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Op-Ed: Your Use of “Netizen” Hurts Responsible China Coverage

It’s not innocent jargon. Not anymore.

Dave Yin

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Far from innocent jargon, the word ‘netizen’ has political implications in its use today and should not be casually tossed around, says Beijing-based journalist Dave Yin. In this op-ed contribution, Yin responds to our recent article “Netizens or Not?

It’s unlikely that when internet theorist and author Michael F. Hauben coined the word “netizen” more than thirty years ago, he would have imagined that, one day, on the other side of the world, a few handfuls of Western reporters and media critics covering China would be divided: in one camp applauding and in the other cursing his creation. It’s equally unlikely he’d recognize at first glance what his word has come to mean in 2018 – and to whom.

Common thought is that whether or not “netizen” should be used, and what it means, are at the heart of this debate, which by now spans publications both big and small, free and censored. It hasn’t gotten us anywhere.

But in view of China’s escalation of online policing and digital surveillance, the concept of “netizen” is evolving, as must its coverage in Western media. Far from innocent jargon, the word today has political implications and a growing potential for harm, one Western media must recognize if it is to conduct responsible reporting.

 

A Western interpretation

 

When considering the word “netizen,” it helps to know what one is talking about. Namely, pick a definition, and stick with it.

Scenario A)

One clear-cut definition offered by the Atlantic designates a unique identity; young, wealthy, educated Chinese urbanites and/or politically active individuals in online communities adept at skirting censorship.

Here, simple protocol applies. Writers using “netizen” must first make sure the subjects of their story actually match this description. Then, they must assess whether these complex socioeconomic and political elements are evident in this word. Hint: they’re not.  Inevitably, writers should be explaining these elements to accompany the use of this term in each article it appears in. Anything short of this is incomplete reporting.

Scenario B)

If broadly defined to be a synonym to “Chinese internet users,” as is more often the case, then several questions emerge: Why do Chinese internet users need a special label in the first place? Why is “Chinese internet user” inadequate when this type of terminology works for everyone else? If research (paywall) suggests the online habits of Chinese are similar to the rest of us, what are we trying to accomplish by othering them?

 

Self-applied labels

 

In advocacy reporting, we try to respect a person’s self-applied labels, such as with race or sexual orientation, so I appreciate the irony when I say that just because Chinese people call themselves “netizens” doesn’t necessarily mean we should.

Be it when describing race, sexual orientation, disability, etc. there is a general effort to use terminology that centers the person, and not the circumstance, which is often complex. “Person with impaired vision,” “a cisgender gay man,” “the woman, who identifies as a second-generation Filipino immigrant,” “individuals claiming to be members of the Anonymous collective” are infinitely better than “the blind,” “the gay,” “the Filipino,” “Anonymous.” In pieces where nuance and individuals matter, these words do more than fill up space.

“Netizen,” as it is currently used, erases both.

What’s more, these often political labels emerged in societies with freedom of association where one makes a statement simply by publicly identifying. By contrast, what does it mean to label yourself with something as vague and abstract as “netizen” in a society that doesn’t allow such freedom, and what effect does it have when Western media take up this cause?

 

A Chinese strategy

 

The self-applied label argument is also unsound when you consider that “netizen” is actually a mistranslation of the word “wǎngmín” (网民).

In wǎngmín 人民 (people), nóngmín 农民 (farmer), jūmín 居民 (resident), yímín 移民 (migrant), yúmín 渔民 (fisherman), and míngē 民歌 (folk song), “mín” 民 simply means “people,” without any “citizen” connotation, and therefore “wǎngmín” 网民 really just means “internet people/people on the internet.”

In other words, “netizen” and “wǎngmín” are faux amis. It’s a mistake that Western media has allowed to proliferate and one that we must now contend with.

While the use of the English word by ordinary Chinese and private Chinese media could boil down to guileless ignorance towards English nuance, by contrast, “wǎngmín,” when applied by the Chinese government and its mouthpieces, is part of deliberate national policy. As described by Manya Koetse in her analysis, the Chinese term is an official category of Chinese nationals on which the CCP imposes severe restrictions.

What ramifications are there for Western media in not consciously decoupling these wildly different interpretations by different actors? By casually tossing the word around, do we not run the risk of normalizing Chinese internet policy?

While we, working in the Far East, may feel at times that our work is isolated, it should be noted that people are, in fact, reading, for better or worse.

“[‘Netizen’] has been used when reporting on China for a decade+ [sic] in order to relieve journalists of understanding what they’re reporting on,” one Reddit user (Western netizen?) writes. “Today it is a lazy way to assume all internet users in China think the same way by f*cking lazy journalists.”

“Netizen” may well stick around. China’s emerging digital policies have all but ensured it. But we owe it to our readers and the people we cover to get with the program, to evolve our terminology and critical judgment at the same pace as the subject matter.

We need to understand that the benefits of its selective, judicious use, as a result of explicit purpose, come from highlighting and decoding China’s socioeconomic and political situation, not from generalizing 772 million individuals, and least of all from othering them or normalizing their constraints. It may help everyone’s understanding of this country, including our own.

By Dave Yin

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us.

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

Dave Yin is a Beijing-based Canadian reporter covering Chinese policy, tech and identity. Previously he covered North American IT and LGBT topics. Visit his website here and follow at: @yindavid.

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China and Covid19

Zhejiang Daily: ‘People First’ Does Not Mean ‘Anti-Epidemic First’

Many Chinese netizens are showing support for Zhejiang Daily after the Party newspaper published an article that tries to find a middle ground between what authorities want to say and what ordinary people want to hear.

Manya Koetse

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After days of unrest, Party newspaper Zhejiang Daily published an article by the Propaganda Department (aka Publicity Department) that addresses the current problems in China’s epidemic situation, talks about the way forward, and stresses the importance of listening to people’s demands and “putting the people first.” But not everyone is convinced.

On Tuesday, November 29, after days filled with unrest and protests in various places across China, Party newspaper Zhejiang Daily (浙江日报) published a noteworthy article titled “‘People First’ Is Not ‘Anti-Epidemic [Measures] First'” (“人民至上”不是“防疫至上“).

The phrase “the people first” (人民至上 rénmín zhìshàng), also “putting the people in the first place,” is an important part of the Party’s ‘people-based, people-oriented’ governing concept. The phrase became especially relevant as part of Xi Jinping’s now-famous “put people and their life first” slogan (人民至上,生命至上, rénmín zhìshàng, shēngmìng zhìshàng), which became one of the most important official phrases of 2020 in light of the fight against Covid19.

The Zhejiang article starts by addressing the recent unrest surrounding China’s zero Covid policy, writing:

Since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus epidemic in late 2019, already three years have passed. As the time of preventing and controlling the epidemic situation is getting stretched, many people’s psychological tolerance and endurance level are put to the test, and they are even breaking down little by little. As some netizens say: if the first year was about panic followed by the secret joy of being able to have a good rest at home; the second year began to be more bewildering and was about the hope for a quick end to the epidemic situation; the third year is then more about dissatisfaction, when will this finally end?”

The article mentioned that in addition to growing frustrations about the endless pandemic, various places across China have been intensifying their anti-epidemic efforts in the wrong ways:

“​​”(..) they are abusing their power, and are making things difficult for the people. This has led to epidemic prevention becoming deformed. They will not explicitly say they are locking down, but they are locking down, they are ignoring the interests of the masses and the demands of the people, interrupting the order of normal life at their will, and are even disregarding the lives and safety of the people, harming the image of the Party and the government, and breaking the hearts of the masses. There are even some people who will seize this epidemic situation to make money. Compared to the epidemic, it’s these phenomena which are hurting people. The ensuing sense of helplessness and tiredness and anger are all understandable.”

The article then stresses:

“Anti-epidemic measures are to guard against the virus, not to guard against the people; it was always [supposed to be] about ‘people first,’ not about so-called ‘epidemic prevention’ first. Regardless what kind of prevention and control measures are taken, they should all be aimed at letting society return to normal as soon as possible and getting life back on track as soon as possible. They are all are like “bridges” and “boats” to reach this goal, and are not meant to keep people in place, as blind and rash actions that disregard the costs.”

Zhejiang Daily mentions how the World Cup in Qatar has made some people wonder about the crowds in the audience not wearing any masks, as if there was no pandemic at all. If they can, why can’t China?

As the foremost reason, the article mentions the relatively low number of hospital beds in China.

Whereas countries such as South Korea or Japan, which are still seeing high numbers of new Covid infections, have about 12.6 beds per 1000 people (12.65 and 12.63 respectively), China only has 6.7.

With the United States being mentioned as an example of a country where Covid-19 patients were using up 32.7% of total nationwide ICU capacity early in 2022, with 7 ICU beds per 100,000 people being occupied by Covid patients, the article suggests that China does not even have this many ICU beds per 100,000 people.

Zhejiang Daily posted its article on Weibo, where one related hashtag received over 350 million views by Tuesday night.

The article further mentions how China, which is a rapidly ageing country, has a relatively large elderly population. With mortality rates being higher in Covid patients over the age of 60, it is estimated that if China would let go of its Covid measures, some 600,000 seniors (60+) catching the virus would die (the article bases this estimation on mortality rates in the Singaporean Covid epidemic.)

Due to Chinese historical, social and traditional values, the protection of the country’s eldest is of great importance. Zhejiang Daily suggests that this is different from Western societies: “Some Western countries had nursing homes where hundreds of people passed away during the epidemic – if that would happen in China, it would be unacceptable. If you understand this point, you can also understand all the efforts we are putting out to contain the epidemic situation.”

And so, Zhejiang Daily highlights the high price people in many Western countries paid to get to the stage in the epidemic where they are today.

The article repeats some of the arguments that have previously also been included in writings in other newspapers and by political commentator Hu Xijin, namely that with China’s current zero-Covid policy and the adjustments that were recently made, the country is now focusing on precise and science-backed epidemic prevention that is meant to put as little strain as possible on society and economy.

However, the latest changes and the essence of China’s zero Covid policy are not properly implemented everywhere, the article says, as there is a lack of understanding or an incapability to handle the situation due to a local lack of staff or available methods. Then there is also the issue of some people making money off of to strict epidemic measures. This has all led to tragic situations that should never have happened.

Although the article does not mention any concrete examples, there are many recent incidents where people did not get the help they needed because of excessive Covid measures. We have covered some of the biggest ones on What’s on Weibo, including the young girl who passed away after getting gravely ill at a quarantine location in Ruzhou; the toddler who died due to carbon monoxide poisoning and a severe delay in medical help in Lanzhou; and the woman who jumped from the 12th floor of an apartment building in Hohhot, although her daughters had been seeking requesting help for her deteriorating mental state for hours.

The problem at hand, Zhejiang Daily suggests, is that some local authorities are putting epidemic prevention first instead of putting people’s lives first. The problem can also not be solved by letting go of all measures, nor by adhering to a ‘one-size-fits-all’ zero Covid policy (“走出疫情阴霾,不是一句“放”与“不放”就能解决的事情.”)

Instead of fighting for ‘opening up’ versus ‘closing down’, the point is to find a “soft landing” (“软着陆”) way out the “haze of the epidemic situation” (“走出疫情阴霾”).

Although the article does not give very concrete answers on what the best way forward is – although it does mention increasing China’s vaccination rates, hospital beds, and available medications, – it proposes to look at the exact pain points within the bigger picture, and to deal with them one by one in order to quickly improve epidemic situations across the country.

At the same time, it also advocates that the various systems that are in place across China should be efficiently unified. The health code system in China is not operated nationally, and instead, various regions are each working with their own Health Code apps (see this article).

So, in other words: local problems should be spotlighted and dealt with, while regional innovative tools or effective measures should also be pinpointed and standardized across the country (“一地创新、全国使用”).

The article does not explicitly mention the recent unrest across China, but it does hint at it: “The voices and the demands of the people have always been the central point regarding the adjustment and optimization of anti-epidemic policies. There is only one goal in the fight against the virus, and that is to benefit the people, to protect the health and safety of every person. If we hold on to this point, our steps won’t be chaotic, and our actions won’t stray from the intended line.”

On Weibo and WeChat, the article is discussed by many netizens (#浙江宣传发文人民至上不是防疫至上#). One hashtag related to the article received over 350 million views on Weibo on Tuesday (#人民至上不是防疫至上#).

Many people spoke out in support of the article.

“This is a well-written article. It really combines the two components of ‘what we want to say’ and ‘what the ordinary people want to hear,’ it brings in some fresh air, clears up some confusion and eases the mood,” one commenter from Hubei writes: “But why is only Zhejiang Daily publishing this? The Zhejiang Propaganda [department] is the pride on the propaganda front, the fact that there’s just one Zhejiang Propaganda [department] is the sorrow on the propaganda front.”

“Finally something that’s clear-headed,” others wrote. “This article actually moved me. There’s been masses of people raising their voice recently because some local epidemic measures are creating problems and are not benefiting the people. No matter how we solve it, the target is unchanged.”

“Well put!” others wrote: “So what do we do now?”

But not everyone was convinced that the article is meaningful. “I don’t buy it,” one person wrote: “This won’t do much more than a fart.”

“The title is welcomed by the people, the content protects the central authority,” another commenter said.

The Zhejiang Daily article suggests that there is nothing wrong with the general zero-Covid policy and the twenty new measures, but instead points at how various places across the country have different interpretations of the policies and sometimes take drastic measures which actually undermine the authority of the central government (“中央定下来的“动态清零”总方针、优化防控二十条措施,一些地方有不同解读,极大降低了中央政策的权威性.”)

“It only scratches the outside of the boot,” another Weibo user replied: “It does not talk about the main point and avoids taking responsibility by how it’s written. It shifts the conflict to ordinary people (..), the fact that we are still reading these kinds of [xxx] articles in 2022 is typical [xxx] socialism.”

Regardless of criticism, many people did praise how Zhejiang authorities wrote the article: “Zhejiang has done quite well, and I’ll praise their Publicity Department.”

Read more about the “11.24” unrest in China here.

By Manya Koetse 

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Featured image via Zhejiang Daily.

 

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China and Covid19

The ‘Blank White Paper Protest’ in Beijing and Online Discussions on “Outside Forces”

As people in Beijing, Shanghai, and other places take to the streets holding up white papers, some have dubbed this the “A4 Revolution.”

Manya Koetse

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A majority of social media commenters support those who have recently taken to the streets, using blank sheets as a sign of protest against censorship and stringent Covid measures. But there are also online voices warning Chinese young people not to be influenced by ‘external forces.’

Over the past few days, there have been scenes of unrest and protest movements in various places across China.

While there were protests in Shanghai for the second night in a row, Beijing also saw crowds gathering around the Liangmahe area in the city’s Chaoyang District on Sunday night.

Some videos showed crowds softly singing the song “Farewell” (送别) in commemoration of those who lost their lives during the deadly inferno in Urumqi.

Later, people protested against stringent Covid measures.

“The crowds at Liangmahe are amazing,” some people on Weibo commented.

Photos and videos coming from the area showed how people were holding up blank sheets of white paper.

Earlier this weekend, students in Nanjing and Xi’an also held up blank paper sheets in protest of censorship and as the only ‘safe’ way to say what could otherwise not be said. This form of protest also popped up during the Hong Kong protests, as also described in the recent book by Louisa Lim (Indelible City: Dispossession and Defiance in Hong Kong).

The recurring use of blank paper sheets led to some dubbing the protests an “A4 Revolution.”

“When can we have freedom of speech? Maybe it can start at Beijng’s Liangmahe,” one person on Weibo wrote on Sunday night.

Another Beijing-based netizen wrote: “Before going to sleep I saw what was happening in Liangmahe on my WeChat Moments and then I looked at Weibo and saw that the Xicheng area had added 279 new Covid cases. I started thinking about my own everyday life and the things I am doing. I can’t help but feel a sense of isolation, because I can’t fight and do not dare to raise my voice.”

“I didn’t dare to believe this is happening in 2022. I didn’t dare to believe this is happening in Beijing. I do not dare to believe that again it will all have been useless tomorrow morning,” one Weibo user commented.

During the night, various people at the scene shouted out things such as “we want to go out and work,” and other hopes they have. One person yelled: “I want to go out and see a movie!”

“I want to go and see a movie.”

The phrase “I wanna go watch a movie” (“我要看电影”) was also picked up on social media, with some people commenting : “I am not interested in political regimes, I just want to be able to freely see a movie.” “I want to see a movie! I want to sit in a cinema and watch a movie! I want to watch a movie that is uncensored!”

Despite social media users showing a lot of support for students and locals standing up and making their voices heard, not everyone was supportive of this gathering in Beijing. Some suggested that since Liangmahe is near Beijing’s foreign embassy district, there must be some evil “foreign forces” meddling and creating unrest.

Others expressed that people were starting to demand too many different things instead of solely focusing on China’s zero Covid policies, losing the momentum of the original intention of the protest.

Political commentator Hu Xijin (胡锡进) also posted about the recent unrest on his Weibo account on Sunday night:

The people have the right to express their opinions, and you may have good and honest aspirations and have the intention to express legitimate demands. But I want to remind you that many things have their own rules, and when everyone participates in the movement, its direction might become very difficult for ordinary participants to continue to control, and it can easily to be used or even hijacked by separate forces, which may eventually turn into a flood that destroys all of our lives.”

Hu also called on people to keep striving to solve existing problems, but to stay clear-headed, suggesting that it is important for the people and the government to maintain unity in this challenging time.

The term “outside forces” or “external forces” (外部势力) increasingly popped up in social media discussions on late Sunday night.

“I worry a lot of meddling by external forces. Let’s be vigilant of a color revolution. I just hope things will get better,” one netizen from Hubei wrote.

“Young people should not be incited by a few phrases and blindly follow. Everyone will approve of people rationally defending their rights, but stay far away from color revolutions.”

The idea that foreign forces meddle in Chinese affairs for their own agenda has come up various times over the past years, during the Hong Kong protests but also during small-scale protests, such as a local student protest in Chengdu in 2021.

The term “color revolution” is recurring in these kind of discussions, with some netizens suggesting that foreign forces, such as the CIA, are trying to get local people to cause unrest through riots or demonstrations to undermine the stability of the government.

“It’s not always external forces, it can also just be opposition,” one person on Weibo replied: “In every country you’ll have different opinions.”

“What outside forces?” another commenter said: “I’m not an external force! I am just completely fed up with the Covid measures!”

Read more about the “11.24” unrest in China here.

By Manya Koetse , with contributions by Miranda Barnes

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