Inside Story

Little Pinks and their achy breaky hearts

China’s army of easily offended young internet-watchers is attracting its own critics

Linda Jaivin Big China 3 December 2021 1461 words

Not so sorry: Kimberley Chen and Namewee in “Fragile.”

“Little Pinks,” xiao fenhong, is the name given to the young, hypersensitive, hyper-nationalist keyboard commandos of the People’s Republic of China. Xiao means “little” or “young” and fenhong means pink, but the expression can also mean “little fans of the Red.” Originally the younger sisters of the predominantly male “Wolf Warriors” (who, unlike Little Pinks, have a significant offline presence, including in the Chinese foreign ministry), Little Pinks are primarily an online phenomenon, and now both male and female. Splenetic, sarcastic and easily offended, they reserve some of their most bilious trolling for women, especially feminists. They’ve labelled young women who have called out prominent men for #MeToo sexual harassment “toilet paper” and tools of China’s foreign enemies, and viciously attacked Yang Li, the stand-up comic who dared to ask, with a giggle, how some men could be so mediocre and so self-confident. Whatever their current gender balance, Little Pinks lean more to brotherhood than sisterhood.

But if they are eager to defend the patriarchy, they are even more devoted to the Fatherland. They act as online vigilantes on the lookout for anyone — Chinese, foreign, or foreign Chinese — who has “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.”

The feelings of the Chinese people can be hurt in many ways, according to the most vocal and thin-skinned of their self-appointed representatives: call out human rights abuses in Xinjiang, support Hong Kong democrats or Taiwan autonomy, criticise Xi Jinping or ask #WhereIsPengShuai, to name some of the most obvious. Little Pinks keep a beady eye on artists and entertainers, trawling for current offences and past missteps, ready to foul the reputation and break the careers of any they’ve deemed to have crossed the Red line. Among those who have felt their wrath are Chloé Zhao, Oscar-winning director of Nomadland, for something she said (the mainland is a place of “lies”) and something she didn’t (“The US is now my country” — she actually said “not my country”). Another was a Chinese model living overseas who wished her followers “happy lunar new year” instead of “happy Chinese new year.”

The Little Pinks demand apologies, and frequently receive the most grovelling of ones, from those who want to keep working, or at least making money, in China. For one of the most bizarrely entertaining, see that of Fast and Furious star John Cena, apologising for calling Taiwan a country in mildly fluent if syntactically eccentric Mandarin, painfully wrestling each syllable to the floor as he professes his love for the Chinese people.

Little Pinks and apology videos were ripe for satire. The Malaysian-Chinese hip-hop artist and filmmaker Namewee and Kimberley Chen, an Australian singer living in Taiwan, have now delivered it in spades with their parodical music video “Fragile,” or “It Might Break Your Pinky Heart.” In the process they have, if not broken, at least cracked the internet.

The video begins with a tongue-in-cheek trigger warning for Little Pinks, opening in a Hobbiton-like rural idyl. A panda, dressed in pink camo overalls and matching military hat, wakes up and does his morning calisthenics while waving a banner that says NMSL (ni ma si le, “your mother’s dead,” one of the Little Pinks’ favourite terms of abuse). We see pinkish bales of cotton (symbolising Xinjiang) and garlic chives (internet slang for the cynical government and corporate view of people in China as a harvestable and replaceable resource: cut them down, and more grow back). As the duo sing lines such as “You never listen to what I have to say… you treat the world as your enemy… you say (I belong to you)… and want me to protect your fragile glass heart…” the panda frolics, plays wine glasses, breaks wine glasses, chops garlic chives and cooks up a pink bat stew. When the doe-eyed and hammily rueful Chen croons, “I’m so sorry” for hurting his feelings, she’s clearly anything but.

The song and video are a rich Where’s Wally of symbols, verbal puns, political barbs and piss-takes. Its frothy pink surface and sweet, energetic vocals are suffused with references to the forced closure of Hong Kong’s lively anti-Communist paper Apple Daily, re-education and forced labour in Xinjiang, the production of counterfeit goods, Covid-19’s origins, territorial claims in the South China Sea and Taiwanese autonomy. There’s even an allusion to Xi Jinping’s boast about humping one hundred kilos of wheat on a carrying pole for five kilometres during the Cultural Revolution without switching shoulders.

Namewee released the video on his YouTube channel on 15 October; by the end of November, it had more than thirty-four million views, hundreds of thousands of comments and almost one million “likes.”

“Fragile” has given a boost to what we might call “Pinkology,” with apologies to all the Redologists out there. Redology, hongxue, doesn’t refer to the study of communism or “Red China,” but is the field of academic study devoted to commentary and exegesis on the eighteenth-century novel Dream of the Red Chamber. But there is a link: like many other of China’s ancient literary classics, poems and songs, Dream is full of cryptic political and other references.

Chinese literary culture, with its accretion of thousands of years of references, intertextual quotations and riffs, has long provided satirists with what the scholar Geremie R. Barmé described to me as “a haystack of allusions in which to hide your needles.” Barmé and the linguist Stuart Jay Raj are among those who have contributed to Pinkology by decoding and contextualising the multilayered satire of “Pinky Heart” for an English-speaking audience.

Although Communists aren’t generally renowned for their sense of humour, Mao Zedong openly admired one of the greatest and most acerbic of modern China’s literary satirists, Lu Xun (1881–1936). Had Lu Xun, with his mordant wit and commitment to social justice, lived to see the founding of the People’s Republic, however, it’s not at all certain that he’d have survived communism itself. Despite official insistence that Lu Xun’s barbed criticisms of the Chinese character apply only to the “old society,” his work stubbornly continues to offer insights into today’s China. In fact, his most famous creation, the character Ah Q, thin-skinned, obsequious towards his superiors and a bully to those he considers his inferiors — a man who insists every slap in the face is a victory — might even be seen as the Great Ancestor of the Little Pinks.

Yu Liang, an influential journalist and academic at Shanghai’s Fudan University, has written a seminal work of Pinkology: “The Genealogy and Ecology of the Little Pinks, and the Future of Chinese Youth.” He traces their origins, and that of their style of action, to China’s overheated online fan club culture, in which fans typically mob-attack anyone criticising their beloved idol, band or team — in this case, Team China or Team CPC. Too young to know about the Cultural Revolution, or the early years of reform, never mind much of real life itself, Yu observes, “They were born on the Internet and will die on the Internet.” Yu, himself a proponent of China’s new nationalism, derides the Little Pinks’ ideology as “video-clip Marxism.” Their patriotism is entitled, middle-class and consumerist (their calls to action typically take the shape of consumer boycotts) and conforms, he notes, to a “welfare” rather than a “class” narrative.

Another person who has studied the Little Pinks is Fang Kecheng of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Despite their hardcore support for communism, he says, their biases mirror those of the Western alt-right: anti-feminist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, racist and ethnically (Han) chauvinistic. Some even voice support for far-right and neo-Nazi figures. They also share the right’s contempt for the liberal, progressive left: their favourite insult of baizuo translates perfectly as “libtard.” Yet their behaviour parallels the hyper-policing of identity politics and “cancel culture” of their left-wing peers in the West. Yu Liang wonders too “if Little Pinks share the fragile psyche of American youth.”

In response to “Fragile,” Chinese official media, on cue and without any sense of irony, have accused Namewee and Kimberley Chen of hurting the feelings of the Chinese people. The authorities have shut down the pair’s Weibo accounts and scrubbed their names and work from the Chinese internet. Namewee, implacable and seemingly delighted, told the BBC that the ban completed the artwork. As Chen sings in an ironic apology video, posted two days after the original went up:

Sorry to have hurt you. Weibo deleted me — whatever.
I can hear a sound — it’s hearts of glass shattering.
It’s okay, I still have IG and FB.
Maybe I shouldn’t be so direct, so super-direct.
I’m so sorry
YouTube trending at number 1. •