Vachirawit, who goes by the name “Bright,” was not the first foreign celebrity or brand to cause offense in China by mischaracterizing issues related to Hong Kong or Taiwan, or by crossing numerous other political red lines familiar to those within China’s Great Firewall.
Nor was he the first to try to apologize, only to have more alleged transgressions dredged up by nationalist Chinese web users looking for a new scalp.
They called for a boycott of Vachirawit and his TV show, “2gether,” and some began posting attacks against his girlfriend on both Weibo and Twitter under the hashtag #nnevvy.
The expression of similar sentiments on Twitter were met with pushback by Thai fans, who quickly found themselves targeted by the Chinese users, who posted insults demeaning the southeast Asian country and its government. But here the users, used to debating within the limits of the Great Firewall, revealed something of how limited their political worldview is by censorship and propaganda.
In seeking to insult the Thais they were arguing with, they turned to the worst topics they could imagine, but instead of outrage, posts criticizing the Thai government or dredging up historical controversies, were met with glee by the mostly young, politically liberal Thais on Twitter.
While all this may seem petty and inconsequential, the failure of this particular trolling campaign is illustrative of a wider issue. The attitude expressed by the angry “little pinks” engaging in it, an easily offended, touchy nationalism that links love for country with love of the Communist Party and its leaders, has grown substantially in recent years, drowning out — with the assistance of the censors — what limited criticism there was of the government on the Chinese internet.
This type of groupthink could have potential real world consequences down the line. While China’s leaders do not need to worry about public opinion in the same as their counterparts in a democracy, they cannot ignore it entirely. On issues such as pollution, corruption and food safety, public opinion has had a notable effect on government policy, even as the censors worked to ensure that people did not escalate their online dissatisfaction to offline protests.
However, in the past the authorities have seen patriotic anger run out of their control.
In both instances, intense policing both online and off was able to rein in the protests, but it also exposed the government to a level of public anger they were not used to for not giving in to calls for a more belligerent response to either Japan or the Philippines.
This led to calls from many online in mainland China for the Chinese military to intervene.
When the Hong Kong government instead gave in to some of the protesters’ demands, it was to the understandable shock of many in China whose view of the unrest had been shaped by state media. This led to a backlash against Beijing, with some online asking the obvious question of why Hong Kong protesters, which state media had persistently referred to as rioters, could win concessions?
In both instances, just as the #nnevvy trolls were unable to conceive of anyone not being offended by having their government mocked, the limits of political imagination had been constrained by censorship and propaganda.
While some Hong Kongers and Taiwanese were crowing over the embarrassment of the Chinese trolls, they shouldn’t be too complacent about the potential ramifications for any future debate over either territory’s sovereignty.
If China’s leaders one day find themselves painted into a corner by their own propaganda, unable to pursue or even consider more pragmatic solutions, the results could be potentially disastrous.