For years, authorities under President Xi Jinping have stoked nationalistic sentiments in China as part of a larger campaign to push Chinese Communist Party ideology. Part of that effort includes “civilization” volunteers, who are recruited by the Communist Youth League and tasked with spreading the party's message online.
“Online” being the key word. It seems protesting in the street is a step too far for the Chinese government, which finds itself at the moment in the odd position of denouncing demonstrations against American fast food chain KFC — fueled by the very brand of aggressive nationalism they helped foment.
Since July 16, Chinese people in at least a dozen towns and cities have protested in front of KFC restaurants because they are seen as representing the interests of the United States. Many in China think US meddling helped lead to an embarrassing ruling on July 12, in which an international tribunal shot down Beijing’s extensive claims over the South China Sea.
Videos showing protesters confronting KFC customers have also gone viral on social media, where the rallies were organized.
‘An action to manifest Chinese determination and attitude’
The call to protest can be traced back to Zhu Jidong, the deputy director of the National Cultural Security and Ideology Construction Research Center under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The center organizes training courses for online commenters and is active in delivering ideological instruction on social media through its official account, @IdeologyTorch (思想火炬).
In reaction to the South China Sea ruling, Zhu suggested in a July 13 post on Weibo two days of boycott against American fast food companies:
#Mini Comment on Ideology# National boycott against KFC and McDonald's. Can you do this? The whole nation taking the same action on the same day will create a shock. Proposed for this Saturday and Sunday (July 16 and 17), national boycott against KFC and McDonald's. It takes two days to shake the world. This proposal will only take two days and it won't harm anyone. But it is an action to manifest Chinese determination and attitude.
On the same day, Global Times, which is owned by the official newspaper group of the Chinese Communist Party, published commentary saying that the South China Sea ruling spurred a new wave of patriotism .
Meanwhile, the Communist Youth League published a Weibo post citing research that says Chinese media outlets are “controlled by capitalists” which has resulted in homogeneous opinion in the public sphere. As the current ideological battle being waged online in China has “patriots” and “red” culture on one side and “US sympathizers” and “liberals” on another, some interpreted the post as suggesting that people take revolutionary action in response to the South China Sea arbitration against capitalistic liberal forces’ attempts to suppress patriotic sentiments and reactions.
Around the same time, an adapted version of Zhu Jidong's push for boycott quickly went viral on social media such as messaging app WeChat. Many assumed that these calls to action were coming from the Communist Youth League's online civilization volunteers because Zhu Jidong is a member of the League's think tank.
On July 16, as shown in video clips recorded by citizens, some patriotic youths started harassing customers at KFC asking if they had heard of the South China Sea arbitration and telling them to leave. The online call for boycott soon developed into street quarrels, fist fights and then widespread protests.
Some of the slogans used in the protests included:
Those who eat in the American KFC is trashing the face of your ancestor.
If there is war in the future, you are sponsoring their bullets now.
Eating in KFC makes you a Chinese traitor.
The patriotic juggernaut rolls on
The real-life protests crossed a line set by the party and the government. On July 16, the Communist Youth League attempted to cut its ties to the demonstrations, claiming that they were initiated by “fans of the US” on Weibo.
But the KFC rallies continued and by July 18 had spread to more than a dozen cities. Worries swirled that if the mobilization got out of control, it could threaten the country's economic security.
To cool down the patriotic sentiments, propaganda authorities issued censorship instructions to all media outlets (via China Digital Times ):
Once again, for the near future, do not hype or spread information related to illegal rallies and demonstrations. Pay close attention and delete inflammatory information.
On the same day, Hu Shijun, chief editor of Global Times, also tried to distance the publication from the protests by calling the participants “SB,” meaning “stupid ass.”
But the censorship instructions and public disavowals didn't stop the movement. On July 19, photos showing a group of primary school kids protesting outside a KFC restaurant  in Shandong province went viral on social media.
Later, netizens discovered that the protest was led by a teacher during the students’ social learning program, which is organized by Tsingda Xuexi, an educational institution also affiliated with the Communist Youth League. Moreover, protesters were not only targeting KFC, but now also other US brands  like Apple.
The party's opinion channeling machine then kicked into full gear to try to contain the situation. Major news portals published editorials denouncing the protests. The English-language editorial of state-owned newspaper China Daily questioned, “Why target firms for the sins of US and Philippines? “
A Chinese version of the piece, written by an author using a pseudonym, labelled the protests as gaojihei (高級黑), meaning “second-level smearing” or patriotism taken too far. China Daily's Weibo account distributed it on July 19 with the title, “Visiting KFC and McDonald's = unpatriotic hypocrisy? We would be part of the second-level smearing! ” A brief introduction  read:
Visiting KFC and McDonald's = unpatriotic hypocrisy? We would be part of the second-level smearing! Patriotism is boycotting KFC and McDonald's? Patriotism is to beat up people, smash cars and rob? When people without common sense are eager to become the teacher, this is the beginning of a dark age. Less impulse, more common sense, less boycott, more concrete practice. This is the right way to love the country. Your face is the future face of China.
The article explained why a boycott would not work and how it could harm China's own economy:
We are living in a globalized era, everything produced is a co-production — local computer brands have CPUs made in the US and Boeing 747s have parts made in China.
As for KFC and McDonald's, we are already part of their shareholders, boycotting them is boycotting ourselves.
Moreover, KFC and McDonald's have a stake in other industries, how many Chinese are working in the production chain, who will feed them if they lose their jobs?
‘Online patriotism and offline patriotism are different’
The KFC protests reveal that authorities have been playing with fire in their ideological campaign — if people enacted the beliefs that have been pushed on them, such as kicking out all foreign “enemies,” in the real world, China's economy would suffer the consequences.
The party and the government are well aware of the paradox, and that's why the line between online and offline nationalism must remain firm, journalist Song Zhi Biao argued :
Online patriotism and offline patriotism are different. The line is clear to the Communist Youth League, Global Times, China Daily, Hu Shijun and government opinion leaders. The line cannot be crossed without prior approval [from the top] or else someone has to take responsibility. However, the line does not exist among the patriotic masses; they would just do what they think is right.
State mouthpieces and patriotic organizations all spoke out against the KFC protests, denying that they had a role in the protests even though they had distributed so many posts and incited nationalistic sentiments. They even created a conspiracy theory that the liberal public intellectuals were behind the protests. […]
Chen Pokong, a US-based political commentary writer, echoed  Song's comments and saw the protests as an inevitable outcome of online nationalism:
[The reality] is that there is no war, and they are forbidden to have proper protests. Hence the patriotic thieves look for other ways to manifest patriotism, and boycotting foreign brands is one of the most frequently used tactics. In recent years, they have kept advocating — they boycotted Japanese products because of Diaoyu Island disputes, they boycotted US products after the US navy entered the South Sea, they boycotted Philippine and Vietnamese products because of the South Sea disputes, they boycotted Korean products because of the missile defense system… That's why in the photos, you can see the list of boycotted products keeps growing longer and longer: “We are determined to boycott the US, Japanese, Korean, Philippine and Vietnamese products….” The slogans are loud, but in reality very few Chinese people take action in a boycott. That's why some patriotic thieves decided to wave red flags and sing national anthems outside KFC and McDonald's fast food restaurants, blocking the entrances.
While official government sources blamed the protests on “second-level smearing” fueled by fans of the US, and others argued they were a spontaneous movement, some still
While the official patriots said the anti-KFC protests are second level smearing fueled by the U.S fans, others believed that the protests are spontaneously organized, some still believed the Chinese Communist Party and the government orchestrated the entire thing. On Twitter, @SANDY666712 wrote:
— 上官長風 (@SANDY666712) July 20, 2016 
Look, China is full of democracy, freedom and human rights! This year, those who lead the protests against KFC are not ordinary people. Many are police, aunties from the party's residential committee and secondary school teachers and students who receive instruction from their seniors. Then the government steps in, releasing press releases and public notices to stop the rallies. They are manipulating from behind the scenes and benefiting from the action. Such tactics were used during the Cultural Revolution [a period of social and political upheaval in the 1960s and 1970s], they caught and released the ghosts who are controlled by the government. The performance is for outsiders.