Tricia Wang
Tricia Wang

The outside world calls it censorship, but sociologist Tricia Wang prefers the term “information paternalism”. Chinese teens are finding new ways to express themselves. 88-bar summarizes a speech of Tricia on online identity.


Tricia’s research discusses how Chinese youth are experiencing their coming of age in a culture of information paternalism. That she does not call it censorship is an important distinction, because in China today, the dominant narrative around control is “father knows what’s best for you.” Here, “father” can refer to an actual teen’s parents, relatives, teachers or the Chinese government.

This dense sphere of paternalistic control (on top of the historical-cultural forces at work) drives Chinese teens to seek alternate channels of expression and socialization online.

To effectively escape, Chinese teens experiment with their identity and grow up online by cloaking themselves under pseudonyms and login handles. This type of experimentation, the polar opposite of on and offline real-name social networks, allows youth to develop what Tricia calls an “elastic self.”

One great finding was that Chinese youth had developed an entire chain of rituals to convert an anonymous social interaction into a real life close connection. Interactions begin by finding people on social networks with similar interests or horoscopes. This then turns into casual conversation and e-cards for birthdays. That in turn leads to people sending little physical gifts to each other to verify a physical address. And then people will share their phone number, followed by a photo and then, lastly, a 30-second video conference to ensure the veracity of the photo.

In the same way Chinese youth are finding each other online, they are also discovering more parts of themselves. Tricia structures the phases of the elastic self as 1) exploratory, 2) trusting, and 3) participatory. Only in the last phase do teens become politically active, and not everyone makes it to third phase.

More at 88-Bar.

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