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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Chinese internet users are often referred to as ‘netizens’, but some people say the term is outdated and inappropriate.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 editor-in-chief of www.whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer and consultant (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends in China, with a focus on social media and digital developments, popular culture, and gender issues. 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

These Are the Foreign Brands Apologizing to China amid Hong Kong Tensions

Who’s apologizing and why? An A-Z list of the foreign companies caught up in China’s online brand hunt.

Manya Koetse

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First published

Foreign luxury brands hoping to appease the Chinese market are walking on eggshells as the political crisis in Hong Kong is deepening. Chinese netizens and state media recently condemned foreign brands for showing any signs of disregarding the One-China Policy. An online witch hunt has begun: this is the list of brands.

While the political crisis in Hong Kong is deepening, the propaganda machine in mainland China is running at full speed to condemn anti-Beijing ‘rioters’ and promote the one-China principle.

As state media has been intensifying its news coverage on the situation in Hong Kong, with virtually all outlets using similar narratives, Chinese web users started to focus on foreign (luxury) brands and whether or not they list Hong Kong, Macau, or Taiwan as being part of China.

Starting on August 8, Chinese social media platform Weibo has seen dozens of hashtags taking over Chinese social media in relation to the big brand scandal; one foreign brand after the other was exposed as ‘ignoring’ China’s one-China principle on their website or products.

By the beginning of this week, the online brand hunt had almost become like an online contest, with thousands of netizens suggesting new brands that are allegedly not respecting China’s sovereignty.

Although the trend initially began with Chinese web users condemning brands -starting with Versace-, Chinese state media soon also reported about the online controversies and intensified the movement.

Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily wrote that Western brands are quick to apologize, but should also “learn from their mistakes” in the long run, and cannot disregard the One-China Policy if they want to do business in China.

“This is common knowledge, it’s the bottom line,” – online propaganda poster by People’s Daily shows foreign brands and a crack in the “One China” symbol.

State media outlet Global Times also published an illustration online, writing the slogan “China can’t be one bit less” (“中国一点都不能少”) that has been used by state media to emphasize China’s one-China principle since the 2016 South China Sea dispute.

Illustration by Global Times.

In response to the controversies, it has been raining apologies from foreign brands on Chinese social media the past days.

Who is mainly responsible for this online witch hunt? Although it first started with Chinese web users sharing images and screenshots of foreign brands and their ‘erroneous representation’ of China, state media and celebrities soon also started to play a major role in this issue and have contributed to the enormous snowball effect of the trend.

What’s the ‘correct’ way to list Hong Kong or Taiwan according to the one-China principle? Below is an image of the (adjusted) website of Valentino where it lists countries and lists Hong Kong and Taiwan as being part of China.

Here’s a list of the global brands have become tied up in controversy on the mainland this week (this list might still be updated):

 

● ASICS 亚瑟士

Japanese footwear brand

Brand Weibo account:
https://www.weibo.com/asicsofficial (240,000+ fans)

Hashtag:
“ASICS lists HK & Taiwan as Separate Countries” (#亚瑟士将香港与台湾列为国家#): 110 million views.

What’s the problem?
The ASICS website listed Hong Kong and Taiwan as countries.

Apology?
Yes, statement on August 12, followed by “ASICS apologizes” hashtag (#亚瑟士致歉#), 6,5 million views on Weibo. The footwear brand emphasized that it abides by the one-China policy and that it will correct its “mistakes.”

Consequences:
Besides some netizens who vow not to buy any of the brands in this list disregarding the PRC’s one-China policy, there are no indications as of now that the brand is affected by the issue.

 

● CALVIN KLEIN

American fashion brand

Brand Weibo account:
https://weibo.com/calvinklein (303,000 fans)

Hashtag:
“CK Exposed for Insulting China” (##CK被曝辱华##): 1,5 million views.

What’s the problem?:
Calvin Klein faced criticism for listing Taiwan and Hong Kong as separate countries or regions on its website.

Apology?
Yes, statement on August 13, followed by “CK apologizes” hashtag (#ck道歉#), 15 million views on Weibo.

Consequence:
Chinese actress Jelly Lin, Calvin Klein’s brand ambassador for the Asia-Pacific region, announced an immediate termination of collaboration with the American fashion house. The hashtag for this event (#林允终止与CK合作#) received no less than 510 million views. Zhang Yixing (Lay Zhang), a Chinese member of K-pop group Exo and a Calvin Klein model, warned the US clothing company to respect Beijing’s “one China” policy but did not stop working the brand (he did terminate collaborations with Samsung, also in this list).

 

● COACH 蔻驰

American luxury accessories company 

Brand Weibo account:
https://www.weibo.com/coachchina (4+ million fans)

Hashtag:
“Coach Lists HK, Macau, Taiwan as Countries” (#蔻驰将港澳台列为国家#): 6 million views.

What’s the problem?:
Less than 24 hours after Versace’s apology, Coach was among the second batch of brands, along with Givenchy, ASICS, and Fresh, to be exposed online for erroneous geographic listings. Coach got in trouble for a t-shirt displaying ‘Hong Kong’ as an independent region and listing ‘Taipei’ as belonging to ‘Taiwan,’ while Shanghai and Beijing are listed under China.

The tshirt that got Coach into trouble.

The brand was also found to have listed Hong Kong and Taiwan as independent countries under its website’s  “search country” option.

Apology?:
Yes, statement on August 12, followed by “Coach apologizes” hashtag (#蔻驰道歉#), 300 million views on Weibo.

Consequences:
Coach’s China ambassador, supermodel Liu Wen, said on Weibo on Monday that she had cut off her endorsement deal with the fashion label (#刘雯终止与蔻驰合作#, 6 million views) as the brand “seriously impacted the national sentiment of the Chinese people.” State media outlet Global Times suggested the brand faced “potential boycott in China.”

 

● FRESH 馥蕾诗

American beauty brand 

Brand Weibo account:
https://www.weibo.com/freshbeauty (339,500 milion fans)

Hashtag:
No separate hashtag for this incident.

What’s the problem?:
Fresh faced backlash for listing ‘Hong Kong’ as a separate region on its official (English) website.

Apology?:
Yes, statement on August 12, followed by “Fresh apologizes” hashtag (#fresh道歉#,) 8 million views on Weibo.

Consequence:
No known direct consequences.

 

● GIVENCHY 纪梵希

French luxury fashion and perfume house

Brand Weibo account:
https://weibo.com/officialgivenchy (1.5 milion fans)

Hashtag:
The topic ‘Givenchy T-Shirt’ (#纪梵希t恤#) became big on Weibo. The hashtag page has over 500 million views.

What’s the problem?:
Like Coach, Givenchy also got in trouble for a t-shirt displaying ‘Hong Kong’ as an independent region and listing ‘Taipei’ as belonging to ‘Taiwan.’

Apology?:
Yes, statement on August 12, followed by “Givenchy apologizes” hashtag (#纪梵希道歉#,) 290 million views on Weibo.

Consequence:
Chinese singer Jackson Yee terminated his brand partnerships with Givenchy (#易烊千玺与纪梵希解约# 680 million views).

 

● POCARI SWEAT 宝矿力水特

Japanese sport’s drink

Brand Weibo account:
https://www.weibo.com/pocarisweat (15400 fans)

Hashtag:
“Pocari Sweat Get Out of China”(#宝矿力水特滚出中国#) is one of the early hashtags associated with the Pocari controversy. With just over 300,000 views, it did not gain huge traction on Weibo.

What’s the problem?
Pocari Sweat is among the earliest brands – if not the earliest- to be caught up in the brand controversy relating to the protests in Hong Kong. As described by Japan Times, pro-democracy demonstrators praised Pocari after it pulled advertising from Hong Kong television station TVB, which protesters accuse of pro-Beijing coverage. Pocari became a popular drink among Hong Kong protesters.

Apology?:
The mainland China office of the brand issued two apology statements on July 11 and 21 in which it emphasized that it operates separately from the Hong Kong division and that it respects China’s “one country, two systems” policy.

Consequence:
Pocari Sweat was condemned by Chinese state media, but it is not clear if people in mainland China are drinking less Pocari because of the issue.

 

● VALENTINO 

Italian fashion house

Brand Weibo account:
www.weibo.com/valentinoofficial (413,000+ fans)

Hashtag:
No particular hashtag.

What’s the problem?:
Valentino listed Hong Kong and Taiwan as separate countries in the region/language menu on its foreign website.

Apology?:
Yes, statement on August 13, in which Valentino apologizes for making “a mistake” on its website. The website has since been changed.

Consequence:
No known consequences, the website seemed to be quickly adjusted, and many netizens expressed their praise for that and for the fact that the recent trend seems to make foreign brands more aware of the importance of respecting the One-China Policy.

 

● VERSACE 范思哲 

Italian fashion house

Brand Weibo account:
https://www.weibo.com/versacechina (850,000+ fans)

Hashtag:
“Versace Suspected of [Supporting] Hong Kong and Macau Independence” (#范思哲涉嫌港独澳独#): 3.2 million views.

What’s the problem?:
Versace is the first brand to be targeted in this week’s brand-hunting trend. An image of a T-shirt that listed Hong Kong and Macau as independent countries was first posted on Weibo by a female netizen on August 8, who wrote: “I discovered this recently, and wondered if the design of this t-shirt means that Versace is supporting Hong Kong independence?” Three days later, the image had circulated so much that it became a trending topic. Commenters called out the brand for being “two-faced” and for profiting from Chinese money while disregarding Chinese sovereignty.

Apology?:
Yes, statement on August 11, followed by “Versace apologizes” hashtag (#范思哲道歉#,) 860 million views on Weibo. In its statement, Versace stated that the t-shirts had already been recalled and destroyed in late July, and that the fashion house “deeply apologized for the controversy” that was caused by an “error in its t-shirt design.” Versace further stated that the brand “loves China” and “resolutely respects China’s territorial sovereignty.”

Donatella Versace, the designer and chief creative officer of Versace, also issued a personal apology through Instagram, writing: “Never have I wanted to disrespect China’s National Sovereignty and this is why I wanted to personally apologize for such inaccuracy and for any distress that it may have caused.”

Consequence:
Chinese celebrity Yang Mi ended her relationship with Versace. The announcement received a lot of attention on Chinese social media (#杨幂终止与Versace合作# 1.1 billion views).

 

● SWAROVSKI 施华洛世奇

Austrian jewelry company

Brand Weibo account:
https://www.weibo.com/swarovskicom (500,00+ fans)

Hashtag:
Swarovski, together with Calvin Klein, was one of the brands that popped up in the general ‘luxury brand scandal’ after the Versace controversy had snowballed and had moved to Coach, Givenchy, ASICS, and Fresh. The Swarovski issue was exposed just a bit later and had no separate hashtag on Weibo.

What’s the problem?
Swarovski went trending on Chinese social media for classifying Hong Kong as a country on its website.

Apology?
Swarovski issued an apology statement on August 13. The hashtag “Swarovski Apologizes” received over 750 million views on Weibo (#施华洛世奇道歉#).

Consequence:
Chinese actress Jiang Shuying, also known as Maggie Jiang, announced on Tuesday (August 13) that she would be ending her cooperation with Swarovski (#江疏影与施华洛世奇解约#, 410 million views).

 

CURRENTLY UNDER SCRUTINY BUT NO APOLOGIES:

 

● AMAZON 亚马逊

American e-commerce company

Brand Weibo account:
https://www.weibo.com/amazonchina (4.4 million fans)

Hashtag:
“Amazon T-shirts” (#亚马逊t恤#), 140 million views; “Amazon Sells Hong Kong Independence Shirts” (#亚马逊售卖港独T恤#), 18 million views.

What’s the problem?
Amazon is one of the latest brands to be added to the virtual PRC wall of shame of international brands going against Beijing’s “One China” principle. On August 14, screenshots of the Amazon e-commerce platform selling t-shirts promoting an independent Hong Kong and displaying anti-China slogans went viral on Weibo.

Reaction
Amazon did not apologize for the merchandise sold on its platforms, but the company did respond to ChinaNews (#亚马逊回应T恤事件#), emphasizing that Amazon always has and will respect China’s one-China principle, and abide by local laws of the countries Amazon is active in. There were also netizens on Weibo saying they understood that Amazon cannot be responsible for all the merchandise sold by its online shops around the world.

 

● SAMSUNG 三星 

South Korean Tech Company

Brand Weibo account:
https://www.weibo.com/samsung (2.8+ million fans)

Hashtag:
No separate hashtag for this issue, although the announcement that Zhang Yixing would terminate his contract with Samsung did receive over 980 million views, making it one of the bigger hashtags in this brand scandal.

What’s the problem?:
Samsung faced criticism on August 14 for damaging China’s “territorial integrity” by displaying choices Hong Kong, China, and Taiwan as “countries” on its website.

Consequence:
Chinese celebrity and K-Pop star Zhang Yixing (Lay Zhang) announced on August 13 that he would no longer work together with Samsung as a brand ambassador for “hurting the national feelings of Chinese compatriots” (#张艺兴与三星解约#, 980 million views!).

 

By Manya Koetse

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Backgrounder

How the Hong Kong Protests Are Discussed on Chinese Social Media

“Hong Kong, the Pearl of the Orient, is no longer blooming, but covered in cuts and bruises.”

Manya Koetse

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Although discussions on the Hong Kong protests were initially silenced on Chinese social media, the demonstrations are now trending all over Weibo, with state media propagating hashtags and illustrations in favor of Hong Kong government and in support of the Hong Kong Police Force.

The political crisis in Hong Kong shows no signs of de-escalating after another series of mass demonstrations and violent clashes between police and protesters.

This week marks the ninth consecutive week of protests in Hong Kong. The first demonstrations started in March and April of this year against an extradition bill that would allow local authorities to detain and extradite people wanted in mainland China.

After demonstrations escalated in June, the bill was declared “dead” and suspended by Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, but it was not formally withdrawn.

Protests have since continued throughout June, July, and into August, and are now about much more than the extradition bill alone – they are, amongst others, about greater freedom and democracy in Hong Kong, and about less political influence from the Beijing government.

Protesters are calling for Lam’s resignation and for democratic elections, and have denounced violent tactics and “abuse of power” used by the Hong Kong Police Force.

The absence of the police during an attack on residents by suspected gang members dressed in white shirts at the Yuen Long station on July 21 is one of the incidents protesters mention as police misconduct.

But there is also a division between demonstrators, and not necessarily one unified voice. There are also those, for example, who support Hong Kong police. And those who denounce the actions of angry protesters.

 

China’s Central Government Condemns Protests

 

Although authorities in mainland China initially remained quiet on the topic of the Hong Kong protests, the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office of the State Council, China’s top agency for handling Hong Kong affairs, held its first press conference on its stance regarding Hong Kong demonstrations on July 29.

Yang Guang, the office’s spokesperson, condemned the actions of protesters over recent weeks, saying that they “exceeded the boundaries of acceptable protest.”

On August 6, there was another press briefing where Yang Guang used stronger language to denounce the protests, saying that the “radical protests (..) severely impacted Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability, pushing it into a dangerous abyss” and that those behind the demonstrations should not “misjudge” the situation and “mistake our restraint for weakness.”

 

Main Stances on Chinese Social Media

 

On Chinese social media sites, news and discussions on the Hong Kong protest were initially silenced (also see this article), but that has changed now.

Although discussions are still heavily controlled, the topic of the Hong Kong demonstrations has been dominating the trending streams over the past days on China’s popular social media platforms.

On Douyin, one of the most popular short video / social media apps in mainland China, there are dozens of different videos of violent incidents in Hong Kong that are being reposted and liked thousands of times.

On news app Toutiao, articles relating to the Hong Kong protests are in the recommended and ‘hot’ sections, while bloggers and news accounts on WeChat are also posting and reposting Hong Kong related content.

For the scope of this article, we will solely focus on Weibo – the narratives that are spread in daily discussions on the platform are comparable to those on other platforms.

Although the ensuing examples are the main types of posts on Hong Kong that are most popular on Chinese social media now, and definitely receive a lot of support, there are also posts with other views and ideas that might be blocked before ever making it to Weibo or other apps/platforms.

But the restrictions on free discussions on social media do not only relate to platform censorship.

Recently, there are also instances in which Chinese netizens speak out in support of the protesters in Hong Kong who then become a victim of the so-called “human flesh search engine.”

One female Weibo user, responding to the demonstrations in Hong Kong, wrote on August 5th: “Respect to every person out there striking and protesting!” Other Weibo users then made screenshots of her comment and revealed personal details about the woman (a 26-year-old Chinese citizen), labeling her a traitor.

One blogger reposting the woman’s photo and Weibo profile has 1,3 million followers, making this incident quite big and serving as a warning to other Weibo users not to spread their ‘politically incorrect’ views on the Hong Kong protests.

 

“Protect Hong Kong, Support the Police Force”

 

With over 5 billion views, the hashtag “Protect Hong Kong” (#守护香港#) is very popular on Weibo these days.

The hashtag is promoted by Party newspaper People’s Daily, that also launched another viral hashtag, namely “Officers, We Support You” (#阿sir我们挺你#, 300 million views).  The word for ‘officer’ used in this hashtag is “Ah Sir” or “阿Sir”, a uniquely Hong Kong form of address used for policemen and teachers.

Using the “Protect Hong Kong” and “Officers, We Support You” slogans, People’s Daily has also issued an illustration that shows three police officers carrying weapons and protective screens. Behind them are protesters, and above them is China’s Five-starred Red Flag.

Illustration by People’s Daily, issued on Weibo and other social media.

Online propaganda poster issued by China Daily on Weibo.

The main idea behind these hashtags/illustrations is that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) firmly supports the Hong Kong government and the Hong Kong Police Force in dealing with so-called “thugs” or “bandits”  (“暴徒”).

A common stance expressed by Chinese netizens is that pro-democracy protesters are “damaging public security” in Hong Kong and are “dividing the nation.”

“Talk about democracy and freedom in a fair and reasonable way,” one commenter writes: “Don’t talk about freedom and democracy while breaking the law and acting outrageous.”

“It’s horrible to see,” another person says: “The Pearl of the Orient is no longer blooming, but is now covered with cuts and bruises.”

Many stories of violence used against the police force are circulating on Chinese social media. Some videos show protesters using potentially dangerous laser pointers to shine directly in faces of police officers. Last Tuesday, student leader Keith Fong was arrested for possession of such lasers.

One particular trending story concerns a bald police officer named ‘Liu Sir’ (刘sir) who was violently attacked by a group of protesters on July 31st. The mob allegedly punched and kicked him, and assaulted him with sticks and objects before he pulled out his gun.

Photo by People’s Daily, shared on Weibo.

Officer Liu, who has sustained some minor injuries from the incident, responded to the incident writing in a text: “[I] just hate the fact that they are also Chinese – it feels wrong to hit them and also wrong not to. It really pains me!”

Officer Liu has become somewhat of a hero on Chinese social media, as his image is propagated by Chinese state media through photos and illustrations.

Image of Officer Liu shared on Weibo by netizen @李里言子.

The idea of ‘protecting’ Hong Kong and supporting its police force goes hand in hand with the idea that Hong Kong is, and “always will be,” a “part of China.”

Many commenters in the comment sections express their anger about Hong Kong protesters attacking police and throwing the Chinese flag into the water. “If you do not want to be Chinese, then don’t live on Chinese territory,” some write.

 

“Hong Kong’s Colonial Mentality” 

 

A post by an economics blogger (@同行中的我, 14674 fans) that received more than 6500 ‘likes’ on Weibo argues that one problem behind the protests is that Hong Kong youth are stuck in a “colonial mentality.”

The blogger says that Hong Kong people have a lack of patriotic education and have no “sense of belonging.” It is this Hong Kong mentality, the writer argues, that prevents the region from blooming. Without mainland China, Hong Kong is nothing, the post says.

This sentiment is reiterated by many commenters on Weibo, who write things such as “Without a country, you have no home.”

Hong Kong Island was ceded to Britain in 1842 as part of the Treaty of Nanjing. July 1st of 1997 marked Hong Kong’s return to China, and the moment it became a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the PRC, based on the principle of “one country, two systems.”

Those who are protesting for Hong Kong independence are also called “Pro HK Independence ‘Poison’” on Weibo (港毒分子, a wordplay with characters meaning ‘Hong Kong-independence/poison-members’: a derogatory term for those supporting Hong Kong independence).

“The Pro HK Independence Poison comes from Hong Kong education. Its education comes from its system. So to get rid of this poison, you first need to replace the system, and then change education in Hong Kong,” one person suggests.

 

“Biased Media Representations”

 

“Western media only use pictures that are taken out of context -they have an ulterior motive,” Weibo news blogger Jianhua (@建华Wei业) writes: “They fabricate news about Hong Kong police power abuse and violence.”

The accusation of Western media representing the Hong Kong protesters as the ‘good guys’ and the Hong Kong police as the ‘bad guys’ is repeated on Chinese social media quite a lot these days.

One major example is the aforementioned case of Sir Liu, as many media allegedly only forwarded those images or footage of the police pulling his gun, leaving out the part where he was attacked by protesters first.

Since there is a clear pro-Hong Kong Police Force dominant narrative on Weibo, many netizens defend the police and describe the protesters as violent and unreasonable rioters.

 

“US Meddling in Hong Kong Affairs”

 

Besides criticism on supposed biased media representations of the situation in Hong Kong, there is also criticism on the role of the United States in the Hong Kong protests.

One photo of American diplomat Julie Eadeh meeting up with student leaders involved in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement circulated on Chinese social media this week, with state media accusing the US of playing a role in “creating disorder” in Hong Kong.

Image posted on Weibo by CCTV.

“What Is America Up To?”(#美国居心何在#) is one of the hashtags related to the incident that is shared on Chinese social media, promoted by CCTV.

“What is America up to?” online poster designed and shared by CCTV.

“America has no right to meddle in Hong Kong affairs,” commenters on Weibo respond: “Hong Kong is China’s Hong Kong.”

Adding fuel to this discussion is the fact that some Hong Kong protesters have recently started waving American flags at demonstrations (read more about that here).

Trending on August 9 is an incident in which a woman angrily pulled the American flags from protesters’ hands at Hong Kong airport. Many people on Weibo praise the woman for being so “courageous” to stand up to the demonstrators. “We just want Hong Kong to be stable and peaceful,” the woman stated to the media.

Others on Weibo call on protesters in Hong Kong to be reasonable. “I feel that the situation in Hong Kong is getting more and more complicated,” one commenter writes: “I hope the protesters can rationally overthink why they are participating in these demonstrations; they shouldn’t let themselves be used by others.”

“I just cannot make sense of what these angry youth are doing,” another commenter writes: “They are waving the American flag. But when they leave [Hong Kong], people won’t see them as Hong Kongnese – foreigners will all think they are Chinese. I just don’t get where they’re going.”

 
Keep an eye on What’s on Weibo for more related stories in the time to come. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and subscribe to notifications via the bell in this screen (Chrome/Firefox/Android).
 

By Manya Koetse

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