Written by Julie Yu-Wen Chen

A recent special issue of the journal Asian Ethnicity (which I guest edited with Jonathan Sullivan) examines ethnic identification as it is manifest in Sinophone cyberspace. As ethnic tensions in China continue to rise, the Sinophone internet has become an increasingly important site for analyzing ethnic relations. At the heart of this special issue is the extent to which Sinophone Cyberspace consolidates or marginalizes, clarifies or blurs ethnic identities. How do netizens use Sinophone Cyberspace to find meaning and articulate their own and others’ sense of ethnic and national identity? What does Chineseness mean and signify to users of Chinese language online spaces?

In his comprehensive survey of the various ways ethno-cultural identities have been manifest in Bulletin Board Systems (BBS), James Leibold discerns three major ways in which identity is articulated: minzu-based, typonym-based, and diaspora-based. Minzu-based online platforms tend to perpetuate the Party-state’s discourses and categorization of minzu identities in contemporary China. However, minzu-based identities sometimes intersect with typonym-based identities (i.e. emotional links to one’s hometown). While Sino-cyberspace is binding netizens along Minzu-based, typonym-based, and/or diaspora-based lines, sometimes netizens are able to move beyond existing categories and find hyphenated meanings of their identities that can challenge or transcend state definitions and practices. For example, minorities threatened by inundation by the Han, literally in terms of migration and figuratively in terms of their socio-political and cultural dominance, can carve out cyber-spaces to articulate alternative identity expressions, and form online “imagined communities.” However, as the experiences of the Uyghur academic Ilham Tohti and Tibetan writer Tsering Woeser demonstrate, challenges to state orthodoxies, wherever they occur, can be risky and incur great personal costs. And, as Leibold concludes, “netizens in the PRC can play with [minzu categories], even distort them, but like one’s shadow, they are impossible to shake”.

Leung Wing-Fai’s paper analyses the discursive reactions of Han netizens to a young woman contestant on the television talent show Go Oriental Angel! Lou Jing was born in Shanghai to a Chinese mother and an African-American father. Lou Jing’s mixed heritage poses an interesting challenge to understandings of Chineseness. The sino-blogosphere offers a theatre for netizens to articulate themselves through discursive actions such as debating Lou Jing’s true identity. What matters eventually might not be to which category one might assign Lou Jing, but to what extent the notion of Chineseness is malleable to encompass people of mixed heritage.

Tricia Kehoe examines accounts put forward by Tibetans themselves in Sino-cyberspace to understand to what extent Chinese identity is treated as the “other” in the construction of Tibetan identity. She identifies four distinct ways that Tibetan identities have been presented online: pure Tibetan identity; Tibetan identity hyphenated with Chinese identity; Creole identity, in which the “us” and “them” dichotomy cannot be detected; and a depoliticized identity in which overt political identification and Othering do not exist. Across a variety of internet forums within Chinese cyberspace, she finds various forms of identity construction at work in hybrid and multidimensional expressions of Chinese, Tibetan, and “in-betweeness.” The title of Kehoe’s paper comes from an appeal posted by a Baima boy (a group officially classified as Tibetan), who earnestly and painfully asked on an internet forum, “Am I Tibetan or not?”

Tzu-kai Liu’s paper focuses on the Wa people, one of the 56 official “minzu” groups in the PRC. As with Lou Jing, the Wa people’s darker skin tone has formed the basis for negative stereotyping and racist discourses in Chinese society. The online networks Wa migrant workers have formed are not just “Minzu-based,” to borrow Leibold’s term, but also place-based networks, which are created on the basis of shared recognition of a “homeland”. Redolent of Cara Wallis’ work on migrant women workers, Liu’s contribution suggests that internet spaces are an important component in the constitution of self-hood, friendship and group solidarity. Cyberspace gives these ethnic minority migrant workers a platform to express their counter-discourse against the social prejudice they experience in the physical world urban environment.

Findings from this special issue suggest that discussions in the Sinophone internet could have both centrifugal and centripetal impacts on ethnic harmony. Sinophone internet cannot be seen as some kind of deus ex machina to cement social and ethnic bonds. In addition, it could only be effective among people who actually have access to the internet and use it. However, as a part of social communication and its complexities among Chinese-speaking people in and beyond the PRC, it does allow the possibility of pushing its users to re-think, re-imagine and re-confirm the meaning of being Chinese beyond the conventional PRC/Han-centered framework.

Julie Yu-Wen Chen is Associate professor at the Graduate School of Public Policy at Nazarbayev University and Executive Editor of Asian Ethnicity. The special issue Ethnicities in Sinophone Cyberspace will appear in Asian Ethnicity in May 2015. Image Credit: CC by dreamX/Flickr.


  1. I have a relevant article on Uyghur social networking coming out in the next issue of Central Asian Affairs (Brill), entitled “Uyghur online social networks before and after 2009: Social media and its repression.” It analyzes online sociality among Uyghurs rather than focusing on political activities, but also discusses the fate of the popular Chinese social network, Fenbei.com, that many were using. Uyghurs online use both the Uyghur and Chinese languages in interesting combinations.

    1. Thanks for letting me know. I will definitely check your article when it is published! Exciting!

  2. I have participated in Julie Yu-Wen Chen’s seminar Ethnic Politics in China, so I would like to briefly summerize my own attitude to this topic, especially Leung Wing-Fai’s paper which is discussing the debates about racism in China, based on the example of Chinese-Afro-American women Lou Jing who became famous since she has appeared on singing competition TV show “Go Oriental Angel!”. Unfortunately, the increase in her popularity is not because of her talent, but on account of her race origin. Even tough Lou Jing is proud to be Han, was raised in China and has the cultural knowledge and language abilities, many comments by netizens in the blogosphere were racist. As I see it, in spite of her qualities the only reason for discriminating against her is the dark colour of her skin but it is considered to be racial prejudice. I suppose that the recent racism in China is the result of nationalism, historical discourse and influence of western race paradigm which is changing the chinese static racial identity and persistent colour hierarchy. Hans find themselves as a superior racial group, pure blood line that should be cleaned of these “nation traitors” = mixed heritage, and I can honestly say that this idea reminds me of Nazi Germany and apartheid in South Africa. On the other hand the Europe-Asian marriages are becoming more widespread and “cosmo chic” which is such a contradiction to that pure-blood Han nation. Many of Chinese desire to have more european features and many of them are also persuaded that Euroasians would create superior new race and society. So there is such a noticiable difference between black and white people treatment. The roots of the racicsm against black people leads to the slavery times in America and since then black race is considered to be inferior, underdeveloped and lower class which is just another paradox because China strikes a deal with many african traders. This relationship could be called “modern slavery” beacuse Chinese are using these entrepreneuers in order to benefit but they do still consider them as low-grade and if they were not business partners, they would be probably discriminated. In my opinion there is no way how to solve these mixed heritages, the only thing to do is to accept Han as a multirace-nation which can undoubtedly exist alongside nationalism concept, for example as well as Lou Jing, half Afro-american can be proud to be Han.

  3. According to Frazier and Zhang (Ethnic identity and racial contestation in cyberspace: Deconstructing the Chineseness of Lou Jing), media- and cyberspace-life following Lou Jing’s apperance in the talent show eventually resulted in both governmental and private attempts to frame China as becoming more sensitive to the cultures of groups of African descent, and eventually in government’s selection of Ding Hui, a 22-year-old biracial Chinese citizen of Chinese and South African ancestry, to China’s national volleyball team. Agreeing with the article’s author Julie Yu-Wen Chen that Sinophone internet could have both centrifugal and centripetal impacts on ethnic harmony, for me there seems to be some kind of “soft power” in the Chinese cyberspace capable of “setting things in motion” on the governmental level. Maybe kind of a coming-in of what is called Civic Society in Europe?

  4. I was last month participated in Julie Yu-Wen Chen’s seminar Ethnic Politics in China,and I have to say that I found out very much interesting and for me new informations about ethnic groups living in China. Most interesting for me was article about Lou Jing, also called ORIENTAL ANGEL. I didn’t know about problems, which have a people with different skin in China. Your own research bring me a new view on Chinese menthality, because how I could see in research, I think that nowdays could be colour of skin bigger problem in China than in Europe

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