China’s cyber-nationalism during international conflicts: framing the US-China trade war on social media


Nationalism, as a mode of political discourse, is in a delicate relationship with state politics and national identity. In recent years, nationalism among Chinese mass has been on the rise with the help of social media, especially under the context of international conflicts. However, existing research has mainly concentrated on how the general public constructs and displays nationalism online, instead of how news media coverage sparks and shapes this discourse.

This study focused on the framing of the US-China trade war on China’s social media. As one of the major international events in 2019, the US-China trade war (aka the Sino-US trade friction) has broad influence worldwide and provided national media institutions, key opinion leaders and other interest groups with an opportunity to frame the event in ways that resonate with local audiences. Data mining is used to sort out posts on Weibo (one of China’s largest social media platforms) which contain nationalist sentiments in their texts and comments. Frame analysis of 477 influential Weibo posts is conducted. In addition, the study also identifies the signature matrix of the coverage and the main interpretive packages comprising it.

Results showed: (1) National media and elites (key opinion leaders) play leading roles in generating the discourse of nationalism, while the general public mainly echoes and participates in the discussion. (2) Three types of frames are commonly used to spark nationalist sentiments - the cultural identity frame, the political frame and the economy frame. (3) Coverage of the trade war on social media tends to use expressions that trigger emotional response rather than cognitive response.

Following the research results, the authors make further discussions on how cyber-nationalism resonates with China’s mainstream political discourse and also, the possible influence of this fast-growing mass nationalism on China’s diplomacy and international image. 

This paper is a periodical result of our study on the role of social media companies in shaping political discourse in China. A survey related to this paper examining the relationship between media exposure and one’s nationalist opinions is in progress.

  • The video presentation format - PowerPoint / Animation Presentations With Voice-over: A narrated PowerPoint presentation created in PowerPoint or video authoring software such as Camtasia. The author will record a short introduction in front of the camera at the beginning of the video.