disturbing.

What can other journalists learn from this project?

This project is a great example of how to use data to measure an important but hard to quantify phenomenon: in this case, nationalism.

By focusing on a specific high-profile term – “ruhua”, or “insulting China” – we found a good proxy for broader rising ultra-patriotism.

This allowed us to draw a striking concrete conclusion: that nationalism is increasingly being spread online by individuals rather than Chinese state institutions. In addition, by analysing the networks of reposting, we exposed otherwise invisible relationships between the Chinese government, media and individual nationalists.

It also shows the power of a multidisciplinary approach to publication and teamwork. We tapped into data expertise in Tokyo and Hong Kong, Chinese-language reporting skills in Hong Kong and New York, and English-language editing skills in Tokyo. We also complemented the graphics with a striking “hero image” illustration.

The result is a highly distinctive account of a growing trend in online nationalism that is hugely important to China’s internal politics and relations with other countries. It also affects some big companies, both foreign and Chinese.

Project links: