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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.

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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 Insight

‘Preferential Treatment’ of Foreign Students in China: Top 3 Controversies This Week

A wave of sentiments against foreign students is taking over Chinese social media this week.

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Foreign students in China have come under the spotlight over the past week, as story after story involving apparent favoritism of exchange students is making its rounds on Chinese social media. This is a top 3 of trending issues.

Recently there have been many discussions on Chinese social media on the alleged preferential treatment of foreign (exchange) students in China.

Various topics popping up over the past week have triggered anger among netizens about foreign students being allowed to come and study China under favorable conditions.

Some netizens think foreign students make use of the situation and refer to these students as ‘foreign trash’ (洋垃圾).

Although there are many different stories making their rounds, these currently are the three main news topics relating to ‘favoritism’ of foreign students compared to Chinese students.

 

1. Arranging ‘Girlfriends’: Shandong’s Study Buddy System Sparks Outrage Online

The first story relating to foreign students that has been making news recently is that of preferential treatment of foreigners at Shandong University.

It is this story that later led to more stories coming out about supposed unequal standards for overseas students in China.

The outrage started after a registration form from Shandong University for students to apply as a “buddy” to exchange students made its rounds on Chinese social media.

The form clearly states “making a foreign friend of the opposite sex” as one of its options.

As explained by SupChina, the study buddy program (学伴制度) was established in 2016 to promote cooperation between foreign and Chinese students.

This year’s application forms show that multiple Chinese volunteers are now grouped and assigned to one foreign student to assist them with school assignments or to keep them company during other (social) activities.

One extreme case in which 25 Chinese students attended to the needs of one single exchange student stirred discussions online. The graduate student from Zimbabwe, who did not speak Chinese, was admitted to the hospital for 25 days for a broken leg and the university had arranged one volunteering student to come to the hospital every day.

The form also showed a specific focus on gender, requiring students to choose options for becoming a study buddy, including that of “making foreign friends of the opposite sex” (“结交外国异性友人”) and allowing them to indicate their preference for their matched buddy’s personality.

A notice circulating on Weibo from the university showed that 47 foreigners taking part in the program were each matched with three Chinese students, most of them female.

This led to people wondering if Shandong University was acting as an educational institute or a matchmaking company, and accused the university of arranging girlfriends for male foreign students.

Shandong University has since apologized and said it would conduct a “thorough research” of its Buddy Programme.

Not all people, however, understand what all the fuss is about. As one popular Weibo blogger noted: “Shandong University’s Buddy System is voluntary, and it is optional to choose the preferred gender of the exchange student, there is no need to fill this out.”

 

2. Lenient Laws? Foreign Student Traffic Police Incident

Another incident sparking controversy occurred on July 9 in the city of Fuzhou, where an international student from the Fujian Agriculture and Forestry University was caught breaking traffic rules on his electric scooter – he was carrying another individual.

When the traffic police stopped the man, he resisted with violence and tried to push the officer out of his way.

Yet, despite his apparent aggressive behavior, the man reportedly was only penalized for his traffic offense and did not face any other legal punishments.

The man has been identified as an Egyptian student by the name of Younes.

One Weibo thread reporting on the incident received approximately 37,000 comments and neared half a million likes.

Although Chinese social media users were angered that the man was let go so easily, the Epoch Times, a news outlet highly critical of China, stated that laws in China about carrying passengers on mopeds are loosely and often arbitrarily enforced.

Instead of reporting favoritism, the Epoch Times article suggests that the incident actually signals towards a bias against foreigners, which is allegedly part of a Chinese media campaign that “portrays Westerners inside China in an increasingly negative light.”

A bystander video of the incident shows the foreign man shouting at the traffic police and even chasing him.

“Why was he not punished for attacking the policeman?” many on Weibo wonder: “He should be expelled from school and sent back home!”

The hashtag “Foreign Student Violates Law, Then Jostles with Traffic Police” (#外籍学生违反交规推搡交警), hosted by CCTV, received 110 million views on Weibo.

On July 15, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs also responded to these online discussions, saying that China welcomes foreign students to study in China to promote mutual understanding and friendships between China and other countries. They also stressed that foreign students should always abide by Chinese laws and regulations.

 

3. Unequal Standards: Dorm Disparity

Dorm disparity between Chinese and foreign students has been a topic of discussion for some time.

In 2018, a short movie went viral on Chinese social media exposing the big differences between the dorm conditions of Chinese students and of foreigners studying in China, causing controversy online.

Amidst all recent discussions on foreign students in China, the dorm discussion has also flared up again.

On July 19, one Chinese netizen noted that the Shandong Agriculture University was refurbishing its guesthouse facilities, where the foreign students live, while photos showed that the Chinese dorms are in abominable conditions.

“Why can’t they live together with Chinese students?” many commenters wonder: “Are Chinese students of a lower rank?”

On July 12, the Shandong Finance & Economics University dorms also became a topic of discussion on Weibo after management required Chinese students to move to another dorm twenty minutes further away so that they could let foreign students live in their dorms instead.

Following online protests, the management decided to halt the dorm move.

Another story getting big this week involves the different electricity quota for foreign students at a Shandong University dorm, where ‘exchange students’ as a separate category are allowed to freely use 30 kWh per month, more than double of what (Chinese) graduate students are allowed to use.

“This is a disgrace to our country,” some commenters said.

Depending on the university, Chinese students often do not have the option to live in foreign dorms, while foreigners often also do not have the option to live in Chinese dorms. In some universities, however, students live together.

At present, just as in the discussions in 2018, there are also commenters noting that foreign students often pay much more for their dorms; exchange students often pay daily fees whereas Chinese students pay per semester. Price differences can be as much as 8 to 10 times more for foreign students’ dormitories.

University Swimming Pool ‘Only for Foreigners’

While more and more people are now calling for more equal standards between Chinese and foreign dormitories, “Capital Normal University discriminates against Chinese” is the statement that is now making its rounds on Chinese social media – further heightening discussions on unequal dorm situations.

On July 17, one netizen posted photos of the regulations at the swimming pool of the Capital Normal University in Beijing.

According to the sign, teachers and staff are allowed to enter the swimming pool for 60 yuan ($8,7), exchange students can enter for 30 yuan ($4,3),  and Chinese students cannot enter at all.

Many people on social media responded to the issue with anger, saying that Chinese students were being “treated like dogs.”

The university issued a response to the controversy on July 18, stating that the swimming pool in question is located in the university’s Grand Building and is part of its facilities.

Because the pool is small (25 x 12.5 meters), it is only meant to be used by those teachers, staff, and students, who are living or working within the Grand Building, with staff paying full price and students paying half.

The statement says that the sign as posted on social media contained “an error” which was already adjusted in January of 2019.

The hashtag “Normal University Responds to Swimming Pool Issue” (#首师大回应游泳馆问题#) received 160 million views at the time of writing. Many people among the thousands who reacted still think the sign is unforgivable.

 

Although all these controversies led to some people negatively expressing themselves about foreign students, there are also many who note that it is not about foreign students per se, but about their selective treatment by universities and/or authorities.

In response to these controversies, state media outlet Global Times published an ‘opinion piece’ on July 17 which stated that offering foreigners certain special treatment has been the norm in China for a long time, as only a small number of foreigners would come to China, and Chinese were eager to show courtesy to every guest.

But, “times have changed,” the author argues: “With more expats [sic] living in China, some people’s obsequiousness for foreigners might lead to resentment and social unease.”

The author notes that some foreigners receive preferential treatment in China while being outlawed in their own countries.

“We should be neither xenophobic nor xenocentric,” the conclusion says: “As a rising power that is looking at opening up wider, fair and equal treatment of foreigners is a lesson we ought to learn.”

By Manya Koetse and Miranda Barnes

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. Please note that your comment below will need to be manually approved if you’re a first-time poster here.

©2019 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com

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China Comic & Games

“Darkest Day in the History of Animation”: Kyoto Animation Arson Attack Trending on Weibo

The devastating arson attack at Kyoto Animation has shocked Chinese anime fans.

Wendy Huang

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Chinese anime fans are mourning the shocking arson attack on the Kyoto Animation Studio.

An arson attack has left at least 33 people dead and dozens injured at the Kyoto Animation Studio. The attack, that occurred on the morning of July 18, has shocked anime fans in China.

Approximately 70 people were inside the three-story Kyoto building when multiple fires broke out around 10:30 in the morning (local time).

As reported by BBC, a 41-year-old suspect broke into the Kyoto Animation studio on Thursday morning and sprayed petrol before igniting it.

The man reportedly shouted ‘go die’ when bursting into the studio. The suspect was injured and taken to a hospital for treatment. The case is currently under investigation.

Image of suspect given out by Japanese media.

On Chinese social media, the Kyoto Animation Studio (also known as ‘KyoAni’) went trending on Thursday.

Many Chinese anime fans offered their prayers to those who lost lives or faced injury at the deadly attack and expressed anger at the arsonist. Others initiated the setup of donation channel to support the Kyoto Animation studio and the families of the victims.

On Weibo, popular literary blogger ‘Guo Maimai’ (@知书少年果麦麦) published a long post about the Kyoto Animation’s work as an independent studio, commenting: “This is the darkest day in the history of animation.”

He further added: “The gravest consequence of this fire is not the loss of the original works or the building, but the loss of the talents who have been trained for such a long time.” 

At time of writing, the post was reposted nearly 60,000 times, receiving over 7000 comments. The hashtag “Darkest Day in Japan’s Animation” (#日本动画最黑暗的一天#) also took off afterward.

Chinese cartoonist ‘Feizhaizhi’ (@我是肥志, 2.66 million followers) wrote: “All the original works have been destroyed! All their efforts, their dreams, and now even their lives are gone!”

To express his grief, the cartoonist changed his Weibo profile into a gray one.

Bilibili, China’s leading online platform to distribute Japanese anime, also changed its anime website to grey.

The Kyoto Animation company was established in 1981 and has produced anime ever since (‘anime’ refers to a style of Japanese film and television animation typically targeted at adults as well as kids).

KyoAni’s high-quality animations, including TV series and films, are known for often featuring highschool girls and becoming big hits.

From ‘The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya,’ Kyoto Animation

Japanese comics and animations have been hugely popular in China since the 1990s. Even today, Japanese productions are usually more popular among Chinese anime fans than domestically produced works (read more).

Despite the outpouring of support for the Kyoto Animation studio, some Weibo netizens did not show sympathy and made anti-Japanese comments in light of the history of the Sino-Japanese war.

Others, however, would not accept such comments in these tragic times, writing: “Kyoto Animation has been such a good companion during our childhood..Why can’t we support the companion of our childhood?”

Another person wrote: “I will never forget the history, just like I will never forget the memories of my childhood created by Kyodo Animation.”

By Wendy Huang

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. Please note that your comment below will need to be manually approved if you’re a first-time poster here.

©2019 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com

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