In August 2018, a Chinese start-up claimed to have developed an original web browser Redcore (红芯) totally on the basis of its own innovation and development and thus to have broken the US monopoly in this area. The browser engine was self-proclaimed to be the world’s fifth — next to the four mainstream web browsers, Internet Explorer, Chrome, Safari and Firefox — and “the only purely China-owned browser.” Its clients allegedly included both powerful governmental agencies and big private companies in China, like the State Council, the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission, the State Grid Corporation of China, BYD Automobile, and Coca-Cola. In addition, the business sites of Redcore also utilized many nationalistic symbols including Chinese national flag, the Great Wall, and the red star, hoping to popularize its products by eliciting nationalistic and patriotic sentiment among the mases.
However, Redcore soon descended into farce as some Chinese engineers found that the browser was actually heavily based on Google’s Chrome browser — which was later verified by Financial Times, and was far from self-developed and “innovative and world-leading technology” as the company had claimed publicly. Faced with immense pressure, Chen Benfeng, CEO of the company, apologized for the excessive and vague publicity of Redcore. In an open statement, Chen said, the initial product campaign failed to clarify that Redcore was actually based on Chromium, an open-source Web browser project started by Google, and some readers were thus misled into believing that the design of Redcore had been started from scratch by his company.
Redcore is not alone among Chinese companies to try to inflame the customers’ sense of national pride and patriotism for the sake of profits, competitiveness and other benefits. Almost at the same time, another Chinese brand, Lenovo, was another focal point of popular concern. Lenovo used to be a source of national pride for many Chinese consumers, particularly when it acquired IBM’s personal computer (PC) business in 2005 and gradually became the world’s top PC vendor by unit sales. Lenovo was recently fiercely criticized by Chinese netizens, when it was found to sell the same PC at a higher price in China than in the West. Some online commentators became angrier when they further discovered that Lenovo is a major PC supplier to the public sector in China and had been receiving government subsidies and preferential industrial policies, but yet had failed to grow into an innovative PC giant after a decade. Although Lenovo tried to clarify and emphasized the nationalistic elements of its brand in an open statement, public antipathy remains on the rise.
Some social scientists’ empirical studies have found that ordinary Chinese with higher incomes and education backgrounds are more likely to be liberal rather than nationalistic.
Luo Yonghao, the founder of Smartisan technology — a mobile producer in China — was famous for bragging about his company. Luo claimed his company would soon defeat Samsung, iPhone, and other smart phones in the market. However, all these turned out to be a joke after Smartisan’s products failed to win the recognition of Chinese consumers. Zou Shiming, a famous Chinese professional boxer, tried to promote a fight with Japanese boxer Sho Kimura in Shanghai. Zou and the game organizer — his own company — promoted the match as a fight between Chinese and Japanese professional boxers. Before the fight, Zou reiterated he would defend the national honor at home. After he lost to Sho, Zou claimed to have been treated unfairly during the match, and promoted some conspiratorial stories that justified his narrative. However, online media did not buy his ideas. Some netizens criticized Zou’s inappropriate behavior for inflaming Chinese nationalism and anti-Japan sentiment for his commercial benefit.
Nationalistic marketing strategies are a common practice in the private sector. By fueling consumers’ sense of national pride and patriotism, this strategy adds symbolic meanings and thus significant values to the products and brands. Some analysts and managers in the private sector assume that since nationalism is on the rise in China, nationalistic marketing and branding strategies have become increasingly important nonbusiness strategies to enhance the competitiveness of their companies, to popularize their products, and to gain extra advantages in the fierce competition. However, the strategy does not guarantee success in the market.
First, China has grown into an increasingly mature market. More and more consumers make decisions based on their preferences and the quality of the products. Nationalistic marketing has an effect to some extent but accumulating customer loyalty in the long-term relies on the quality of the services and goods rather than their nationalistic image. Second, in a globalized world, few products are purely made in a single country. Rather, multinationals participate in the design, production, and publicity process. Nationalistic marketing strategies may be less effective when globalization blurs the nationalistic image of certain products. This also means, consumers have more alternatives than national products and may therefore choose wisely. In addition, genuinely competitive products tend to distance themselves from such strategies because they target global rather than domestic consumers. Chinese are very proud of Huawei, a telecommunication giant famous for its relentless push on the pace of research and innovation. However, Huawei has no intention to inject nationalistic elements into its products and brand.
Last but not least, China’s middle class — those with huge purchasing power — seems to be edging away from narrow-minded nationalism. Some social scientists’ empirical studies have found that ordinary Chinese with higher incomes and education backgrounds are more likely to be liberal rather than nationalistic. This means, as more and more Chinese become middle class, nationalistic business strategies will have increasingly limited effects. What’s more, for the private sector players who tend to utilize nationalistic business strategies, they must keep the possible backlash in mind when their products or services dishonor their nationalistic image. That means, such strategies are actually double-edged swords. Entrepreneurs will have to pay a higher price when their products hurt the popular national pride.
In its public statement after the scandal, Redcore said it was sorry for overemphasizing the nationalistic image of its browser and for having exaggerated its originality and promised that it will focus more on the functions and customer evaluation of its services. This is a wise choice in a mature market.
Financial Times. 2018. 16 August 2018.
Guancha. 2017. 5 December 2017.
Johnston, Alastair I. 2004. The China Quarterly 179: 603-628.
———. 2017. International Security 41, no. 3: 7-43.
Sohu. 2018. 16 May 2018.
Tang, Wenfang, and Benjamin Darr. 2012. Journal of Contemporary China 21, no. 77: 811-826.
The Paper. 2018. 17 August 2018.
 Financial Times, 16 August 2018.
 Financial Times, “Chinese start-up.”
 The Paper, 17 August 2018.
 Sohu, 16 May 2018.
 Guancha, 5 December 2017.
 For the example of such notable empirical studies, see Alastair I. Johnston, The China Quarterly 179, 2004, 605; Tang Wenfang and Benjamin Darr, Journal of Contemporary China 21, no. 77, 2012, 811–826; Alastair I. Johnston, International Security 41, no. 3, 2017, 7-43.