Contested disaster nationalism in the digital age: Emotional registers and geopolitical imaginaries in COVID-19 narratives on Chinese social media

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Abstract

This article examines how affective narratives of the COVID-19 pandemic on Chinese social media reinforce and challenge established scripts of national identity, political legitimacy, and international geopolitical imaginary. Taking theoretical insights from the scholarship on trauma, disaster nationalism, and politics of emotions, I structure the analysis of social media posts from state media and private accounts around three emotional registers: grief as a crucial site of control and contestation during the initial stage of the outbreak; gandong (being moved in a positive way) associated with stories of heroic sacrifices, national unity, and mundane ‘heart-warming’ moments; and enmity in narratives of power struggles and ideological competition between China and ‘the West’, especially the United States. While state media has sought to transform the crisis into resources for strengthening national belonging and regime legitimacy through a digital reworking of the long-standing repertoire of disaster nationalism, alternative articulations of grief, rage, and vernacular memory that refuse to be incorporated into the ‘correct collective memory’ of a nationalised tragedy have persisted in digital space. Furthermore, the article explicates the ways in which popular narratives affectively reinscribe dominant ideas about the (inter)national community: such as the historical imagination of a continuous nationhood rising from disasters and humiliation, positive energy, and a dichotomous view of the international order characterised by Western hegemony and Chinese victimhood. The geopolitical narratives of the pandemic build on and exacerbate binary oppositions between China and ‘the West’ in the global imaginary, which are co-constructed through discursive practices on both sides in mutually reinforcing ways. The lens of emotion allows us to attend to the resonances and dissonances between official and popular narrativisations of the disaster without assuming a one-way determinate relationship between the two.
Original languageEnglish
JournalReview of International Studies
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 06 Jan 2022

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