Tea Leaf Nation
China’s Your Country, We Just Live in It
Tracking a viral, slightly subversive meme in Chinese cyberspace.
Call it digital disownment — or perhaps imaginary immigration. A growing number of Chinese web users are voicing frustration with their government using a subtle, pronoun-based renunciation of their citizenship.
The meme of the moment on Chinese social media is ni guo — which means “your country” but is best translated as “your China.” Deployed as a hashtag or embedded in a social media post, the phrase is a sarcastic retooling of the ubiquitous Communist Party phrase wo guo, which literally means “my country” but has the flavor of more nationalist phrases like “our China” or “our motherland.” Web users can find “my country” peppering official rhetoric on state mouthpieces like People’s Daily, official sites of the Chinese Communist Party, and even the National Bureau of Statistics. On Twitter and on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social media platform, the converse, “your country,” appears to have taken off in the last several months, and is new enough that many people are only now asking what it means.
Xiao Qiang, adjunct professor at the University of California at Berkeley’s School of Information, told Foreign Policy via email that the phrase is actually well-worn “political sarcasm” that has gotten popular in the last two to three years. Inputting “What does ‘your country’ mean?” in Chinese in popular search engine Baidu returns some 33 million hits. On Weibo, a search shows that more than 70 essays have been posted about the phrase.
When “your country” is deployed on Chinese social media, it usually involves an embarrassing internal news event, such as a June 11 panic run on salt in central China’s Hubei province, or the dumping of milk in areas around Beijing and other parts of China after the price of milk plummeted. A post on the latter showed a photo of farmers watering their plants with milk. The comment: “Your country’s social construction has reached a relatively new stage.” On June 25, one Beijing Twitter user described it in a post as “a tongue-in-cheek way of distancing oneself from” the government.
The phrase has been popping up as a hashtag in posts or embedded as a subversive barb. But Xiao said the term is mostly used by “politically liberal, pro-human rights” and pro-democracy netizens, and that it is deployed against opponents who are “pro-[party], nationalistic netizens.” Xiao said it’s a way to battle the propaganda that assumes a Chinese citizen is a party supporter. In short, it’s a way of saying, “Your China is not my China.”
But it’s definitely confrontational, even trollish. As one person noted on question-and-answer site Zhihu on Feb. 25, you’d never use it in normal conversation. “When you see this phrase, it’s not offensive, but it is like a sign that a ‘bitch slapping’ is about to begin.” One 18-year-old female commentator from Heilongjiang province in far northern China posted an essay on Weibo about the “your country” camp on May 31, saying that she’d started to notice the phrase everywhere and was fed up with it. “If you despise China so much, you should go abroad as soon as possible,” she concluded. But, the reality is that Chinese, like people everywhere, contain multitudes. A joke going around on Twitter imagines a person accidentally using “your country” in a government work report and “my country” in an online chat group, rather than the intended reverse. The first mistake endangers the government worker’s iron rice bowl; the second one, his or her online street cred. “Both consequences,” read the punch line, “are quite serious.”
Alexa Olesen has a master’s degree in contemporary Chinese literature from SOAS University of London and was a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press in Beijing for eight years. She is the director of research at China Six, a New York-based consulting firm. Twitter: @ael_o