A WeChat article on the protests in Kathmandu attracted over 15,000 readers and 95 comments. While a handful of posts mocked Nepal’s democracy for dis-allowing protests in what is a democratic state, the phrase ‘ruxiang suisu’ was widely used with requests to fellow Chinese ‘to abide by the rule and to not lose China’s face in the international community’.
On 9 May, the Association of Overseas Chinese in Nepal donated masks to the Nepal Police. But this goodwill initiative was also met with skepticism as the majority of the comments in the article called it an act of ‘clearing up a messy situation’ (擦屁股).
One comment on the WeChat article reads: ‘Well, all the troublemakers squint and let others clear up the messy situation. So many years to establish a good image and so easy to smear!” The article was viewed more than 4,000 times and attracted over 40 comments.
What stands out in all this is that, contrary to the stereotype of Chinese people blinded by nationalism and intolerant of any negative portrayal of their country, there exists Chinese public debate outside of official mainstream media.
There are over 1 billion monthly active users on WeChat and 500 million on Weibo, and they are mostly Chinese. In comparison, there are only 300 million on Twitter and 2.6 billion on Facebook in the rest of the world. Despite strict government enforcement, extensive decentralisation of information continues to occur through domestic social media platforms such as Weibo and WeChat which have served as important space for public discourse and dissent. Accordingly, some scholars consider Weibo to be a platform that ‘fosters civic engagement to achieve just outcomes’ in China.
Last week’s protests in Kathmandu sparked a conversation in Chinese social media among those more acquainted with Nepal, and have a soft spot for the country. It is therefore important not to generalise these sentiments to the larger population, as many Chinese are unaware of the demonstrations. In fact, many Chinese refer to Nepal as ‘shen mi‘ (神秘 roughly translated as ‘mysterious’) until very recently.
In the past, Sino-Nepal exchanges were only limited at inter-governmental level. The state visit by President Xi Jinping to Kathmandu in October brought more positive news reporting about Nepal and also increased socio-economic and cultural exchanges at a people-to-people level.
Understanding and empathising with public opinion in both countries, and not stereotyping the entire population for acts of a few individuals would help remove future friction.
As one online post on WeChat reflected this week: ‘After all, Sino-Nepal relations is not only a slogan or a political requirement, but an understanding of each other.’
Aneka Rebecca Rajbhandari is an undergraduate student of political science from the School of Government at Peking University in Beijing. Rastraraj Bhandari is doing his Masters in Economics and China Studies at the Yenching Academy at Peking University.