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Netizens or Not? About Chinese Online Communities & Use of the Term ‘Netizen’

The term ‘netizens’, referring to Chinese internet users, is both loved and hated.

Manya Koetse

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Chinese internet users are often referred to as ‘netizens’, but some people say the term is outdated and inappropriate. Should something change? What’s on Weibo explores the term and its use in different contexts.

It has been an issue of debate for years; the use of the word ‘netizen’ in English-language media – especially when referring to Chinese internet users.

At What’s on Weibo, it is a word we use in pretty much every article we post. Online media in China is our focus, and how ‘netizens’ deal with social media and trending topics is at the heart of this website.

But many people have had enough of the word ‘netizen.’ Already in 2013, Matt Schiavenza at The Atlantic wrote that the term was “once useful as a way to describe China’s internet users,” but that it is now “meaningless, inaccurate, and misleading.”

Schiavenza argues that “netizens” is mainly used for Chinese internet users who are politically active or outspoken, while there is a huge number of Chinese people who are non-political in their online behavior.

The term has also been discussed among people on Reddit, where some call it a “stupid journalism” term.

At the conclusion of the recent Chinese Internet Research Conference at Leiden University, the term was also briefly discussed in the context of ‘online communities,’ with some scholars deeming the word inappropriate to refer to Chinese internet users – also suggesting that speaking of Chinese “online communities” in itself was problematic to begin with.

One discussion participant suggested that words such as ‘community’ or ‘netizen’ are labels used by outsiders in the academic world or in foreign media, rather than Chinese describing themselves that way – saying it is problematic because it is “our label, not theirs.”

Is this really true? What’s behind the term ‘netizens’? Should Chinese internet users be described with other terms than ‘netizens’? For what reasons?

 

Behind the Word ‘Netizen’

 

The word ‘netizen’ was first coined in 1984 and popularized with the spread of the internet during the 1990s. The word is a blend of the words ‘internet’ and ‘citizen,’ and is (or was) generally used to either refer to people who use the internet, or more specifically, to refer to people who participate in online discussions or belong to ‘online communities’ (Johnson 2013).

The term is also often attributed to net theoretician Michael Hauben, who used it in his 1997 work to define people who “actively contribute toward the development of the Internet” and for a “citizen who used the Internet as a way of participating in political society.”

Already in 2012,Time Magazine elected the term as one of the words that should be banished, suggesting it had become archaic since its launch in the 1980s.

But when looking at the more recent use of the word ‘netizens’ in academia and foreign media, the term is anything but dead. It does seem to be applied far more often to Asian online contexts, e.g. Chinese or Korean online users, than it is used to describe internet users in Europe or America.

The word ‘netizen’ used in random Google News search in 1-5 May period in 2013 and in 2018.

It is often used, for example, to talk about online fans of the K-pop industry or users of the Sina Weibo platform – suggesting that there has been a shift in the use of ‘netizens’ from the 1980s or 1990s to describe any internet user, to more specifically describing those (often Chinese) internet users that are part of a specific online circle.

 

From Netizen to Wangmin

 

One reason why ‘netizen’ is used in the Chinese case specifically, is because Chinese media and social media users use the word ‘wǎngmín’ (网民) very frequently.

Google News results show that the term wangmin (netizen) is constantly used in Chinese media.

Wangmin (网民) literally means ‘net-people’ or ‘net-citizens’ (thus literally: ‘netizens’), and is the generally accepted term to designate internet users in China. The term was described by the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) in 2013 as “Chinese residents who are six or older and have used the Internet at least once in the past six months” (Shen 2013).

The CNNIC has used the term wangmin officially since 1997, the year of its founding, when its first ‘China Wangmin Survey’ (中国网民调查) came out – the same year that Michael Hauben theorized and politicized the word.

The Chinese term wangmin seems to lack the more political implications of the term ‘netizen’ in English in Western countries, which has come to imply that an internet user is politically involved in online issues. Chinese fans of certain music genres or TV series are hardly politically involved in online causes, yet they are still wangmin.

There are (political) implications to the term wangmin on another level, though; in Chinese media, the term is mostly connected to nations. For example; one can speak of ‘American netizens’ (全美网民), ‘Canadian netizens’ (加拿大网民) or ‘Chinese netizens’ (中国网民,国内网民).

There are also instances in which the term is applied to platforms rather than nations. Some Chinese media have used the term ‘Sina Weibo netizens’ (新浪微博网民), for example.

 

Netizens versus Netizens

 

So what does this all mean? Firstly, it means that the use of ‘wangmin’ or ‘netizens’ in the Chinese context is not the same as the way the term ‘netizens’ has come to be used in the English-language Western context.

It also means that the term is not archaic at all. After all, who can claim a word is ‘outdated’ or ‘old-fashioned’ when it is practically being used at all hours of the day on Chinese internet and in Chinese media today? Even though it has been used since 1997, it has proved to be anything but a word trend: wangmin has become a part of normal Chinese vocabulary.

Third, claiming that it is a “stupid journalist term” or “our label, not theirs” also does not do just to the word; in the Chinese context, the term is used far beyond journalism, and more importantly; it is used by Chinese organizations and individuals to describe Chinese internet users, meaning it is not merely a term that is used by non-Chinese to describe Chinese online populations.

 

Online Communities

 

One thing that stands out when talking about ‘netizens’, no matter in what context, is that it is tied to the idea of an ‘online community.’ Much has been researched and said about what constitutes an online community, but for the scope of this article, we could say that it minimally requires some sense of a shared collective identity or some pursue of a shared purpose (Massa 2017, 961).

In the case of China’s online environment, online communities are built in two ways.

In one way, it is constructed at the state level to “define wangmin within the nation-state boundary,” as Yiping Shen (2015) writes in Public Discourses of Contemporary China.

This is, amongst others, very visible in state reports or state media that define “Chinese netizens” (中国网民) in the same way in which citizens are legally recognized subjects of a nation or state, meaning citizens of the PRC. In this way, all of China’s 772 + million internet users are part of this group of ‘netizens’ and have to follow to guidelines the government lays out for Chinese netizens.

In another way, it is used among Chinese companies and internet users to define themselves, either in the way the state has intended it, or at a smaller online community level. And these communities exist everywhere, from small-scale to large-scale, some existing for a long time, some being short-lived; from the long-standing Rage Comics community to temporary groups and Human Flesh Search Engines, to flourishing BBS or WeChat groups.

A platform such as Sina Weibo also clearly defines itself as a ‘community’ (社区), with its ‘Weibo Community Management’ (新浪微博社区管理) being an important part of the site in setting out guidelines for its members.

 

Wangyou: Chinese Online Friends

 

So what options are there for future references to Chinese internet users? Should we just stick to ‘netizens’? Would it more appropriate to use the original Chinese term ‘wangmin,’ or should we perhaps use another widespread term, namely that of ‘wǎngyǒu’?

Besides Chinese internet users defining themselves as wangmin, the word wangyou (网友), literally ‘web friend’, is also often used among netizens to define the members of their online ‘community’ (e.g. Weibo) or Chinese internet users at large.

Jessica Sun (孙慧), linguist and co-founder of the Dutch website Chinatalk, explains that ‘wangyou’ or ‘webfriends’ initially was meant to define those people one knew from cyberspace, when internet just gained traction in China.

Once China’s online population grew bigger, the idea of wangyou also grew to include more people. “It could also refer to a larger group of people who share the same interests or attitudes, instead of just friends,” Sun explains.

Sun compares the use of wangyou to the Chinese word for ‘friend’, pengyou (朋友), which is often used to sound more intimate, although the person addressed is not necessarily really considered a ‘friend.’

According to Sun’s analysis, wangmin (netizen) and wangyou (webfriend) are generally interchangeable, although there are some subtle differences. Sun has some remarks explaining the difference between the two terms:

1. In many cases, wangmin could also be a wangyou, but not the other way around. Wangyou can be used to show a more emotional attachment or personal relation, as in ‘my webfriends’ (我的网友). One can not say ‘my netizens’ (我的网民).

2. While wangyou is more intimate, wangmin is more neutral, and is therefore mainly used by news outlets.

3. The use of the term wangmin or wangyou depends on the attitude of the person who uses it towards a specific person/event, depending on the ‘community’ they are in or the stance they have towards a particular incident.

For example, when Chinese media report about wangyou doing something or being angered about something, it often means this author/publication is siding with these ‘webfriends’.

Headline using ‘wangyou’

The headline featured above (“As policeman bravely sacrifices his life, [some] webfriends are angered about these details“) is a story about a policeman who died on duty while trying to protect pedestrians from an out-of-control car. When some online commenters said that it was the policeman’s job to protect the people, suggesting his death was part of his duty, many other commenters were angered with these comments. By featuring the ‘webfriends’ term in this headline, the publication shows it sides with those ‘webfriends’ who mourn the policeman’s death and who are angered about insensitive comments relating to his death.

Another story, headline above (“Shenyang policeman dies on duty, two netizens detained over insulting comments“), is about another policeman dying on duty due to an attack by a suspect, with two web users commenting that the person attacking the police was a “hero” for doing so. The headline states that “two netizens insulting [police] have been detained” – in such a case, the media report shows a distance towards the commenters – ‘webfriends’ would surely not be used to refer to them.

All in all, it is clear that words such as netizen or wangyou, although they might sound outdated in an English-language context, are anything but outdated in the Chinese context.

Nearly five years after The Atlantic posted its anti-‘netizen’ article, claiming the word “meaningless, inaccurate, and misleading,” recent uses of the term and its ubiquity in (Chinese) media show that it was perhaps the author’s perspective that was flawed, rather than the term itself.

For the time to come, Chinese ‘netizens’ are here to stay.

We’d like to hear your stance! How do you feel about ‘netizens,’ or would you rather see a more frequent use of the original wangmin term? Fill out the poll below:

[Total_Soft_Poll id=”1″]

By Manya Koetse

With contribution from Jessica Sun at Chinatalk.

References

Hauben, Michael and Ronda Hauben. 1997. Netizens: On the History and Impact of Usenet and the Internet. Computer Society Press: Los Alamitos, CA.

Jones, Paul Anthony. 2013. Haggard Hawks and Paltry Poltroons: The Origins of English in Ten Words.

Massa, Felipe G. 2017. “Guardians of the Internet: Building and Sustaining the Anonymous Online Community.”Organization Studies 38 (7): 959 –988.

Shen, Yiping. 2015. “Netizens, Counter-Memories, and Internet Literature into the New Millennium.” In: Public Discourses of Contemporary China. Chinese Literature and Culture in the World, Chapter 4. Palgrave Macmillan: New York.


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©2018 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Manya Koetse is the founder and editor-in-chief of whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer, public speaker, and researcher (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends, digital developments, and new media in an ever-changing China, with a focus on Chinese society, pop culture, and gender issues. She shares her love for hotpot on hotpotambassador.com. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Avatar

    david spencer

    June 15, 2018 at 8:42 pm

    I think another broadly positive dimension to the term ‘netizen’ comes from its association with the era of sometimes utopian thinking about what the Internet would be – from the time of Rheingold’s writing about the global village, and the signing of the Internet Magna Carta. Of course, those ideals are still reiterated in a more qualified way in the frame of digital rights activism – from the EFF, or the ‘web we want’ project.

    In this context I think it’s significant that the neologism is in part from the term citizen, so it refers to people who ideally should be extended certain universal rights. Second, I think net+citizen is a contraction that suggests citizens of a global place or polity.

    For this reason the term ‘netizen’ is invoked with regularity when people suffer recriminations from posting content online – can recall cases from various countries – thinking of two in particular from Iran I’ve recently reference in a lecture. In this context it signifies a matter of international concern for fellow netizens: breaches of a particular set of digital rights we’d like to see realised that transcend the laws of nation states.

    I like the term in general, but especially because of these connotations.

  2. Avatar

    Jimmy

    June 15, 2018 at 11:15 pm

    Net user may work, because it’s neutral and doesn’t assume anything about the human (or bot) behind the comment.

  3. Avatar

    Cassidy

    June 16, 2018 at 12:51 pm

    I prefer simply saying “internet users” or “some people commented online,” etc., because it’s just as clear and makes fewer implications. Also, using quantifying words like “some” or “a few” are crucial in not inadvertently implying the opinion is shared by the entire group, whereas some news outlets will speak of “netizens” as if they’re always in the majority.

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Backgrounder

More Than Just a Visit: Explaining the Chinese ‘Cuànfǎng’

‘Cuànfǎng’ became a popular word on Chinese social media and in official Chinese discourse this year. But what is it?

Jin Luo

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Since Pelosi’s stopover in Taiwan, the word ‘cuànfǎng’ has been all over Chinese social media to refer to this controversial visit. But ‘cuànfǎng’ is more than just ‘visiting’ alone. Jin Luo explains.

It was a sleepless night for many Chinese people when U.S. House Speaker Pelosi flew to Taiwan on August 2nd of 2022. A new Chinese word created in recent years, cuànfǎng (窜访) appeared in the official statement that was issued by the Chinese Foreign Ministry at 11 pm that night, and subsequently it appeared all over social media.

Meanwhile, a pop song released more than 30 years ago titled “Tonight, Are You Coming or Not” (“今夜你会不会来”) suddenly became a Weibo hot topic before it was taken offline. What is this word lost in translation, and why did people suddenly get nostalgic over an old romantic song?

 
Cuànfǎng: A ‘Sneaky Visit’
 

Here is the original wording in Chinese and the official translation to English from the statement of the Chinese Foreign Ministry on the evening on 2 August:

In disregard of China’s strong opposition and diplomatic discontent, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi visited China’s Taiwan region” (“美国国会众议长佩洛西不顾中方强烈反对和严正交涉,窜访中国台湾地区.”) The word ‘visited’ in Chinese that is used here is “cuànfǎng” 窜访.

While the English verb “visit” is a neutral word by itself, the Chinese “cuànfǎng” 窜访 has much stronger connotations. According to the Wiktionary, the word is a derogatory, officialese way to say “to visit.” But it is not an easy word to translate, as there is no direct equivalent in English, and both the literal and implied meaning of the word need to be understood.

Cuànfǎng is actually a compound word: cuàn 窜 refers to fleeing, escaping, hiding, or running away; fǎng 访 refers to inquiring, seeking, or visiting.

Cuan as a compound character (Sohu).

To make matters more complicated, cuàn by itself is also a compound character. It is written as ‘竄’ in traditional Chinese: the top radical ‘穴’ means ‘hole,’ and the lower part is the character ‘鼠’ which means ‘mouse.’ The character, having the shape of a mouse hiding in a hole, therefore has the meaning of ‘hiding’ and ‘escaping.’

The origins of the character ‘cuan’ explained, image via Sohu.com.

The mouse or rat is an animal that is more often associated with negative things in Chinese culture. They are often considered sneaky, dirty, running around everywhere, and able to reproduce quickly. With mice so often carrying a negative association, cuàn ‘窜’ also refers to a kind of hiding and escaping that is negative or objectionable.

The second character fǎng 访 is a neutral word that simply means “to visit.”

At the New York Times, Chris Buckley captured the underlying meaning of this word in writing: “The Chinese word used in the official statements for ‘visit’ — cuanfang — connotes a sneaky or illicit encounter, not an aboveboard meeting.”

 
The Evolution of Cuànfǎng
 

Although it is a relatively new word, cuànfǎng already existed before the Pelosi incident and was not created in light of this controversial visit.

Since the word’s first appearance, translators have had some difficulties in properly translating the term into different languages.

Research papers in translation studies and international relations in China suggested that cuànfǎng is a “new derogatory term invented in recent years, specifically for the purpose of maintaining national security and unity, and condemning and exposing the national separatists” and “demonstrated the big wisdom of Chinese diplomatic discourse users; vividly described the image of the separatists, that they go on the run sneakily, just like thieves and mice” (source, in Chinese).

Other sources interpret it as “the unjust, improper visit conducted in order to reach hidden political agenda, to agitate and peddle the separatist ideas,” and:

1. You went somewhere where you were not supposed to go;
2. The visit was not accepted or welcomed by the (Chinese) government;
3. The purpose is to shake justice and create conflicts
” (source, in Chinese).

Cuàn was mainly meant to add an emotional aspect to the term and shows the contempt of the person who uses it.

Image via Wainao.

The word was first prominently used in Chinese official discourse when the Foreign Ministry in 2006 referred to the Dalai Lama’s visit to Israel. Since cuàn has the meaning of fleeing, it is especially suitable when referring to political dissidents who went into exile overseas.

Since then, it has been used again for further visits of the Dalai Lama to other countries (US 2014, Mongolia 2017), as well as for Rebiya Kadeer, Lee Teng-hui, Shinzo Abe, Joshua Wong, and others.

Although it is clear that the term is not only applied to Chinese dissidents, it is generally applied to those who conducted visits that were perceived to be hostile towards China, with Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan visit serving as a clear example.

Since the Dalai Lama has been living outside of China and conducted numerous visits to other countries, cuànfǎng was previously mostly used in this context until Pelosi’s visit, which ended up being good for more than 80% of the search results of cuànfǎng on the Chinese Foreign Ministry website.

If cuànfǎng is a word with such strong emotional connotations, why was it simply translated as “visit” in official English-language documents? Some say it is because of the mere difficulty to translate this word, while others say it is the routine sanitization of English translations by the Foreign Ministry.

David Gitter, president of the Center for Advanced China Research based in Washington D.C., said that the external goal of Beijing can be different from the internal goal towards the nationalist domestic audiences, and that “more accurate yet counterproductive translations … [often] breach normal diplomatic language.”

At this point, it remains up for debate whether this is a linguistic constraint or a political choice.

 
Tonight, Are You Coming or Not?
 

While the term cuànfǎng has been widely used in official discourse, it has also become a popular online word. Chinese netizens seemed to be as passionate as the Chinese Foreign Ministry – and perhaps even more so –  in condemning Pelosi’s Taiwan visit and demanding radical countermeasures.

Chinese netizens were watching the entire event unfold with mixed feelings – on the one hand, there was a strong sense of patriotism and anger, on the other hand, the massive attention to the event also turned it into something that was almost as exciting as a celebrity drama.

On that specific evening of Pelosi’s nearing arrival in Taipei, Chinese netizens were doing two things: watching real-time tracking of Pelosi’s flight, and listening to a classic pop song released in 1991 titled “Tonight, Are You Coming or Not” (今夜你会不会来) (video). Back in the previous century, Hong Kong singer Leon Lai expressed the emotions of someone waiting for his lover to arrive in this melodic song, singing:

“你是否愿意为我停留

Would you be willing to stay for me

今夜你来告诉我

Tonight, you tell me

你是否愿意陪我走过我的梦

Are you willing to accompany me through my dream?

我的所有

My everything

(Chorus)

今夜你会不会来

Tonight, are you coming or not?

你的爱还在不在

Is your love still there or not?

如果你的心已经离开

If your heart has left already

我宁愿没有未来

I would rather not have a future

今夜你会不会来

Tonight, are you coming or not?

你的爱还在不在

Is your love still there or not?

别让我所有的等待

Don’t let all my wait

变成一片空白

Go all in vain

 

In the middle of the uncertainty about whether Pelosi would come to Taiwan or not, this song served as entertainment for netizens and became a “collective carnival” of people jokingly applying the song to Pelosi, turning her into a ‘mysterious lover’ that might or might not show up. (Later, some were unable to play the song anymore, although it remains unclear if this was due to geographic restrictions or because the song was actually taken offline by censors.)

“Taiwan has been preparing for your cuànfǎng ‘sneaky visit’, are you coming or not tonight?” some netizens wrote, combining the title song with the cuànfǎng term. In doing so, Pelosi became both a ‘sneaky mouse’ and ‘mysterious lover’, both a target of condemnation and subject of fun and banter.

All jokes and cuànfǎng references aside, Pelosi did end up realizing that visit, and its aftermath, including a second Taiwan visit by a U.S. congressional delegation, has had a substantial impact on U.S.-China relations that were already strained before the move.

Will there be more cuànfǎng to Taiwan? It’s likely not an issue of if, but when. For next time, at least we’ve got cuànfǎng covered.

 

By Jin Luo 

Featured image by Alexa from Pixabay

 

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Backgrounder

A Baby for Sale, a Mother Chained Up – How Chinese Netizens Are Pushing Specific Social Issues to the Forefront

The stories of Liu Xuezhou and the Xuzhou mother both developed in real-time while netizens pushed them to the front page, making them too big for state media to ignore.

Manya Koetse

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It only takes a spark to start a wildfire. From Liu Xuezhou to the Xuzhou mother, China’s online spheres have seen multiple major trending topics this year that started with one short video and then caused a social media storm with netizens highlighting and amplifying specific stories to address bigger social problems.

 
This is the “WE…WEI…WHAT?” column by Manya Koetse, original publication in German by Goethe Institut China, visit Yi Magazin: WE…WEI…WHAT? Manya Koetse erklärt das chinesische Internet.
 

It was December 6th of 2021 when a teenage boy posted a short video on Chinese social media. With a straight back, clear voice, and serious face, he looked directly into the camera and said:

Hello everyone, I am Liu Xuezhou and I am looking for my biological parents. I was born in between 2004 and 2006 and around the age of three months old, I was bought by my parents, my adoptive parents, in Datong in Shanxi. I am healthy. I don’t have any congenital physical defects or diseases; I don’t have any obvious birthmarks or scars. At the age of four, my adoptive parents passed away due to an accident. I am now living in Nangong, Xingtai, in Hebei Province. I study in Shijiazhuang. I wish I’d found my biological parents sooner, to make up for what I missed. I hope you can help me spread my message so that those who suspect they might be my parents can see it.

This video would be the start of a story followed by millions of Chinese netizens. It is the story of Liu Xuezhou (刘学州). The search for his parents and his death became one of the biggest topics on China’s social media of the past months.

Why did the tragic story of one teenage boy capture the entire nation? There are multiple reasons. By posting his call for help in finding his biological parents, Liu involved Chinese netizens in his journey from the start, allowing them to follow his story in real-time through his social media and news reports. Another aspect of Liu’s story is the resilience he showed despite his tough life, something that many admired about him.

But more importantly, Liu’s story is part of a recent broader interest in the stories behind the widespread problem of trafficking in women and children in China, with more people raising awareness on the tragedies caused by these practices and demanding justice for the victims.

Besides Liu’s story, the story of a Xuzhou mother-of-eight being tied up and living in abominable conditions in a shed also dominated online discussions for weeks on end.

 

Liu’s Story: Sold, Orphaned, Abandoned

 

After Liu Xuezhou posted the aforementioned video on Douyin, the Chinese version of the popular TikTok short video platform, it soon went viral and various Chinese news sites started reporting on Liu’s search for his biological family.

Liu’s resilience was impressive. In interviews, he said that his story did not define him and that he was determined to make something of his life. Since 2018, the young Liu was working to earn money while also going to school. His plan was to be admitted to university.

Liu Xuezhou, picture posted on his Weibo account.

After his adoptive parents died in a firework explosion, Liu was raised by his grandparents and was sent to boarding school. Liu’s childhood was not a happy one. Being so young without parents, he was a target of school bullies and had to change schools at least four times until, by grade six, he had finally found a school where he could thrive.

Many people supported Liu and wanted to help the teenage boy, who was thought to have been kidnapped as a baby and then bought by his adoptive parents through an intermediary at a Datong hotel for 30,000 yuan ($4735).

Although Liu’s birth certificate said he was born in September of 2005, nobody was sure how old Liu actually was, and his grandparents did not remember the details surrounding his adoption. By late 2021, as a 16-something-year-old, Liu felt it was time to get some answers and find his biological parents. How did he end up being adopted? Was he abducted? Were his parents still out there searching for him?

Through his own efforts – sped up by finding his vaccination records – and with some help of the police, Liu was able to trace down his biological parents. On the evening of December 15, Liu sent a message to a journalist reporting on the case: “I found my mum and dad.”

His parents’ story, however, was not what Liu had expected at all. After DNA tests confirmed that they were in fact his biological parents, Liu was ready to meet them. But what was supposed to be a happy reunion turned out to be a bitter disappointment.

Liu’s biological parents, who were living in Datong, were not together anymore. Liu soon learned that he had not been abducted as a child, but that he had been sold on purpose by his father. His parents were unmarried when they had him, and Liu’s father turned out to have used the money they earned by selling their baby to marry Liu’s birth mother. They married and had another son, but then ended up divorcing. Both remarried again, and Liu’s father even got divorced two more times after that.

Although some of the unhappy circumstances surrounding Liu’s reunion with his parents came out through his posts on social media throughout January of this year, most of the details surrounding his situation only became clear when Liu posted a farewell letter on his Weibo account on January 24th, just a few minutes past midnight.

Liu Xuezhou’s last Weibo post including a farewell letter.

Titled “Born with little, return with nothing,” Liu posted a lengthy letter explaining his situation.

In this letter, Liu said that besides being sold as a child and becoming an orphan at the age of four, he was also severely bullied by classmates and molested by a teacher at school. His aunt, whom he loved as a mother, also left him behind after she moved away due to a broken marriage.

As he spiraled into depression, Liu felt a spark of hope when he saw the news about Sun Zhuo (孙卓), whose story became one of the major trending news stories of 2021. In 2007, when Sun was only four, he was stolen off the street by a human trafficker. His biological parents never gave up hope they would find their son again and sacrificed everything to be able to fund their search efforts. The Chinese film Dearest (亲爱的) was partly based on their story.

After a years-long search, Sun was found in 2021 due to the help of authorities and face recognition technology that helped trace the person suspected of abducting him. In an unexpected twist, Sun stated that he would prefer to stay with his adoptive parents, who had raised him for a decade. The story triggered many online discussions and raised more awareness on the issue of the trafficking of children in China in times of the country’s one-child policy. Sun’s biological father spoke to the media saying: “For 2022, my biggest wish is that all the abducted children can finally be found.”

Image of the reunion of Sun Zhuo with his parents, who never stopped searching for him (image via Sohu).

It was Sun Zhuo’s story that inspired Liu to search for his own parents, and it was also Sun Zhuo’s story that brought more attention for Liu’s initial video, which struck a chord with many who hoped that he could also be reunited with his parents and actually stay with them.

Liu described how his biological father did not seem happy when Liu first contacted him, and seemed reluctant to meet. His biological father eventually did come to see him, but their communication afterward was not smooth. When his father told Liu that he was sold as a baby so that he could pay for the bride price to marry Liu’s mother, Liu was heartbroken and could not sleep for several days: he was not kidnapped, and his parents never searched for him.

Liu and his biological father on December 26, 2021.

His mother also was not elated that her biological son had found his way back to her. Liu felt unwanted, again, and was also searching for a home to live and was not sure who to turn to anymore. After he asked his biological father for help in buying or renting a place to live, he was blocked on WeChat. Liu then decided to take his parents to court.

Sharing screenshots on social media of the developments between him and his parents, Liu was condemned and bullied by netizens, who accused him of only wanting to find his biological parents for financial gains.

It was all too much for the teenage boy. In his farewell letter, he expressed the hope that the traffickers and biological parents would be punished for their deeds. Liu was later found to have committed suicide at a beach in the city of Sanya, and could no longer be rescued. Liu passed away within a month after meeting his biological parents at the age of just 15 years old.

By now, Liu’s farewell letter has been shared approximately 174,000 times on Weibo, it was ‘liked’ over 2,4 million times and has received thousands of comments.

The topic of Liu’s death exploded on social media and led to national outrage. Many people sympathized with the boy and were angry at all who failed him: “Poor child, abandoned and sold off by his parents, bullied and humiliated by his schoolmates, molested and discriminated by his teacher, cyberbullied by keyboard warriors. Now he’s dead!”

The injustice of Liu’s situation – starting with how he was sold as a child – is what angered people most. China Digital Times recently described how on the Weibo page of Dr. Li Wenliang, one of the doctors who raised the alarm about the coronavirus outbreak, many people also mention Liu Xuezhou. Dr. Li Wenliang was one of the eight so-called ‘whistleblowers’ who tried to warn his colleagues about the Wuhan virus outbreak in late 2019, but was censored and reprimanded by local police for making “false comments.” He later became infected with the virus himself while working at the Wuhan Central Hospital and passed away on February 7th of 2020, sparking a wave of anger and sadness on social media.

Illustration that went viral on social media at the time of Dr. Li’s death (read more here).

Over the past two years, Dr. Li’s Weibo page has become a digital Wailing Wall where people send little messages to remember Dr. Li, tell about their own anxieties and worries, but also address social injustices. As recorded by China Digital Times, one among thousands of comments said:

Two years ago today, I had a sleepless night because of you, and my Weibo account once got shut down because I posted something about you. Over the past two years, I’ve often wondered: will this world become a better place? But between the Liu Xuezhou incident and the woman in Xuzhou with eight kids, I’ve been disappointed time and time again. If you happen to see Liu Xuezhou, please be good to him.

Looking at Dr. Li’s Weibo account today, it is not just Liu Xuezhou who is brought up by commenters; ‘the woman in Xuzhou’ is also mentioned by dozens of people as someone experiencing injustice. But who is she?

 

The Chained-Up Mother in Xuzhou

 

In late January of 2022, right around the same time when Liu Xuezhou was one of the biggest topics on Chinese social media, a TikTok video showing a woman chained up in a shed went viral online and triggered massive outrage with thousands of people demanding answers about the woman’s circumstances.

The video, filmed by a local vlogger in the village of Huankou in Xuzhou, showed how the woman was kept in a dirty hut without a door in the freezing cold. She did not even wear a coat, and she seemed confused and unable to express herself.

Other TikTok videos that came out around the same time showed how the woman’s husband, a man by the name of Dong Zhimin (董志民), was playing and talking with their eight children in the family home right next to the hut where the mother was confined.

The video caused a storm on social media. Many netizens worried about the woman’s circumstances. Why was she chained up? Was she a victim of human trafficking? Was she being abused? How could she have had eight babies? Was she forced to have so many children? While netizens were speculating about the case and venting their anger, Weibo shut down some of the hashtags dedicated to this topic, but the topic soon popped up everywhere, and people started making artworks and writing essays in light of the case.

Following public demands, local authorities started looking into the case. An initial statement by Feng County, where the village of Huankou is located, was issued on January 28 and it said that the woman, named Yang (杨), married her husband in 1998 and that there was no indication that she was a victim of human trafficking.

The woman was dealing with mental problems and would display sudden violent outbursts, beating children and older people. The family allegedly thought it was best to separate her from the family home during these episodes, letting her stay chained up in a small hut next to the house.

The first statement raised more questions than it answered and more people, including influential Weibo bloggers and media insiders, started investigating the case. Meanwhile, it became clear that husband Dong Zhimin was giving interviews to other vloggers flocking to Huankou. Besides talking about his eight children (seven sons, one daughter) as future providers for the family, he also used his newly-acquired ‘fame’ to make money through social media. This only led to more online anger about Dong exploiting his wife and children.

Screenshots from the original Douyin (TikTok) video.

As the social media storm intensified, more official statements ensued. On January 30, Feng County local officials responded to the controversy in a second statement, in which the Xuzhou mother was identified as Yang *Xia (杨某侠) who allegedly once was “a beggar on the streets” in the summer of 1998 when she was taken in by Dong family and ended up marrying their 30-something son Dong Zhimin.

Local officials did not properly check and verify Yang’s identity information when registering the marriage certificate and the local family planning department also made errors in implementing birth control measures and following up with the family. The statement said that Yang had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and was now receiving treatment.

A third, fourth, and even fifth statement issued by authorities on February 7th, 10th, and 23rd confirmed what many on Weibo had suspected all along, namely that Yang had indeed been a victim of human trafficking. Xuzhou authorities said their investigation had brought them to the village of Yagu in Yunnan, a place that was mentioned on Yang’s marriage certificate.

Yang was identified as Xiaohuamei (小花梅), born and raised in Yagu. Yang’s DNA had been compared to that of the family of Xiaohuamei, and the DNA match confirmed that Yang was indeed Xiaohuamei. According to the statements, Xiaohuamei married and moved to another city in 1994, but she divorced and returned to her village two years later, which is when she allegedly also showed signs of mental illness.

Her parents, now deceased, then allegedly ordered a female fellow villager to take their daughter to Jiangsu to get married there. According to the woman, she took Xiaohuamei with her on a train from Yunnan to Jiangsu’s Donghai, but she allegedly ‘went missing’ shortly after arrival. The woman never reported her as missing to the police and she never notified the family.

That woman, along with another man and Dong Zhimin, are now held criminally responsible for illegal detainment and human trafficking. Xiaohuamei was reportedly sold to a man in Donghai for 5,000 yuan ($790) in 1998. Though Xiaohuamei managed to escape, she was sold twice again, eventually ending up with the Dong family.

One of the many images shared on Chinese social media to raise awareness of the case of the Xuzhou mother and other women like her.

While details surrounding the case of the ‘chained Xuzhou mother of eight’ are still being discussed on Chinese social media, it has become clear that by now, ‘Yang’ has come to represent many more women like her. Over the past few weeks, the stories of other women who also might be a victim of human trafficking have surfaced, and the public outcry demanding justice for trafficked women is ongoing.

 

One Social Media Spark Starting a Wildfire

 

Both in the case of Liu Xuezhou and the Xuzhou mother, it should be noted that their stories initially did not catch the public’s attention because official news media reported them, but because of first-hand videos being posted on TikTok (Douyin) and then being picked up and shared by bigger accounts.

Both Liu’s video and the short video featuring the mother of eight were posted on accounts that were not necessarily very popular: starting as a small spark in an online environment with over 900 million social media users, they were shared, commented on, and then spread like wildfire.

Both stories developed in real-time while netizens were following the case, both stories eventually became too big for Chinese state media to ignore, and both Liu and Yang highlighted bigger social issues in contemporary China, mainly those relating to human trafficking.

Since these cases went viral, there has been a heightened focus on the problem of human trafficking, which mostly occurs in China’s poorer areas with weak governance. The trafficking of especially women and children has various purposes, including forced marriage and illegal adoption in areas where there is a shortage of women (along with a preference for baby boys).

China Daily recently reported that lawmakers and advisers are now pushing for heavier punishment for human trafficking crimes, suggesting that the current penalties imposed on the buyers of women and children are too weak; the maximum prison sentence for those who purchase abducted women and children is three years.

In the case of the Xuzhou mother, there has been online censorship but the ongoing intense public outrage eventually did lead to higher-level research into the case. The mother was rescued from her terrible situation, the human traffickers involved are being held responsible, and so are 17 officials, who will be punished by authorities for their wrongdoings in the case.

As for Liu Xuezhou, his adoptive family members have recently filed a request at the Sanya Public Security Bureau to launch another investigation into his case. Their request was accepted on February 23rd, with multiple people being suspected of criminal offenses, eventually leading to his death. On Weibo, many people are now demanding punishment for Liu’s biological parents.

In late January of this year, following the tragic ending to Liu’s story, Chinese state media1 emphasized how the widespread attention for these kinds of stories in the social media era is also changing how government agencies should interact with the public.

According to Dr. Liu Leming, associate professor at East China University’s Political Science faculty, government agencies need to follow up and respond more quickly to social incidents like these in the internet era: “When public issues emerge, people who are involved in social problems or incidents want to know, more than anything, whether their requests have been seen and who will handle their concerns.”

In light of these recent stories, the public is happy that actions have been taken, but they are not satisfied with how these cases were handled. Many argue that authorities have failed in being transparent, that local governments have not done enough to prevent these cases from happening, and that China should do more to put an end to human trafficking.

And so, they are still posting the stories of children like Liu and women like Xiaohuamei to keep raising awareness and to keep pressuring local authorities and lawmakers to take more action to eradicate these practices.

As Liu is no longer alive and Xiaohuamei, still hospitalized, cannot defend herself, Chinese netizens keep raising their voices for them. In doing so, they have not just impacted how authorities dealt with these specific cases, but they are also changing how cases such as these will be handled in the future.

One Weibo user discussing Liu and the Xuzhou mother wrote: “We need to get to the bottom of these kinds of stories: who is to blame, who made mistakes, and where do we go from here?”

In the meantime, online posts, videos, and artworks honor both Liu and Xiaohuamei, so that their stories will not be forgotten. “Dear little one, springtime has come,” one among thousands of messages still flooding Liu Xuezhou’s Weibo page says: “You have endured too many things that you should have never experienced. It should have been us, the adults, taking care of these things for you. You please go and rest now, we will finish the rest for you.”

By Manya Koetse
Follow @whatsonweibo

For information and support on mental health and suicide, international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.

1 Cao Yin and Li Yang. 2022. “Policymakers, Lawmakers Respond to Opinion Voiced Online.” China Daily Hong Kong, January 28, Page 1-2.

Featured image by Ama for Yi Magazin.

This text was written for Goethe-Institut China under a CC-BY-NC-ND-4.0-DE license (Creative Commons) as part of a monthly column in collaboration with What’s On Weibo.

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