| Stella Chen
The term “colonized,” or zhiren (殖人), is an epithet often applied by nationalists online in China to attack those who hold opposing views on political and human rights issues. Generally, the term describes individuals who are seen as having been seduced and colonized by Western culture and values, but the term can sometimes also serve as an adjective describing certain subjects as examined through a generalized Western gaze.

Over the past three years, beginning around 2019 and Hong Kong protests over a planned bill allowing extraditions to mainland China, the term “colonized” (殖人) arose as a way for Chinese internet users to criticize and belittle calls by Hong Kong protestors for greater democracy – this being seen as stemming from a lingering colonial mentality after more than a century of British rule in the territory.

By the summer and fall of 2019, protests in Hong Kong were growing increasingly tense and unruly, with protestors facing off against police firing tear gas and rubber bullets. On July 1, 2019, the anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from the UK to China, protestors stormed the premises of the Legislative Council (LegCo), defacing the regional emblem of Hong Kong and spraying graffiti on the walls. Several weeks later, protestors defaced the entry to China’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong. Though many of the protests were peaceful, these acts in particular angered many Chinese online, and they were reported in the state media (which played up the “chaos”) as “absolutely intolerable.”

Articles like this one from Shanghai-based Guancha Syndicate (观察者网), a nationalist outlet whose unique selling point is anti-Western sentiment, portrayed Hong Kong protesters as “longing for colonialism” (恋殖) and as beholden to American interests.

Over the past two years, the term “colonized” has broadened further to include those who seem to fetishize Western values and Western cultural standards. In November 2021, Chinese fashion photographer Chen Man (陈漫), who has worked with numerous major fashion brands and magazines, was forced to apologize after a wave of online criticism of her most recent photoshoot for the French luxury brand Dior, which many people regarded as applying Western stereotypes of Asian, and especially Chinese, faces.

At left, the image from a Dior photoshoot that brought severe criticism of photographer Chen Man (at right) online.

Chinese netizens vented their outrage towards Chen Man’s work, and even dug out a previous photoshoot of Chen’s called “Young Pioneers and the Three Gorges Dam” (少先队员与三峡大坝), which made use of the image and culture of the Young Pioneers, the mass youth organization for children aged six to 14 that is operated under the auspices of the Chinese Communist Youth League. Chen’s image showed young girls dancing in gossamer blue skirts atop the Three Gorges Dam, their hair tied up in bows.

Five or six years ago, this work, made in 2008, and other shoots by Chen Man were often celebrated in China’s media and online. But in the current political environment, characterized by both popular and state-driven nationalism, with laws against the defamation of official heroes and great sensitivity about the national image, works like Chen’s are less welcome.

Chen Man’s “Young Pioneers and the Three Gorges Dam.”

As internet users criticized Chen Man’s work, calling it offensive to Chinese, they referred to it as a “colonized aesthetic” (殖人审美), suggesting that the artist had been infected and sapped of her true Chinese identity by foreign influences. Such aesthetic standards, they said, should be abandoned. “China’s fashion industry today has seen a considerable group of artists working as agents for the West,” One Weibo user wrote. “But what comes out of their mouths isn’t aesthetic pluralism. Rather, it’s just their own psychological identity with a #colonized aesthetic# after being PUA’ed by Western cultural powers.” The mention here of “PUA” refers to “Pick-up Artist,” the acronym used online in China to refer to the art of seduction. Translation: these artists were seduced by the West.

In February 2022, the term “colonized” was regularly used by nationalists during online debates over Eileen Gu (谷爱凌), the US-born champion freestyle skier who competed for China in the Beijing Winter Olympics. As many Western media questioned Gu’s motives in competing for China, her representativeness as a Chinese woman, and her apparent alignment with CCP views on sensitive political issues like Xinjiang, netizens in China fought back by damning those critical of Gu as being “colonized.”

“Lone Smoke and Twilight Cicada” (孤烟暮蝉), a well-known influencer who back in November verbally attacked Economist correspondent Sue-Lin Wong as an Australian “[Chinese] traitor,” or erguizi (二鬼子), had this to say about those criticizing Eileen Gu:

Why are the colonized afraid of the Eileen Gu phenomenon [i.e., Eileen Gu recognizing herself as Chinese]? Because this bunch of trash got their American citizenships by smearing China and by exploiting their supposed political asylum status. And now, well, the fact that Gu has returned to her motherland exposes the lies of these colonized – something they find most damaging. . . . They fear the decline of the United States because they face a road of no return. Those who can’t return scold those who can. They grit their teeth with envy and jealousy, regretting their decision to leave China. This is the mentality of the colonized.

A post by influencer account “Lone Smoke and Twilight Cicada” criticizing supposed “colonized” Chinese overseas who have attacked Olympian Eileen Gu.

Stella Chen

CMP Senior Researcher

The CMP Dictionary