Digital Nationalism in Online Networks: The Diaoyu / Senakaku Island Dispute on China’s Web

19 Pages Posted: 5 Aug 2014

Date Written: August 4, 2014


Over the past years, a group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea has emerged as the object of arguably one of the most explosive security conflicts in Asia. The islands, called Diaoyu in Chinese and Senkaku in Japanese, have long been an issue of contention between China, Japan, and Taiwan, with each side claiming sovereignty over these territories. Recent developments, however, have been driven by dynamics that are significantly more complex than those that international relations scholars have explored for past standoffs over these islands. Today, it is not merely the different governments that have been clashing over who owns these contested territories, but private actors and organizations have also contributed to the issue by constructing this conflict over national sovereignty online. In China, netizens commenting on the issue have been advocating their personal vision of patriotism (aiguo zhuyi), some angrily denouncing Japanese authority over the islands as a humiliation for the Chinese nation (guochi), others calling for restraint or collaboration across national borders. The outcome of these complex processes is a mix of conflicting statements and actions that at times seem to assuage the tensions, at other times seem to escalate the situation to the point that the online anger spills into the streets as public protest.

By taking the current territorial dispute in the East China Sea as its case, this paper asks: How do networked actors use Information and Communication Technologies to shape nationalist discourse in the People’s Republic of China, vis-à-vis Japan as foreign Other? Combining quantitative and qualitative methods, it examines how the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands issue is shaped on the Chinese side through the digital interactions of different actors. Using digital tools, such as the issuecrawler software, the paper shows how these various actors are linked together, and how interest groups and individuals use digital infrastructures to construct a discourse on national history and sovereignty. It further explores what statements actors make on the topic by subjecting the relevant websites to a qualitative multi-modal discourse analysis. The case study demonstrates how Chinese animosities towards Japan are reworked in the service of community building, an activity beneficial both to the state and to private actors, although often for very different reasons. It further shows how this digital discourse creates the backdrop before which Chinese politicians have to negotiate their actions vis-a-vis Japan, and argues that this dynamic adds a layer to political decision-making that needs to be systematically explored if we are to understand how conflicts over sovereignty play out in the information age.

Keywords: China, Japan, Nationalism, Internet, Network Analysis, Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands

Suggested Citation

Schneider, Florian, Digital Nationalism in Online Networks: The Diaoyu / Senakaku Island Dispute on China’s Web (August 4, 2014). APSA 2014 Annual Meeting Paper, Available at SSRN:

Florian Schneider (Contact Author)

Leiden University ( email )

Postbus 9500
Leiden, Zuid Holland 2300 RA

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