'Netizen': Why Is This Goofy-Sounding Word So Important in China?

Originally tech jargon coined in 1984, now seen as insufferably dorky in the West, it remains irreplaceable in parts of the world where Web freedom is restricted.

RTR2YKBS-615.jpgCustomers inside an Apple Store in downtown Shanghai (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

If there's a story to be told about the Internet's trajectory over the last few years, it's the diminishing distinction between on- and offline reality. At least in the West, our digital and physical lives are growing increasingly interconnected. Every song we listen to, every restaurant we visit, every photo we take can be logged and propagated automatically on Facebook via "frictionless sharing" without our input. More than 80 percent of Americans, meanwhile, enjoy broadband access to the Web. As the saying might go, We have met the Internet -- and it is us.

The Internet market in China is fast approaching a similar state. Mobile phones, in particular, are granting access to the Internet at a remarkable pace. This year saw China's number of mobile subscribers top 1 billion -- in a country of 1.3 billion -- with over 74 million also signed up to receive a 3G data connection. But the big difference is this: even as connectivity has improved, the Internet-using demographic remains relatively homogenous. Eighty percent of China's Web users are teenagers or early adults. In addition to being young, Chinese Internet users are more likely than American Internet users to be better off than their non-Internet-using counterparts.

A set of buzzwords has grown up to describe this specialized cohort. Among the most popular terms? Netizen, or in Chinese, wangmin -- a portmanteau that literally means "a citizen of the Internet." Although Web users in China naturally prefer the non-English phrase to refer to themselves, the terms are synonymous and each is a direct translation of the other. (For our purposes, I'll stick with netizen, as it's more familiar to English-speaking audiences.) 

Although the word has gradually fallen out of use around the rest of the world, China -- along with people outside China writing about it -- appear to be the exception. The term is invoked about as casually and unironically as Americans say blogger or gchat.

"Chinese Netizen Proposes Mourning Official Motorcades," reads one recent headline from the New York-based Epoch Times. "Chinese Netizens Decry Visa Waiver Plan," says another from The Taipei Times. And here's the opening paragraph of a story by China Daily, China's state-run English newspaper:

A college student has asked the Ministry of Railways (MOR) to disclose the bidding process for its costly ticket booking system, with Chinese netizens backing his demand.

To Western ears, this professional use of slang comes across as somewhat alien -- and generally meets with laughs. Netizen ranked among the top three words Time.com vowed to ban this year if it could. In an English-speaking context, the word is considered a bit too twee, as though it'd find more comfortable bedfellows in old jargon like hyperlink and The Facebook -- anachronisms from a time before Justin Timberlake's Sean Parker got his two cents in. If you thought netizen sounded archaic before reading this, you're not far off. In the same year netizen first appeared, Steve Jobs and company invented the Mac and the Soviet Union decided to boycott the Summer Olympics.

Even in China, the word has grown a little tiresome. China Daily staffers exasperated with the term recently considered stripping it from the stylebook, and at least some readers agreed with the idea. In an unscientific poll on the paper's forums, 56 percent of -- ahem -- netizens said the phrase was "confusing or annoying."

The construction of a virtual town square could be considered an appropriation of the kind of active, public-minded citizenship that's inaccessible to the broader population.

If netizen provokes such ire (at least in English-language discussions) even in the country that's fondest of it, what explains its nearly 30-year lifespan?

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Brian Fung is the technology writer at National Journal. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and has written for Foreign Policy and The Washington Post.

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