Online Citizenship Learning of Chinese Young People

Living reference work entry


This chapter examines Chinese young people’s citizenship learning through their participatory activities on the Internet. The discussions presented in this chapter are informed by recent developments in citizenship studies which maintain that citizenship learning is a lifelong process of participation in different formal and informal communities and practices (Biesta et al. 2009) and in the meaning-making activities reflected in various forms of social participation (Hoskins et al. 2012). Two intertwined forms of citizenship learning were identified from Chinese young people’s online activities. The first is young people’s learning about online citizenships through engaging with different virtual communities. Their learning of online citizenships is illustrated by their understanding of the norms and communal practices shaped by the shared language, values, attitudes, and joint enterprises for mutual engagement in these virtual communities. The second is their internet-mediated learning about Chinese society. The Chinese internet, in this case, offers a new way of engaging with and learning about Chinese society. The outcome of these two forms of learning constitutes the landscape of practice upon which their notion of Chinese citizenship is drawn. This chapter draws attention to the digital and constitutive nature of young people’s social engagement in defining new forms of citizenship which are meaningful and relevant to their everyday lives (Lister, 2007; Wood, 2014).


Citizenship, Learning, Young people, Internet, China 


This chapter examines the learning of citizenship by Chinese young people through their participation in different online activities. Its aim is to extend the research realm of citizenship learning of Chinese young people beyond formal school settings and to draw attention to their learning of citizenship in nontraditional school settings, the Chinese Internet in this case. Informed by recent developments in citizenship studies which maintain that citizenship learning is a lifelong process of participation in different formal and informal communities and practices (Biesta et al. 2009) and in the meaning-making activities reflected in various forms of social participation (Hoskins et al. 2012), this chapter identifies two intertwined forms of citizenship learning from Chinese young people’s online activities. The first is learning of digital citizenship in online communities. The outcome of this learning is their understanding and practice of the shared language, values, attitudes, and joint enterprises for mutual engagement in different online communities. The second is their learning of Chinese citizenship through their engagement with Chinese society as represented online. The internet, in this case, offers Chinese young people a new way of engaging with and learning about Chinese society and social relationships. These two forms of learning mutually constitute the landscape of practice upon which their notion of Chinese citizenship is based.

The discussion in this chapter is organized into five sections. The first section briefly reviews citizenship education/learning of Chinese young people in formal school settings and discusses the limitations of restricting the study of citizenship learning of Chinese young people to the realm of formal education. The second section theorizes citizenship as social practice which informs my review of the online citizenship learning of Chinese young people. Sections three and four address the two intertwined forms of citizenship learning identified from Chinese young people’s online activities. The final section provides a synthesis of the discussion. It calls for a broadening of our understanding of citizenship education/learning to acknowledge the significance of young people’s everyday online participation in enabling their learning of citizenship in both the virtual and physical worlds.

Citizenship Learning in Formal School Setting

Being well aware of the role education can play in creating citizens, many governments around the world have chosen to implement compulsory citizenship education programs in the formal school sector (Brooks and Holford 2009). China is no exception in this regard. Since its establishment in 1949, the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has implemented many initiatives in citizenship education. In their earliest iterations, a politically orientated citizenship model which advocated citizenship values such as collectivism, patriotism, nationalism, and self-sacrifice (Rosen 1983; Zhu and Camicia 2014) was adopted. Although this iteration did make progress in terms of legalizing citizenship rights and duties, and integrating concepts of equal rights and the rule of law into education, it did not make substantial progress (Law 2006) since it was frequently interrupted by political movements that arose between 1957 and 1978 (Wang and Huang 2008).

The reform and opening-up policy adopted by the state in 1978 marked a new era of citizenship education in China. The notion of citizenship demonstrated in education policies and school curricula was increasingly depoliticized, becoming a diversified and accommodative concept reflective of the social and economic transformations brought about by rapid modernization and globalization post 1978 (Goldman and Perry 2002; Law 2006). Studies of citizenship education in the Chinese school sector mainly focus on citizenship education policies, curriculum, teaching approaches and methods, and evaluations of the effects of policies and curricula. These studies illuminate the change of content in citizenship education on two different levels. On a social level, elements such as understanding of the law, China’s political institutions and the concept of negotiated democracy, awareness of social engagement, and values such as rights, freedom, and responsibility were emphasized in citizenship education (Fairbrother 2004; Law 2011; Wang and Huang 2008). On an individual level, the curricula of citizenship education attached more weight to development and well-being, individual rights, self-esteem, character-building and self-management, personal achievement, global perspectives, and psychological health (Keane 2001; Lee and Ho 2008; Wang 2008; Zhong and Lee 2008).

These studies of citizenship education in formal-school context shed precious light on the citizenship learning of Chinese young people, but they cannot paint the full picture of citizenship learning in China. This is partly because these studies only show what students were taught at school in order to become a citizen; they do not explore what students actually learned as a result of this teaching. This is especially the case given that the education Chinese students receive before tertiary level is generally exam-oriented. Their highly regulated schedules at school leave little space for their citizenship learning through participatory activities with communities in and out of school (Lau 1996; Wang 2013). Moreover, citizenship learning these days is generally grounded in people’s everyday engagement with other individuals, families, sociocultural communities, and political institutions (Lawy and Biesta 2006; Lister et al. 2003; Harris et al. 2010). Hence, study of school-based citizenship learning cannot fully reveal the forms of citizenship experienced by young people in their everyday social and cultural participation. In view of this limitation, a practice-based understanding of citizenship is needed to examine young people’s citizenship learning that is embedded in their everyday lived experience.

Citizenship Learning from the Viewpoint of Social Practice

Marshall (2009) defined citizenship as “a status bestowed on those who are full members of a community” (p. 149). The civil, political, and social citizenship rights outlined by him laid the foundation for the contemporary understanding of citizenship. The status view of citizenship in this definition is rooted in people’s understanding of citizenship. Terms such as “citizens-in-training” (Anagnost 2008), “partial” citizens (Chun 2013), and “citizens-in-waiting” (Kennelly 2011) all imply that citizenship is still understood by people as a status. This is especially the case on a policy level. In their study of citizenship education in Britain, Lawy and Biesta (2006) suggest that the concept of citizenship articulated in official policies and practice discourse still largely hinged upon a status of “good citizen.” The role of citizenship education is to help young people to achieve this status and become capable of enacting a particular kind of citizenship. They argue that this status has denied young people’s eligibility to citizenship by asserting a status differential between citizens and not-yet-citizens; hence, young people’s informal and individualized social engagements in their everyday lives are not acknowledged as citizenship practices, and their claims to citizenship are negated. As people’s citizenship practices shape their citizenship learning (Brooks and Holford 2009), their learning about citizenship through these informal participatory activities cannot therefore be examined through this theoretical lens.

In view of this limitation, scholars have sought to understand citizenship from the viewpoint of social practice. Citizenship can thus be conceptualized as a practice threaded in people’s lives and transformed over time through their participation in the actual practices which constitute different elements of their life. For our purposes we understand practice as a set of interconnected doings and sayings specific to time and space. It consists of people’s everyday “intentional and voluntary” activities (Schatzki 2012) through which people achieve purpose and derive meaning. These activities are mediated by a person’s understanding of the power relations, rules, norms, and discourses of a social context. Practice is created in response to the social order, not as an outcome of it (Wenger 2010). In this sense, it is not merely a process of adapting or adjusting oneself to a practice but also a process of “invention and improvisation” of a new practice (Bourdieu 1990, p. 13).

From this perspective, citizenship learning is a process concurrent with young people’s social engagement. Their everyday engagement with the practices of family, peers, school, work, and the media serves as a broad, fluid, and inclusive avenue through which to explore and make sense of the communities to which their citizenship relates (Hoskins et al. 2012; Smith et al. 2005). Children and young people are citizens who experience and learn about their citizenship like any other citizens in our society (Lawy and Biesta 2006). They become citizens through social participation and their engagement in democratic practices (Baker and Blaagaard 2016; Lawy and Biesta 2006). Through this participatory process, young people learn the practices of the communities by which their citizenship in these communities is defined while simultaneously contributing to constituting these practices (Wenger 2010).

This inclusive view of citizenship offers a grounded perspective through which young people’s citizenship learning in informal settings can be examined. The study by Lister et al. (2003) shows that young people often experience multiple citizenships simultaneously through actively engaging in civic activities in local communities. These activities demonstrate a broad, fluid, and inclusive citizenship experienced by young people in their everyday lives. This view of citizenship provides a helpful lens through which to examine the process of young people’s socialization and subjectification, the key to them becoming a citizen (Wood 2014).

Understanding citizenship as practice also proves useful in examining the constitutive nature of everyday politics and sociocultural participation in young people’s practices and learning of citizenship (Wood 2012, 2015). Studies of young people in Australia show young people are actively practicing and experiencing citizenship in informal and modest youth cultural spaces such as family, school, peer networks, and the Internet (Harris and Wyn 2009; Harris et al. 2007, 2008, 2010; Wyn et al. 2011). Informal citizenship learning was also seen in Chinese young people’s online activities in forming new identities free from institutional control and maintaining identities in their physical life (Fu 2018a; Wang 2013). The individual political actions and practice of prefigurative politics in their everyday lives consist another significant sector of Chinese young people’s informal learning of citizenship (Ash 2013; Fu 2019). The spaces and relationships experienced by young people outside of school therefore become major sites where the “hidden curriculum” of citizenship learning is absorbed (Brooks and Holford 2009). As Lawy and Biesta (2006) explained, young people are not educated into citizenship, but learn to be citizens via their engagement with the political and sociocultural practices of communities which make up their everyday lives. In the next section, I will draw on the theoretical understanding of citizenship learning as a social practice to examine Chinese young people’s learning about citizenship through their online activities.

Learning Digital Citizenship Through Online Participation

The internet(especially social media) has provided new tools and spaces for people’s interaction. Communities spawned online become important sites for people’s identity formation and citizenship practice (Buckingham 2008; Harris et al. 2008). As a result, their engagement with the practices of these communities becomes the defining mechanism of the learning of their digital citizenship in relation to these communities (Bennett 2008). Chinese young people use the internet in a similar fashion for their learning of digital citizenship. China had 802 million internet users by mid-2018, with almost half of this population being under the age of 30 (China Internet Network Information Centre 2018). Chinese Internet users (especially younger users) have made this medium into a vibrant cultural space characterized by a highly diversified community and intense contention (Yang 2009). Their mutual engagement on the internet generates communities and practices which give birth to new forms of digital citizenship and enable learning of these new digital citizenships through the same process.

In delineating different forms of online activism in China, Yang (2009) argues that the online activities of Chinese internet users have spawned a contentious online culture which showcases internet users’ protests against social injustice and their struggle for recognition. This culture constitutes an essential part of the practice of a new citizen activism or “unofficial democracy” (p. 226) in China which is associated with a struggle for material distributive justice and aspiration for recognition and belonging. The evolution of this culture is marked by a series of digital practices consisting of rituals, genres, styles, and languages (Latham 2012; Meng 2011; Yang 2009; Yang et al. 2014). People’s engagement with this culture represents the learning process through which they absorb these practices and begin to act as insiders. Moreover, their online activities enable them to make meaning of the shared enterprises of this contentious culture and to understand their roles as agents for maintaining and developing this culture. These two dimensions of learning are fundamental to the process of their becoming digital citizens in the online space in China.

The highly diversified Chinese online culture is not merely an illustration of how the norms and practices in different online communities are shaped by Chinese internet users’ mutual engagement; it also testifies to Chinese internet users’ learning of these norms and practices through their engagement with these communities, which constitutes the very process of their learning of digital citizenship in relation to these communities. Zimuzu (subtitle/fansubbing group) is an online collaborative community which produces and distributes Chinese subtitles for foreign media content online. Studies illuminate the practices of this online community from different perspectives. Meng and Wu (2013) examined its commons-based peer production practice in a commercial media environment. Kung (2016) investigated how members’ discursive engagement and meaning-making participatory work make Zimuzu a community of practice in which norms and values are formed and practices about mutual engagement and engagements with texts and cultural materials are developed. The development of these practices, as a result of people’s engagement with this community, is also the process through which interested internet users make sense of these practices and become a citizen of this community through their engagement.

A complex process of citizenship learning was also illustrated in Meng’s (2018) study of “Facebook Expedition,” a collective action of Chinese young patriots which flooded the Facebook page of the pro-independence leader of the Democratic Progressive Party in Taiwan. The study delineated how these young people swiftly organized and carried out a political action in a playful manner with the purpose of enhancing intercultural communication between people in Taiwan and mainland China. Shared memes and templates were used, and guidelines for action circulated and followed within the online community throughout the event. The high level of media literacy and intelligence demonstrated in young people’s participation in this event, such as in their competency in using a similar repertoire of popular cultural symbols and enacting shared protocols for engagement, illustrated a complex and effective process of learning about the cultural practices of the community.

Fu (2018b) examined citizenship practices of young Chinese on Weibo (A Twitter-like microblogging service and one of the most popular social media platforms in China). He showed that young people learn about the cultural practice of the Weibo community through their everyday interaction with others on Weibo. This cultural practice on Weibo is characterized by the language practices which share tacit meanings among Weibo users and underpinned by the values, attitudes, and joint enterprises to establish an equal and tolerant space rich in reliable information and diverse opinion, a space which can nourish informed and active public discussion and support learning about Chinese society. On Weibo, young people’s learning of citizenship is a reciprocal process through which they make meaning of and contribute to shaping the cultural practices of this virtual community. Their learning of digital citizenship hence is not a passive process but a formative one in which new forms of citizenship practice are generated. Similar citizenship learning occurs in other online social and cultural communities, such as in young people’s learning of cultural citizenship in online discussions of a popular Chinese talent show (Wu 2013), in young mothers’ learning of community practices in parenting discussion forums (Wang 2003), and in Chinese gamers’ experience of forging cultural identity in online gaming communities (Lindtner and Szablewicz 2011).

The reciprocal process of citizenship learning and practice of Chinese young people reviewed above, while occurring in the online space, is also deeply interlaced with the physical space (Valentine and Holloway 2002), constituting the reality experienced by Chinese young people in which they learn about their Chinese citizenship on a broad canvas. In the next section, I will examine young people’s learning of their Chinese citizenship through online participation.

Learning Chinese Citizenship Through Online Participation

The internet is not merely a space in which digital cultures and citizenships are spawned; it has also become a key medium through which people engage with the physical world. This form of Internet-mediated social engagement offers Chinese young people a new way to make sense of the content and possibilities of their rights, duties, and identities and a new avenue for the formation of their subjectivity in a dynamic and fast-changing Chinese society. This process makes their citizenship learning possible on a broader social scale.

This form of citizenship learning is firstly demonstrated by the role the Internet plays in Chinese people’s accessing of information and news. Internet users in China spent 27.7 h per week on average on the Internet (China Internet Network Information Centre 2018). Searching for information and accessing online news are the second and third most used functions (instant messaging being the first), with 656.9 million and 662.9 million users, respectively. The smartphone has become people’s major access point for information with 619.6 million users accessing news and 624 million users searching information on it. The high penetration of the Internet in people’s information consumption demonstrates that it has become a crucial medium through which people are informed of different social issues. Although the authenticity of the online representation of our social reality is still a controversial issue, people’s engagement with this (mis)representation of Chinese society represents two essential elements of their citizenship learning in this digital age: (1) becoming informed about the multiple facets of social issues and (2) being capable of reading media information critically.

Online participation also provides a new channel through which people can understand their position in and relationship with Chinese society. Studies of online activism in China show that contentious activities are shaped by a conflictual relationship between the state, the national/transnational capitalist market, the interests of China’s subaltern classes, and cultural traditions (Yang 2009; Zhao 2008). Participation in these activities provides opportunities for people to engage with complex power relations on a daily basis and to learn how these power relations play out in their lives at a mundane level. Fu’s (2018b) study of Chinese young people’s activities on Weibo demonstrates the role of the internet in enabling young people to participate in public discussion and engage with Chinese society with ease. Although mediated by the Internet, this social participation is beneficial for young people’s informed understanding of social issues and for their meaning-making of the general social context and practices which is essential for their effective citizenship practice. Their participation on Weibo plays a significant role in the formation of their identities and political subjectivities, which are essential features of their Chinese citizenship.

Online participation is also an important avenue through which people can explore the possibilities of their rights, duties, and identities in a fast-changing Chinese society when other channels of formal civic and political participation are relatively restricted (Leib and He 2006; Zheng and Pan 2016). The significance of online participation is evident in studies of online activism for citizenship rights and social change. Studies of environmental activism in China show that the Internet has played a key role in providing a platform for people not only to access information and discuss local environmental issues but also to mobilize offline collective action to stop industrial projects threatening to endanger the local environment (Huang and Yip 2012; Lang and Xu 2013). Similar usage of the online space can be found in Chinese citizens’ struggle for equal rights for migrant labor, HIV/AIDS and hepatitis-B carriers, and LGBTI groups (Yang 2009; Yang 2018). Other cases include activism in online backpacking communities seeking to address immediate social problems, seeking social justice, and improving well-being within their sphere of influence (Zhang 2014); consumers’ participation in virtual communities through which they solve consumption issues and learn about new modes of consumption (Huang 2012); and Chinese gamers’ efforts to promote their rights against the pervasive discourse of internet addiction supposedly driven by participating in online gaming communities (Lindtner and Szablewicz 2011).

People’s participation in these online activities can educate them about different aspects of social issues while developing their capacity to participate in public discussion (Hung 2012; Svensson 2016), all crucial elements of citizenship learning. More importantly, these online activities provide opportunities for Chinese citizens to learn about the possibilities of their citizenship through interacting with institutions, sociocultural discourses, and other individuals within a Chinese context (Yang 2018; Zhao 2008). This way, the horizons of citizenship learning for ordinary people is significantly expanded in the sense that it affords new opportunities for them to get hands-on experience of being agents for social change and to discover the potential of their Chinese citizenship through shaping new political identities and notions of citizenship on an individual level (Liu 2013; Wang 2013; Yang 2009).

In sum, online participation is a process through which Chinese people keep themselves informed by accessing diversified information, learn about general social practices, and explore different aspects of their rights, duties, and identities in relation to different social communities. This process is essential for their becoming informed and active citizens capable of pursuing effective civic and political participation. This part of their citizenship learning is especially meaningful given that the education they receive in formal school settings is largely concerned with students’ performance on standardized tests and fails to offer a democratic space for citizenship practice either inside or outside school (Wang 2013; Ye 2011).


In this chapter, I first reviewed the citizenship learning of Chinese young people in formal school settings. In doing this, I highlighted the necessity of extending the scope of studies of Chinese young people’s citizenship learning from formal school settings to their everyday lived experience. I then presented a framework of citizenship learning based on young people’s social practice, one which enables us to examine their citizenship learning as it is embedded in their everyday lives. Using this theoretical lens, I identified two forms of citizenship learning from Chinese young people’s highly diversified online activities. The first is their learning of digital citizenships as defined by the social and cultural norms and practices of different online communities. This learning occurs simultaneously as they absorb and contribute to (re)shaping these norms and practices through their participatory activities. The second is their learning of Chinese citizenship through their social participation, mediated by the Internet. In this dimension of learning, the Internet provides a representation of Chinese society which affords a convenient and accessible avenue for young people’s social surveillance and engagement. This mediated social engagement represents a process of young people’s learning about their social position and relationships in Chinese society. More importantly, it affords a vital way for young people to learn the possibilities of their rights, duties, and identities in a fast-changing Chinese society when formal channels of civic and political participation are limited and restricted. These two forms of citizenship learning demonstrate that the online space, as a new venue for Chinese young people’s citizenship practice, enables their learning of citizenship in a digitized Chinese society.

This chapter showcases Chinese young people’s diverse sociocultural participation online through which they learn about their citizenship in an integrated space of the virtual and physical. This process of citizenship learning as a form of social practice is not only about making sense of existing social norms and practices and aligning one’s behavior with them in order to be recognized as a member or citizen; it is also about understanding the possibilities of one’s citizenship by contributing to and reshaping the practices of the online communities of which they wish to be a part. This view of citizenship learning can not only broaden our view of citizenship education/learning but also do greater justice to young people’s active citizenship practices in their everyday lives by acknowledging their work in generating social and cultural communities and constructing new forms of citizenship.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Youth Research Centre, Melbourne Graduate School of EducationUniversity of MelbourneMelbourneAustralia

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