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.