An International Spokesman for Chinese Nationalism

An International Spokesman for Chinese Nationalism

Eric Li, a Western-educated venture capitalist, now plays an important role in the media ecosystem of state-aligned nationalism.

Eric Li gives a TED Talk in 2013. (TED/YouTube)

In late 2019, as the first COVID-19 cases were emerging in Wuhan, the Chinese venture capitalist and media figure Eric Li went for lunch with a Financial Times correspondent in Shanghai. Over a $640, eleven-course meal, Li, who is a founder of Guancha, a leading nationalist online media outlet, took the opportunity to proclaim the end of liberalism in China. For decades, people had been “debating what kind of government and society they want,” Li said. “That debate is over.” There were “leftover liberal phrases” and “liberal thoughts” held by academics and other holdouts, but he predicted they would soon change their minds.

These kinds of statements are common today in China, where anti-liberal nationalism has become increasingly mainstream. Li is a notable figure in this sphere, in part because of his deep ties to the West. A graduate of Berkeley and Stanford, he is affiliated with the Aspen Institute and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Li’s Western education and experience with elite institutions gives him a unique platform for espousing nationalist opinions outside China; he has contributed to various English-language publications, including the New York Times, Foreign Affairs, and the Economist. In a 2013 TED Talk, he delivered a full-throated defense of China’s one-party system and argued that electoral democracy doesn’t work (a point he punctuated with a photo of former President George W. Bush in front of the infamous “Mission Accomplished” banner). The talk has attracted over 3 million views.

Born in the early years of the Cultural Revolution, Li was raised by his grandmother in Shanghai while his academic parents weathered the storm in the capital. He is proud of his roots in the city, which emerged as a center of modern glamor and Western sophistication in the first decades of the twentieth century. When Li moved to the United States for college in the 1980s, he became, according to his TED Talk, a “Berkeley hippie.” (If that was the case, his counterculture days were short-lived; he worked on Ross Perot’s 1992 presidential campaign.) After almost a decade in the United States, he moved back to China. In 1999, Li helped launch Chengwei Capital, a venture fund that manages about $2 billion and has invested in many companies that are household names in China.

The Financial Times compared Li to Steve Bannon, and over the expensive lunch Li himself expressed admiration for Trump’s crusade against “global elites.” Like Bannon, Li wears a flashy erudition on his sleeve. He likes to sprinkle quotes by John Locke, Abraham Lincoln, and Bhikhu Parekh into arguments, to contrarian effect. He has also mastered the vernacular of American liberalism, using terms like “broadening,” “pluralizing,” and “diversity” to promote authoritarianism. From Li’s perspective, if you take a big step back and squint your eyes, “autocracy” can be seen as a form of “democracy.” As he put it in the Economist, he thinks democracy should be measured “not by procedures but by outcomes.” In a conversation in Guancha, Li tried to get Francis Fukuyama to sign on to his idea that informal information collection conducted by the party as an alternative to elections “have been effective.” Fukuyama was unmoved: “It depends on your measure of effectiveness.”

Since Xi Jinping took power in 2012, nationalist ideas have thrived in China. The government has encouraged a sense of national pride and tightened censorship and regulations over domestic media and the internet, suppressing any news that may reflect badly on the party-state. Xi has also pushed propagandists to publish and broadcast overseas in order to influence arguments outside the country. Li is no doubt seen as an asset in this strategy—a sleek, Western-educated capitalist as a face of the new Chinese nationalism. His success should be seen in the context of a broader effort to cement the transformation of nationalist politics from a grassroots insurgency into a state-supported ideology.

From the Angry Youth to the Little Pinks

In April 2008, protesters in London and Paris disrupted the international leg of the Beijing Olympics torch relay to draw attention to repression in Tibet. The action prompted anger from many young people in China, who saw the protests and the favorable coverage of the Tibetan cause as a sign of “Western media hegemony.” At the time nationalist youth were called Fen Qing, the Angry Youth—a term often used with disdain.

Over a year later, Li met one of those young people, Rao Jin, who was working in Shanghai to launch a nationalist website called Siyue (April). Li was apparently impressed by Rao’s vision to transform the momentum of 2008 into a long-term project—he wanted to “upgrade the cultural industry of new nationalism”—and Rao soon received an investment of around $1.5 million. (The investor information wasn’t made public, but Li is widely speculated to be the source of the funding.) But the project soon hit roadblocks. Rao’s team realized that creating and sustaining a regular nationalist news site was more difficult than channeling the grassroots rage from a one-off incident. Months after the launch, Siyue experienced an exodus of key staffers. In the following years, it was plagued by scandals. Employees accused Rao of treating the company like his private property; Rao called his accusers “bad elements.”

In these years, popular nationalist energy sometimes spiraled out of control. When China and Japan engaged in an escalating dispute over the sovereignty of the Diaoyu (in Japanese, Senkaku) Islands in 2012, demonstrations took place in dozens of Chinese cities. Protesters threw eggs and water bottles at the Japanese embassy, and some vandalized Japanese stores and cars. A Toyota Corolla driver in Xi’an was partially paralyzed after an attack. Weary of the disturbance, the government advocated for “rational patriotism.”

That same year, Li, undaunted by the fiasco at Siyue, launched Guancha (which means “to observe”), a website featuring both news aggregation and international affairs commentary. The site has since evolved into a major media outlet. Its video columns, which launched around 2018, are particularly popular among young people. On Weibo, a Twitter-like website, Guancha has more than 18 million followers; on Bilibili, a prominent video platform with a younger viewership (86 percent of users are under thirty-five), Guancha describes itself as “a political news website that pulls young people’s heart strings.” Guancha’s homepage features a constant supply of nationalist propaganda and West-bashing headlines. As COVID-19 case numbers grew in Hong Kong this February, one story featured Hong Kong actors who claimed, according to the story’s headline, that “With the Backing of Motherland, We Fear Nothing.” Another recent, typical headline read, “Ordinary Americans Ask for Very Little Thanks to Brainwashing by Their Government: This Is the Best You Can Get.” Guancha is plastered with pieces from party press and videos from the state broadcaster CCTV.

Guancha’s success reflects a broader shift in Chinese nationalism. Over the past decade, the disorganized and more spontaneous Angry Youth have been replaced by Xiaofenhong (the “Little Pinks,” in reference to the red color affiliated with the party-state), a name that was popularized in the mid-2010s by party media. The Little Pinks can be seen all over the Chinese internet, as well as on Twitter and YouTube, as the Angry Youth’s disruptive anger has given way to a more polished, but generic, nationalist propaganda. The Little Pinks may not remember the protests of 2008 and 2012, but they have been trained to voice similar grievances while demonizing “foreign media” and “Western forces.” At a recent academic convention, Yan Xuetong, a prominent political scientist at Tsinghua University, criticized his students’ “dichotomous view of looking at the world”: “They think only China is innocent and on the side of justice, and all the other countries, especially Western countries, are ‘evil,’ and that the West has a natural-born hatred of China.”

Li plays an important role in the ecosystem of this new state-aligned nationalism. In addition to Guancha, he and several Shanghai-based academics have established the Shanghai Chunqiu Institute for Development and Strategic Studies, a think tank that serves as a source of contributors for his news site. Neither the Shanghai Chunqiu Institute nor Guancha are government entities, but they form key nodes in a network connected with nationalist personalities, many of whom have strong ties to the government. To take one example, Zhang Weiwei, director of the think tank and a frequent contributor to Guancha, was Deng Xiaoping’s interpreter and a member of a government committee dedicated to launching state-sponsored think tanks. Zhang has a TV show on a Shanghai-based channel that focuses on preaching Chinese “confidence,” echoing Xi’s emphasis on teaching people to trust in China’s political path and leadership. Another Guancha contributor, Hu Angang, is a director of a government-sponsored think tank at Tsinghua University and a party theorist who has suggested that to become “a new type of superpower,” China has to create a monocultural society of one “state race”—a theory behind the government’s ethnic homogenization policies, including the “reeducation” camps in Xinjiang.

The Traps of Li’s Theories

Over the last decade, Li’s main talking points have shifted. Some of them simply haven’t aged well: in his 2013 TED Talk, Li argued that the party’s institutions always managed to reform themselves, and he praised the introduction of term limits for most political positions. “Now, it is nearly impossible for the few at the top to consolidate long term power,” he wrote in a 2013 Foreign Affairs article. Such consolidation was exactly what happened in the years that followed, and Xi removed the presidential term limits in 2018. There has also been a change in how he talks about democracy. In the same Foreign Affairs article, Li argued that the Chinese government will “challenge the West’s conventional wisdom about political development and the inevitable march toward electoral democracy”; instead, we were witnessing “the birth of a post-democratic future.” In 2021, after Trump had left office, he decided the future was not “post-democratic” after all. It was China’s critics who had a limited and “flawed definition of democracy,” which “mistakenly equate[d] liberalism with democracy.” He asserted that liberalism is an oppressive ideology advanced by global elites, while “strong leaders” like Rodrigo Duterte, Viktor Orbán, Narendra Modi, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and Vladimir Putin offered a form of empowerment by “seeking to reassert national powers against an over-reaching universal order.”

Perhaps ironically, despite Guancha’s staunch anti-Americanism, Li’s Chengwei Capital fund represents a marriage of Chinese and American elites. One longtime partner was Griff Baker, the son of American venture capitalist George Leonard Baker (whose firm Sutter Hill Ventures invested in Chengwei). The late Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld invested half a million dollars in the company when it launched in 1999. Other initial investors included Yale University. At the time, according to the New York Times, the fund was run by two sons of a member of China’s Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. As much as Li sings the praises of the Chinese Communist Party, his projects are wrapped up with Wall Street. Chengwei’s future in China, however, is also tied to Li’s efforts to curry favor with the government through the project that Guancha has become.

By May 2020, as the pandemic was surging around the world, much of China was emerging from a heavy lockdown. Writing in Foreign Policy, Li argued that the response to the pandemic offered new evidence that China’s one-party system is not only superior to but also more popular than democratically elected governments. “Only a very high degree of trust by the people in their political institutions’ expertise and ability to protect them can result in such compliance,” he wrote. At the same moment, online censors were working overtime. One information police officer told a journalist that she and three teammates had worked through the Chinese New Year, sleeping only four hours a day. In the seven days following the national lockdown, they screened more than 3,000 potentially problematic posts and deleted nearly a hundred that contained “harmful information.” Li Wenliang, who warned the public of an emerging coronavirus in late December 2019, was only one of the first people to be punished for spreading information related to COVID-19 on social media. As Eric Li had predicted, “liberal thoughts” were being rooted out.

In Foreign Policy, Li avoided any mention of this kind of state-led information repression and instead told a bright story: 2 million people in China had volunteered to work alongside security personnel to perform temperature checks and other tasks. His approach mirrored that of the state media, in which COVID-19 is rarely covered with a public health lens. Instead of reporting on hospital capacities, vaccine clinical trials and efficacy data, and challenges in various industries in the context of a pandemic, reports focus on the heroism of determined health workers and volunteers and proclaim the greatness of the party. Guancha never deviates from this endorsed approach.

There is something especially jarring about reading Li’s explanation of the pandemic. He lives two blocks away from a leading hospital in downtown Shanghai, and walking distance from the exclusive restaurant where he lunched with the Financial Times. I wonder if he has any real idea of what life has been like over the past two years for China’s 99%, especially for vulnerable populations like migrant workers and people living with medical conditions. You wouldn’t ask Jeff Bezos or Tucker Carlson about the American experience of the pandemic and expect a useful answer.

Han Zhang is a journalist in New York.

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