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

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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?

The first answer is that as shorthand goes, it's fairly effective. The literal translation breaks down as wang (net) and min (citizen). If the purpose of language is to communicate concepts efficiently, then this fulfills the mission rather well.

But however you choose to say it, netizen is more than a bit of useful slang. From the word choice it's possible to infer, in reverse, a broader symbolism that could be a clue to its longevity. Whether it's intentional or purely coincidental, it makes a great deal of sense for a digital community that leans on coded language and metaphor as a matter of course in the process of evading free-speech restrictions.

There have historically been two views on citizenship in the Western canon: the passive, libertarian kind that grants individuals rights and the freedom to pursue life as they please without fear of external intervention; and the active, participatory kind that assumes a minimum level of civic engagement as a basic responsibility. In the United States, the second kind is seen as a virtue -- hence the vigorous way in which political interactions happen both on- and offline. In China, meanwhile, it's the first view that's dominant and the second that's relegated to the backseat. Since the 1980s, the government's basic social contract with the people was this: we'll offer you double-digit annual economic growth if you agree to submit your political interests to ours. And until now, it's a formula that's largely worked.

The arrangement on the Chinese Internet is a different story. Although blatantly critical dialogue is promptly quashed, the use of code, metaphor, and satire to make political points is rampant. The in-jokes help create a community identity that's unique to netizens in China compared to their offline compatriots:

Increasingly (albeit cautiously), Chinese are speaking truth to each other, and by doing so in a widely accessible manner, are speaking truth to power. ... Indeed, the increase in the number of bloggers writing about politics [obliquely or otherwise] represents a major breakthrough toward the formation of a Chinese public sphere, albeit a virtual one.

In a country where political discourse is restricted in the physical world, 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 non-Internet-using population. Whether netizens acknowledge the term's civic connotations is unclear. But as a way to describe a uniquely engaged political cohort, the idea behind it isn't a bad one.

Netizen is more than a cute, trendy label. It speaks to the way Chinese Internet users have organized themselves as inhabitants of the same digital nation, one that's distinct from the physical nation in which they live. Citizenship in that digital state confers new privileges and opportunities. Most of these users aren't representative of the broader population -- they're mostly young, wealthy, educated urbanites -- which is all the more reason to assign them a name. In many ways, netizens might be considered the Chinese equivalent of the American Millennial. The big difference? Where many young Westerners are working to erase the boundaries between the online and the off-, the security of China's netizens requires that those delineated borders stay in place, at least for now.

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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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