Let’s Talk about Digital China: Current Issues and Future Topics
The following short piece was a follow-up summary of a webinar on key issues and future topics in digital China research. It is part of the “Platforming China Dialogues” Webinar Series, a quarterly webinar series featuring informal conversations and exchanges in relation to digital China research. The webinar—held online on 23 June 2022—features Jack Qiu (Professor and Research Director in the Department of Communications and New Media, the National University of Singapore), Yu Hong (Professor of Communication and Director of ZJU Institute of Communication Research at Zhejiang University), and Graham Webster (research scholar and editor in chief of the DigiChina Project at Stanford University and China digital economy fellow at New America).
China’s rise and transformation as a digital power is part of the narratives about China as a challenge, threat, or opportunity. The ongoing process of China’s digital great leap forward is accompanied by its domestic experiments with and transformations in technology, data, economy, governance, and culture, as well as by its growing presence on the global stage as a controversial superpower.
The global pandemic and the changing geopolitics have prompted many of us to rethink our approaches and directions in conducting research about digital China. We need to rethink: how we conduct research such as accessing, collecting and analysing empirical data; what should we do to continue knowledge production about China when the era of relative openness and exchange has ended and yet Xi’s China is not quite the same as Mao’s era (with its closed-door policies); and why we should be mindful of our tongue or the kind of “language” (framing) when we talk about China. In other words, given the constraints and volatility of our field of research, we need to rethink our approach, focus, and positionality in discussing China and try our best to get closer to the reality of its political, social, economic, and technological systems.
All three panelists have made significant contribution to digital China research. In the webinar, they reflected on their research trajectories, key research focuses at the moment and key interests in the field, and topics that they would like to keep a close eye on for the years to come.
Such a self-reflection, I hope, serves two purposes: 1. As a conscious effort to use the self as method, that is, one’s personal experience is integral to one’s understanding of the world, of which China is a part; 2. As a subconscious effort to transcend the self and the personal to bring out sparkles of collective concerns and suggest tools for others to borrow.
Jack Qiu made four key points to sum up his research trajectories in digital China research: downward, forward, backward, and outward.
Downward: a focus on the underclass and labour issues, against gao da shang 高大上 [high end and groovy, standing for gao duan (high end), da qi (classy), and shang dangci (high grade)]. China has the largest working-class population, who have varied, livelihood-based digital media usage patterns, knowledge, attitudes, and creative modes of social, cultural and political formations. Qiu calls for looking beyond the issue of censorship or BAT (Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent) to examine the smaller players and invisible issues such as digital labour—people who are employed and exploited by big players like BAT. Don’t forget the workers, farmers, and (foot) soldiers of digital China!
Forward: looking beyond platform regulation to examine how alternative platforms can be created and the possibilities of smaller-scale platforms to benefit people; sharpening theoretical eye on small-scale developments such as the blockchain technologies used in Guizhou’s bubuji (GoGo chicken) (see: Blockchain Chicken Farm); to look for seeds of change for the future, start from the issue of ownership — beyond the big corporations and beyond the powerful state.
Backward: taking inter-Asia and trans-history perspectives to examine internet histories within and beyond China, e.g. how a Taiwanese electronics firm (MediaTek) played a crucial role in Shenzhen’s shanzhai mobile phone industry; or Manchukuo could be featured in understanding Softbank’s business strategies and the digital Japan blueprint; or the tea war between China and India in the 19th and early 20th century could shed light on how to understand automation today.
Outward: There has been research on Chinese digital platforms going out; they are the influence in the overseas markets and also recipients of influence from the overseas markets. Shopee.sg is a case in point: it is a competitor of Lazada (majority owned by Alibaba), but more “Alibaba than Alibaba”. It illustrates two points: 1. “Chinese” should be understood as a way of thinking and doing things, beyond the category of ethnicity; 2. tech models evolving outside China involving Chinese players broadly defined canhave impact on the “homeland”, that is, the peripheral can be the centre in technological and business innovations.
Yu Hong examines digital China from a vertical perspective by combining the transnational and the national, the top-down and the bottom-up. She calls for a recentering of China studies to China proper and for a de-westernising media studies approach by taking seriously the local theory building in China. Her key points are summarised below:
Hybridity and diversity of the Chinese system: Hong’s research has examined how China opened up and interacted with global forces; she takes a political economy approach to study digital China. Such an approach draws from the Western theoretical tradition but takes a pluralistic perspective—hence the “differentiated political economies” (in its plural form). She argues for a “layered” and differentiated political economy approach to capitalism, which is not a universal trend or a totalising structure but flexible and diversified. Even within China there is not a homogenous totality. “Digital China” needs to be broken down.
The momentum of local theory building: keep the future open to alternatives. This include taking non-Western, local theories seriously. The debates about Western theories vs Chinese theories should be based on an empirical foundation not ideology. There is a momentum in China to localise knowledge production about China, relocate Chinese studies back to China, and engage with Chinese theories including the state-sponsored approach to studying history and Chineseness.
Imagining the alternative: To differentiate China as entangled and struggling with global capitalism, beyond de-westernisation of capitalism, to see new possibilities in China’s digital socialism, which is an alternative system; the Chinese system or model is not necessary a solution but a site for imaginations.
Localised approach through case studies: We should examine not just Chinese intertnet going abroad but “how”. Similarly, we should focus on “how” local processes shape datafication and digitalisation; “how” the central government and local governments—from provinces to counties—interact to build the techno diversity; “how” state interact with business in concrete ways; “how” case studies of smaller geographies, such as the wanghong trade union, city brains, or rural e-commerce, can shed more light on the techno diversity and reality.
Graham Webster takes a different path from the other two panelists. He sits at the intersection among academia, policy, and media. His work—curated and annotated translation of Chinese key policy and legal documents, mostly through the DigiChina project—does great service to colleagues in academia, policy makers in government and NGOs, and the general public.
What lesson that China can offer for others: Webster traced his academic journey and his interest in digital China, from 2008 with an interest in Chinese internet development and media censorship to focusing on the rapidly changing technology and platforms and China’s changing relations with the world. His graduate research on China’s e-government, for example, sought to understand the importance of new information technology in shifting information flows within the state. His career then takes him to writing about US-China relations and working on U.S.-China track 2 dialogues that engaged issues ranging from the South China Sea to bilateral investment and diplomatic engagements.
Work at DigiChina: looking at the Chinese cyberspace at the legal, written policy level, with main work and focus on translating and explaining laws and regulations on cybersecurity, data governance, and data flows; the team translate the documents and try to understand the motivations and choices of these policies or regulations; DigiChina as repository of the Chinese cyberspace policy sphere for the general audience, as a resource for other scholars.
What’s next: How these policies are implemented and how the implementation impacts on the state-society relations; what is the role of certain intermediaries and key agencies, e.g. the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), in the policy formulation and implementation process. Such questions motivate us to think beyond the digital, to engage with digital China at the intersection between technology and policy: for example, climate change can be the nexus in the US-China relations; we need to ask how technologies and policies shape countries and international relations as they adapt climate change technologies and policies.
Conclusion This is the beginning of a series of dialogues that we intend to organise, for us to reflect on our own research trajectories, key issues of the moment, our own roles in the field, and contribution to digital China research. I understand that the topic is too big and complicated for one webinar. I hope this webinar serves the purpose of “throwing bricks to attract jade, that is, initiating and facilitating more discussions in the future.
The “Platforming China Dialogues” Webinar Series is part of Prof Yu’s project on the social implications of China’s social credit system funded by ARC Future Fellowship (FT200100100).
This article was first posted to the ADM+S website here on 4 July 2022.