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

It’s not innocent jargon. Not anymore.

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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

Searching for Yue: Contact Tracing Information Exposes Sad Story Behind One Beijing Covid Case

Because Yue tested positive for Covid19, the entire country came to know the recent whereabouts of “the hardest-working man of China.”

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While being quarantined due to Covid19, he is going viral on Chinese social media. “The hardest-working Chinese man in contact tracing” has touched the hearts of many netizens, leading to public questions about the disappearance of his son – a story without a happy ending.

On January 18, one person tested positive for Covid19 in Chaoyang District, Beijing. That person, who was asymptomatic, was one of the three reported cases of Covid19 detected in the Chinese capital on Tuesday.

The patient’s contact tracing records showed that from January 1st of this year to January 18, in a time frame of 18 days, he went to many districts in Beijing and worked odd jobs all around the clock at more than twenty different construction sites throughout the city. This earned him the title of “the hardest-working Chinese man in contact tracing” (“流调中最辛苦的中国人”).

Yue went all around the city working odd jobs all around the clock.

In China News Weekly (中国新闻周刊), reporter Chao Xiang (赵翔) interviewed the Chaoyang Covid patient and provided more information about him. That article, titled “A Conversation with the ‘Hardest-Working Chinese in Contact Tracing Records'” (“对话”流调中最辛苦的中国人””) soon went viral on Chinese social media. (Pekingnology did a full translation on the article here).

Who is this hard-working and industrious man? It is the 44-year-old Mr. Yue, a migrant worker from Shandong’s Weihai who rents a tiny room in Shigezhuang for 700 yuan ($110) per month. Just as he was about to start his train journey from Beijing South Station to go home to his wife and youngest son in Weihai, anti-epidemic workers alerted him that he had tested positive for Covid19 and got him off the train.

While was immediately quarantined at a designated hospital in Beijing, his recent movements and personal story soon became a major item of discussion on WeChat and Weibo after a press conference and media release detailed his recent whereabouts (#北京朝阳无症状感染者轨迹公布#).

Although Yue formerly worked as a sailor, he is now a manual laborer in construction in Beijing. He started working in the city in search of his eldest son, who went missing at the age of 19 and who previously worked as a kitchen helper in Beijing.

Yue Yuetong (岳跃仝)

Yue’s son, Yue Yuetong (岳跃仝), allegedly complained about a stomach ache when he was working at a food factory in Rongcheng, Weihai, in the summer of 2020. He was supposed to take a bus home, but he never got on that bus and never returned home again. Besides Beijing and Rongcheng, Mr. Yue went to a least ten other cities looking for his son, always believing that he could not have gone very far and that it was possible to find him.

Authorities allegedly were not very helpful in setting up a thorough search for the then 19-year-old. Yue told China News Weekly that it took weeks before the family could officially register Yue Yuetong as a missing person. Mr. Yue also claimed that the police did not trace his phone records and video surveillance in the initial days after he went missing due to privacy reasons.

Yue tells China News Weekly (translation by Pekingnology):

I also asked in the hospital morgues. On October 12th, 2021, they [not clear who] saw me were petitioning, and told me that a corpse was of my eldest son, and asked me to go to Rongcheng Second Hospital to identify the corpse. I saw that man, whose face was hard to see but fat and round. My son is 1.74 meters tall, thin, and has a long face. I don’t think that was my son. I asked to test the bones of the body, but they weren’t willing to do that. They initially said the test would be done at Weihai Public Security Bureau which would take dozens of days. Later, it was said that the forensic doctor was on a business trip. After half a month, they/he [unclear] called me and said don’t bother them/him anymore.

My wife couldn’t stop crying when she heard that our eldest son was dead. I don’t believe that corpse was my son.

When this dead body was first discovered, I asked the police station, and they said it was not my eldest son. As soon as I began petitioning, they said it was my eldest son in order to close the case.”

All the money Yue earns has gone towards the search for his son and towards his parents who suffer from multiple health problems. The medicine and medical costs for his bedridden paralyzed father and for his mother, who recently broke her arm, are not covered by insurance and Yue does all he can to cover these for them. His wife makes a meager income and his youngest son, who is only 12, is attending junior high school.

Despite his tough life, Yue told China News Weekly he does not feel sorry for himself.

There are multiple reasons why Yue’s story struck a chord with Chinese netizens. One of the reasons is that although his story stands out, he is not the only one facing such difficulties in China today. In that regard, the responses to Yue’s story bear some resemblance to the reactions dominating social media after the publications of the essay by Fan Yusu, a female migrant worker living in Beijing.

Her story about her life and struggles with work, marriage and family became a viral hit in 2017 (read more here). At the time, commenters wrote “We are all Fan Yusu,” suggesting that Fan’s account was just one voice among thousands of migrant workers dealing with similar problems and struggles.

“Yue is not the only hard-working Chinese person,” one commenter wrote, with another person writing: “I might work even more than him.”

Numerous netizens said Yue’s story made them tear up due to his dignity and resilience, something that many people admire him for – especially at a time of Covid19.

There were also many who hoped that Yue, who received so much attention over his peculiar contact tracing records, could use his sudden, unexpected fame to his advantage to get the help of the public and police to finally find his son. The calls to conduct a massive search for Yue’s son also came with criticism for how the case was apparently handled by authorities back in 2020 and 2021.

The hashtag “Yue Yuetong Come Home” (#岳跃仝请回家#) soon went trending on Chinese social media, together with the hashtag “The Internet Helps Searching for Yue Yuetong” (#全网帮忙寻找岳跃仝#).

The missing person flyer for Yue Yuetong from 2020.

Meanwhile, the police in Rongcheng responded to the public’s questions and comments on January 20th, saying they would re-investigate to “understand” the case.

On January 21st, Weihai authorities issued a statement regarding the story. The statement explains that the Rongcheng City Public Security Bureau was notified on the evening of August 12 of 2020 by Li, Yue’s wife, that her son had gone missing earlier that day after he left work.

The police claim that their team investigated the case and tracked Yue Yuetong’s last known movements and retrieved surveillance details. After their search efforts did not result in any leads, they classified Yuetong as a missing person.

On August 26 of 2020, two weeks after Yue Yueyong went missing, the Rongcheng authorities learned of a deceased person and found a man’s body. After his DNA was compared to the DNA from Yuetong’s parents, the authorities confirmed that the remains belonged to Yue Yuetong. They also said there were no suspicious circumstances surrounding his death.

According to the statement, Yue Yuetong’s parents refused to believe that the deceased man was their son. Despite repeated attempts made by the local police to communicate to the family that their ongoing requests to find their missing son were in vain, the family did not want to accept the facts. The remains have been transferred to a funeral home.

One Weibo commenter wrote: “So to summarize this, they already knew their son was dead around ten days after he went missing, but they could not accept it and traveled the entire country to look for him…I’m speechless. What a tragedy.”

“So, their son was actually already gone two years ago.. but they couldn’t identify him because he’d bee in the water and the parents did not want to believe it despite the DNA results. They kept searching for two year. How sad!”

Other people criticized the police for not apologizing to the family about the circumstances surrounding the investigation into their son’s disappearance, and also express their hope that Mr. Yue can receive psychological help at the Beijing hospital where he is still being treated for Covid.

Ironically, it was his bad luck of catching Covid19 and his remarkable contact tracing records that triggered the public’s interest and finally put an end to the long and costly search for his son.

Despite the official statement, there are still lingering questions left unanswered. Why did the police allow Mr. Yue and his wife to continue searching for their son for so long if they already knew he was dead? Why was Mr. Yue so convinced that the body that was found was not his son? How and why did Yue Yuetong die? Many of these questions might never be answered. One thing that the majority of those discussing this topic agree on is that they wish Mr. Yue a speedy recovery, hoping that he will be able to find some peace of mind after struggling for so long.

By Manya Koetse, with contributions by Miranda Barnes

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

©2022 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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China Sex & Gender

Doctor Livestreams Gynecological Surgery: Video Streaming Site Bilibili Responds to the Controversy

An anesthesiologist from Shandong live-streamed from the operating room while a patient was undergoing gynecological surgery.

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A video on the popular Chinese video platform Bilibili has triggered controversy on social media. On January 15, a doctor was filming during gynecological surgery and live-streamed the entire procedure for everyone to see.

The issue came to light after one Bilibili user posted on social media that he had personally seen the live stream on Saturday, saying that the female patient was under anesthesia and unaware of being filmed. After this person immediately reported the live stream to Bilibili, it was cut off and ended.

The video streaming platform Bilibili responded to the controversy on Tuesday night, stating that the livestreamer was previously warned and cut off from the platform and that he has now been permanently banned. Bilibili also stated they had reported the person to Chinese authorities.

A hashtag related to Bilibili’s statement was viewed over 220 million times on Weibo on Wednesday, making it one of the top trending topics of the day (#B站回应有账号直播妇科手术#).

Chinese news outlet The Paper (澎湃新闻) reported that the doctor in question was identified by authorities and has been arrested. According to one of their sources, the person who live-streamed the surgery is an anesthesiologist who works at Rizhao Central Hospital in Shandong. The case is currently under investigation.

Weibo commenters have responded to the incident with shock and disgust. “This doctor lacks any medical ethics,” some write, with others mentioning how the privacy of the patient has been violated and saying they hope the doctor will be punished for what he has done. There are also those who wonder why other medical staff members did not intervene when they saw the anesthesiologist filming, suggesting this probably was not the first time for him to do so.

The issue has also triggered online discussions regarding Bilibili’s content policies, with some raising questions on why videos or live streams relating to politically sensitive issues will be pulled offline immediately while these kinds of videos can apparently be live-streamed without any problem.

Just a few months ago, similar discussions also trended on Chinese social media after an online influencer committed suicide by drinking pesticide during a live broadcast.

Xiakedao (@侠客岛), a Weibo account run by state media outlet People’s Daily, published a commentary on the recent Bilibili controversy on January 19, stressing that Chinese video platforms should be held accountable for their lack of supervision.

By Manya Koetse

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

©2021 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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