Young, angry, and more often than not female, a new generation of keyboard warriors dubbed the “Little Pink” has won the admiration of China’s Communist leaders for targeting their nationalist rage at anyone who they believe has slighted their country.
This week, the activists – who got their name from an online chat group called Jinjiang Forum, which has a pink website – turned this new wave of jingoism on an overseas student and an actress.
Shuping Yang had praised the clean air and freedoms of the United States at her graduation speech at the University of Maryland last Sunday.
She joked about the smog back home in China, and then lauded the “sweet” and “oddly luxurious” air in the US.
“Democracy and freedom are the fresh air that is worth fighting for,” she said in a video that was shared widely on Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter.
Innocuous as her comments may seem to most Westerners, the Little Pink scented blood and a barrage of poisonous online comments followed.
“You scorned your mother country in front of a bunch of foreigners,” said one. “If I may say something evil – no one cares even if you died there.”
Ms Yang was forced to apologise, but a day later the Chinese foreign ministry waded in.
“Any Chinese citizen should be responsible for the remarks he or she makes,” a spokesman said, validating the millions who targeted Ms Yang.
Meanwhile, the Little Pink were also directing venom towards actress Xu Dabao after she turned heads on the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival in a bright red dress adorned with the five stars of the Chinese national flag.
Her actions might seem patriotic enough, but Ms Xu was also forced to apologise after widespread accusations that she was desecrating the flag.
“It is a humiliation to us Chinese,” read one Weibo comment.
“What an insult to the country – she should be punished,” read another.
The “Little Pink” phrase started out as an insult, but many have now embraced the label, priding themselves on doing Beijing’s bidding on the internet.
They are predominantly young women aged between 18 and 24, according to a study published by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Other research suggests as many as 80 percent of China’s keyboard warriors are young women.
They are interested in celebrities and offbeat news, but have entered the world of politics, venting often furious anger towards their enemies.
China has a long history of internet warriors defending Beijing’s leaders and national policy, but many are paid by the government as members of the “50 cent gang”.
By contrast, the Little Pink have become the pride of the ruling Communist Party, largely because of their apparent spontaneity in following the official line.
The People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s mouthpiece newspaper, said the group has “transferred positive energy on to the internet”.
The Communist Youth League, meanwhile, said on Weibo last December that the Little Pink “possess a global outlook but are able to express patriotism and national confidence in a rational way.
“China’s rising is behind such a phenomenon, along with a generation of youth who are full of confidence and hope in the country, and are willing to make efforts for it.”
Additional reporting by Christine Wei