Asia-PacificBeijing Letter

‘Don’t come back’: Messi not the first high-profile target of online anger in China

Intense and sometimes destructive social media storms a regular occurrence for more than a decade

More than two weeks after he angered fans in Hong Kong by remaining on the bench during an exhibition match in the city, Lionel Messi was still trying to make amends this week. On Monday, he released a video on the Chinese social media site Weibo insisting that there was no political reason behind his decision not to play, which was because of a groin injury.

“Happy Year of the Dragon, soccer friends! Through this video, I want to clear up some things and once again express my gratitude to all the fans who came to support me and the team in Hong Kong, China,” he said.

He spoke of his “very close and special” relationship with China and his affection for fans there, adding that he hopes to see them again soon. And he said that he played in Japan a few days later – a move that rubbed salt in the Chinese wound – because he was feeling better by then.

Messi was a hero in China last summer when he played in Beijing’s newly reopened Workers’ Stadium when he hugged a young fan who ran on to the pitch to embrace him. But the country’s social media has been alight with fury at the Argentinian player over the past fortnight as former fans turned their backs on him.


“We now know how much you love Japan. China doesn’t welcome you anymore. Don’t come back,” one wrote on Weibo.

Messi is not the first high-profile target of online anger in China, where intense and sometimes destructive social media storms have been a regular occurrence for more than a decade. Celebrities have been temporarily cancelled and brands have been boycotted for words and actions that are perceived as hurting the feelings of the Chinese people.

Fashion brand Dolce & Gabbana is still trying to recover ground in China lost during a row in 2018 over ads showing a Chinese woman trying to eat pizza and pasta with chopsticks. The designers made matters worse by making derogatory remarks about China and its people.

Qian Huang, a Chinese-born lecturer in Media and Journalism Studies at University of Groningen in the Netherlands, has analysed digital vigilantism and cancel culture in China. She said it is used to target people who were viewed as out of step with a mainstream, nationalist ideology.

“You will see celebrities get cancelled because they don’t conform or they don’t perform the way that citizens believe should be the case as a patriotic celebrity. So you can see that every national day, like the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Day, all these celebrities are now expected to post something to express either their mourning or their gratitude towards the country,” she said.

“So it’s not only if you post something against it, but if you don’t post, you will be regarded as not patriotic enough. This is a trend that is like a signature of the cancel culture in China.”

Celebrities like Messi and brands like Dolce & Gabbana usually survive social media storms but Huang has studied the impact on less prominent people targeted by online mobs. Young Chinese women who study abroad have been among the victims of social media hate campaigns accusing them of betraying or insulting their country.

In most cases, China’s online cancel culture is driven by individual actors and campaigns of digital vigilantism usually start organically. Some people make money from popular nationalistic campaigns accusing fellow citizens of lacking patriotism and it is only later that official actors get involved.

“What we see is that most of the time it is started by individuals organically and this individual could be really just a pure civilian citizen,” Huang said.

“When these digital vigilantism cases are aligned with the official narrative or aligned with certain goals of the government, they will be co-opted. So you will see that China Daily, the People’s Daily, all these official Chinese media will join by reporting on these issues, by giving them platforms. And the way they frame it normally is very predictable, it’s about unpatriotic citizens.”

For Huang, digital vigilantism and cancel culture in China are neither strictly top-down nor bottom-up but can involve individual citizens, traditional and new media, communities and social groups, and social and state institutions.

“I would say that in basically all the cases you will see different parties, different actors and stakeholders coming in with their own goals, their own aims, but they are definitely more structured by the political power,” she said.