New publication: “The Networked China Researcher: Challenges and Possibilities in the Social Media Age.”

Marina Svensson has published a new article entitled “The Networked China Researcher: Challenges and Possibilities in the Social Media Age,” Asiascape: Digital Asia, 4 (2017), pp. 76-102.


The internet has opened up new possibilities for scholars to gather data and, in general, to stay updated on rapidly changing developments in the Chinese society. Social media has added yet another dimension as it enables researchers to follow events and public debates as they unfold as well as facilitate engagement and interactivity with informants and other contacts. This article is based on the author’s own experiences and discusses the possibilities and challenges of using Chinese social media platforms. It calls for an explicit reflexivity on rapidly changing technologies. The article also addresses the fact that the researcher leaves many digital footprints on the internet and social media, and the advantages and possible dangers in an authoritarian society such as China. The article is written as a reflection piece and a call for more open and systematic discussions on how digital technologies change research practices in and on China.

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Big Data Here We Come!

When we put together the program for our workshop “Big Data, Privacy and Surveillance in China: Regulations, Actors, and Debates” we found it quite difficult to identify scholars that work on the matter from a critical perspective. Some we knew from conferences and through various networks. We then did the usual thing – Internet research, article review, and snowballing. A few more names came up and in the end we managed to bring together a really interesting crowd. The experience, however, made me curious about what’s going on in big data research. The charts below give a first impression on where we stand at the moment. The global research community published about 4250 articles with the topic “big data” in SCI-listed journals. “Big data” as a phenomenon and potentially new technological paradigm is younger than you might think. Essentially research took off only in 2013, and thus knowledge accumulation at academic institutions is at a very early stage. In line with this observation is the distribution of research categories. Around 80% relates to basic research in computer sciences, engineering, and mathematics. Another 15% deals with applied big data in the natural sciences such as nanotechnology, and biomedicine. Only 5 percent of current research output emerges out of other disciplines. Among this last batch are economics and management the largest category with about 4 percent of all articles. The last percent of research output originates from social sciences; the lion’s share is applied methods followed by ethical reflections and applied ethical issues in the medical sector. These figures shed some light on our big data workshop: We are out early!


Articles on “big data” published in science citation indexed journals

Articles on "big data" by research category

Articles on “big data” by research category

For obvious reasons our research group is mainly interested in critical perspectives on big data in China. Again the figures in the charts below suggest that this is a sensible choice. China is the top publisher of big-data research only outrun by the US. 10% of all articles on big data originate from five academic institutions; among them are two from China while three are from the US. Another interesting feature is the funding situation. In the US about 20% of articles mention financial support from government funds; in China it is more than 90%. In essence big data research reflects an increasing political polarisation where China and the US are eager to size opportunities and gain a first mover advantage. The US comfortably relies on its prestigious universities and the market to raise the funds needed. China’s academic elite is much smaller but steadily growing. The main driver is government support. And where is Europe? Well as usual; third place, divided, with market institutions and government organisations incapable of forging ahead. But make no mistake, in a world where macho-style “make it happen” policies trump or become the core European apprehension becomes a virtue that we should cherish.

Articles on "big data" by country of origin

Articles on “big data” by country of origin

Top-5 institutions publishing on "big data"

Top-5 institutions publishing on “big data”

But before we start to postulate ethical principles that none of the successful technology innovators is going to abide to, it is useful to critically reflect on our own capacity to contribute to a hopefully new emerging field of critical big data studies. If our big data workshop is representative for where we stand, then we need to tackle at least three paradoxes:

  • Firstly, most of us have no experience in using big data technologies or the underlying mathematical and statistical principles. Of course you don’t have to be a craftsman in order to distinguish a good job from inferior performance. Yet a stronger representation of technological and statistical knowledge will be needed in order to reach those that we would like to convince. Diversity, opposition, and frictions are inevitable if we are not satisfied with drafting a manifesto of the converted.
  • Secondly, most researchers look at laws and regulations, legal loopholes, and implementation failures. In China, however, the law isn’t exactly a good indicator for the constraints that keep big data research and corporate capabilities within an ethical frame. And it won’t bring us a long way in the US either where commercial actors will strongly lobby for self-regulation. Thus we have to get more insight into decision-making processes, corporate research, and organisational cultures that shape big data products and services. This point is intimately connected to the last issue …
  • The success of critical big data studies relies on advancing our understanding of how data is collected, stored, distributed, shared, sold, reconfigured, matched, and analysed. Most of these processes are surrounded by secrecy and concentrated in a few centres of power. Many crucial actors neither have the obligation to nor an interest in talking to us. Thus we need to find innovative approaches to collect evidence and gradually push for transparency.

I think our big data workshop was a great beginning. It made us aware of the early stage we are in, the need for getting organised, and the benefit that our research can reap. Of course, there are many hurdles on the way towards having an impact – but that shouldn’t prevent us from making an effort.

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Future and Reality of gaming conference, Vienna, 23-25 September 2016

While I attended the Cultural Typhoon in Europe (see previous blog), the city of Vienna hosted the event Game City. Connected to that a conference about gaming and children took place: Future and Reality of gaming (F.R.O.G.), which hosted a great variety of fascinating discussions under the topic: Beyond Gameplay – Game cultures and game practices (see the programme here). The idea was to learn more about what people do with games and the surrounding culture of games, to look at who is allowed to play and who isn’t. In the introduction an excited speaker on behalf of the city explained that the organizers are interested in surpassing the focus on games as addictive, violent, and ‘bad’ or games as mere entertainment. Instead they would like to understand the ‘real magic of gaming and its meaning for society’.

Since I was mostly busy with the other conference at the university, I could only listen to some of the quite insightful presentations at F.R.O.G. on Sunday, dealing e.g. with girls in e-sport, where males are still predominant in the public image. Especially interesting was the remark that particularly in puberty girls are very vulnerable players as they tend to be ‘forced into’ doing girly stuff, which is supposed to not include activities such as digitally shooting zombies. The speaker, Maike Groen, emphasized that in order to get out of the dilemma of underrepresented girls, organisations could help among others.

Anthropologist Michaela Rizzolli, who studied World of Warcraft and presented about the value-system of gamers, showed how material objects in gaming are composed by seven sets of values (see also this podcast). Other presentations discussed space in games, and the importance of spatial representations in narratives and different genres of games, pointing out that looking for spatial information will enhance the understanding of a game’s narrative (by Atanur Andiç). André Weßel looked at how telltale games could be used in discussing morality with youth or even making them more aware of moral questions in everyday life (see also this upcoming conference on gaming in Cologne). Urban architecture doctoral student, Bruno Amaral de Andrade, provided glimpses into his creative research about the possibilities of using digital games to include children in decision making about the use of public space. Bruno De Paula, presenting about gamer identity, called for a greater participation of children in game creation.

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Where to hide in contemporary China? Children’s online space

Between September 22 and 25 I participated in the first ‘Cultural Typhoon in Europe’ (the original Cultural Typhoon flew over from Japan, activating artists, academics, and activists to work together on different ideas; here a discussion of this year’s typhoon). As the conference theme was ‘creative production of place and space in East Asia’ I thought that this would be a good way to start on a next sub-subject in my digital China theme where I want to focus on the use and appropriation of online space by children.

Children need secrets. They also need time in order to occupy space and claim it their own. While creating space of their own works fairly well in rural environments, urban areas that are dominated by a dense conglomeration of adults, their consumption and their transport space pose some more complications for children to transform into space of their own. Even more complicated are places of mass education. Originally adult-centered, Lefebvre’s work about how social space is used receives increasing attention in childhood studies, shifting the focus to space as an important aspect in understanding children’s lives. At the same time, the notion of space gets a digital twist, and children’s space is said to be found increasingly in their mobile phones or the internet.

In this presentation I explore what digital space for children means, embedded in the theory of Lefebvre’s production of space. The focus lies on the necessity for children to have secrets and space of their own. Adult forces against this claim to secrets and space of their own – not privacy – make use of educational institutions and the domination of spatial infrastructure in the internet and beyond, including surveillance. How can children possibly learn autonomy under these circumstances? Especially autonomous behavior on the internet.

Based on fieldwork in rural China about how children use space, websites created for children, and the global history of shrinking space, this presentation proposes to offer a glimpse into children’s hiding zones in China and explains why and how children should be left alone in the internet from time to time.

Inspired by Lefebvre, I attempted to apply the theory of the production of space, and I asked to remember the building activities of childhood, when children build their little caves in the living room or the corner of a house or in bushes outside; activities with which they practice autonomy. Based on this kind of autonomous space creations, I went to discuss the online context.

This study, I should note, moves in a quite opposite direction of what I tried before when I searched for voices of children in the internet, and the possibilities of children to be heard. Here I am interested in the idea to be neither heard nor seen but to be able to contemplate, experience autonomy, find and build one’s own limits, and be left alone, especially by adults. There is, needless to say, a huge difference in age concerning practices of autonomy offline and online. Furthermore, I expect girls and boys have different practices due to the gendering process while growing up. Empirical material consists blogs and games that are popular with 6-10 year olds.

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Towards critical big data studies in and on China

We have just organized a workshop on Big data in China with a number of interesting presentations.  Scholars at the event discussed official policies, regulations, and specific projects (for example the social credit system and efforts to create smart cities) as well as public perceptions of big data, and its different connotations in China where big data is more dressed as a technological advancement and concerns about surveillance and invasion of privacy are not as openly articulated as in the West. I have briefly discussed some of these issues and concerns in earlier blog posts in 2014, 2015, and 2016.

At the event we raised the idea of developing a critical research agenda on big data, surveillance and privacy in the context of China. We are inspired by scholars such as danah boyd and Katie Crawford, see for example their article “Critical questions for Big Data: provocations for a cultural, technological, and scholarly phenomenon,” Information, Communication & Society, 2012, 15 (5),  662-79., and Deborah Lupton, who has a chapter on critical sociology and big data in her book Digital Sociology (London: Routledge, 2015), and who also explore this topic further in a blog post with additional readings suggestions on critical data studies. The Social Media Collective provides another useful reading list on what they call Critical Algorithm Studies.

How is big data applied in China, by whom (governments and companies), and with what consequences for different individuals? There are obvious ethical and political implications of big data and they differ between different societies. It is obvious, as pointed out by Deborah Lupton, that big data is a ‘sociocultural artefact’, and that the production and use of big data reflect and involve specific political, social and cultural processes.

There are much basic work to be done in order for us to get a picture of the situation in China, and in order to start our analysis, including:

  • Mapping relevant research in China (including institutions, scholars and disciplines involved, publications in the field, as well as translations of Western works);
  • Mapping the official discourse on the topic and changes over time;
  • Mapping the myths and metaphors that are used and surround big data in China (and possible differences from the West);
  • Mapping government and company collaboration (and administrative vs commercial interest in big data);
  • Mapping media reports on the topic;
  • Mapping public perceptions on big data and related concepts;
  • Mapping the intersection of big data studies, surveillance studies, and privacy studies and their different (?) configurations and focus compared with other countries;
  • Mapping critical voices (if any);
  • Mapping whether and how big data discourse, research, debates, reports etc address concerns about surveillance and privacy.


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Workshop: Big Data, Privacy and Surveillance in China: Regulations, Actors, and Debates

The Digital China project organizes a workshop on Big Data, Privacy and Surveillance in China on 5-6 October. The workshop brings together scholars from China, Hong Kong, the UK and Canada to discuss these issues from different angles.

The workshop is open to a limited number of participant and you need to contact Marina Svensson for registration and information on venue. Last date to register is 29 September.

Interrogating and debating surveillance and its impact on society is not the prerogative of scholars. A number of artists, including Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, have over the years engaged with issues related to surveillance and produced remarkable works that expose and illustrate the extent and depth of surveillance in society today. See further an earlier blog.

The workshop will look at the issues of big data, privacy, and surveillance in China from different angles.

  • Studying, understanding and visualizing big data in the context of China
  • The macro-framework of data regulation (international and national issues, laws, regulations and policies)
  • Visions and government policies and programs related to big data (including how big data is being used by government, how academic institutions and companies have responded etc.)
  • Public debates and media reports about big data, including on issues related to privacy, surveillance, and security.
  • On-the-ground practices of shaping and socialising perceptions on digitisation and promoting digital literacy.



5 October

  • 9.15-9.45         Welcome and introduction to workshop

Governing Big Data: Rules, Regulations, And Their Implications

  • 9.45-10.45        Séverine Arsène, (French Centre for Research on Contemporary China), “Data localization in the Chinese quest for cybersovereignty”
  • 10.45-11.15      Coffee break
  • 11.15-12.00      Anne SY Cheung and Clement YX Chen, (Hong Kong University), “The Transparent Self in China’s Big Data Ecosystem”
  • 12.00-13.00      Lunch
  • 13.00- 14.00     Rogier Creemers (Leiden University), TBA
  • 14.00-15.00      Henry Hu (Shanghai University of Finance and Economics) “Who Owns the Big Data: commercial practice, law and the struggle for digital assets in China”
  • 15.00-15.30      Coffee break
  • 15.30-16.30      Discussion: Critical Big Data Studies?


6 October

Surveillance, Privacy and Citizenship: Debates and Concerns

  • 9.15-10.15         Hu Yong (Beijing University) “When Chinese Internet is no longer anonymous: A case of strong administrative control but weak legal protection”
  • 10.15-10.45       Coffee break
  • 10.45-11.45       Ronggui Huang (Fudan University) “Public perceptions of big data in China: Textual analysis of Weibo posts (2014-2016)”
  • 11.45-13.00       Lunch
  • 13.00-14.00      Jason Ng (The Citizen Lab, University of Toronto) “Mass Targeted Censorship? The Latest Findings in WeChat’s Content Filtering System and It’s Effect on Overseas Chinese”
  • 14.00-15.00      Perry Keller (Kings College London), “Citizenship and surveillance in China’s smart cities”
  • 15.00-15.30      Coffee break
  • 15.30-16.30      Discussion: Studying Big Data – Methods in the making?


The workshop has received funding from the Swedish Research Council and the The Birgit Rausing Language Programme.


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Guest lecture: The Digital Imagination: Mobile Phones and Internet in the Global South

Open lecture with Dr. Elisa Oreglia, Centre for Media Studies, SOAS, University of London, 6 September, 10.15-12.00.


In the realm of digital technologies, imagination is often evoked to describe the creative process that visionary creators of technology go through as they invent the technological future. In contrast, I describe the idea of gaining a “digital imagination” as a process through which the non-elite, in this specific case potential and new users of digital technologies in the Global South, envision something that is not yet part of their lives and thus begin appropriating it. The digital imagination is therefore a framing that prefigures the everyday uses of technology, and is shaped by individual aspirations, the organization of society, and the images and depictions of digital media that exist in the surrounding environment. Drawing on my ethnographic research in Myanmar and rural China, I describe three areas that contribute to nourishing the digital imagination: the external media ambience that surrounds people, composed of television and radio, films, and ads; individual aspirations and their interaction with the social milieu where people live; and the downside of digital imagination, that is misunderstandings and negative perceptions of digital technologies.

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The Digital China project is hosting Professor Hu Yong, Peking University


From 23 August to 30 September the Digital China project is hosting Professor Hu Yong. Hu Yong is a professor of journalism and communication, Peking University, and a leading scholar on the Chinese Internet. During his stay Professor will give a guest lecture on 28 September entitled “Yuqing (public sentiment): A Native Chinese Concept and Its Practice.”

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Surveillance and Art

Interrogating and debating surveillance and its impact on society is not the prerogative of scholars and activists. A number of artists have over the years engaged with issues related to surveillance and produced remarkable works that investigate, expose and illustrate the extent and depth of surveillance in society today. Many artists are themselves using surveillance technologies, for example footage from CCTV cameras or drones, or engage in self-surveillance, to better address themes of visibility asymmetries, threats to privacy, and surveillance.  Artists also engage in sousveillance, turning the gaze towards those in power, in attempts to resist surveillance and create counter-images. The art works, and the analyses and discussions of them by artists themselves, art curators, and scholars, help contribute to a better understanding of  the intervention of surveillance in everyday life, and also draws attention to the performative aspects of surveillance itself. Art, in short, can help make surveillance, often by its nature quite invisible, visible to us. Many artists are through their works raising serious social and political questions about power asymmetries in surveillance regimes (between governments and individuals, corporations and individuals, and between the global north and global south), revealing the vulnerability of weak groups (for example migrants and refugees). Their work is thus not just a form of aesthetic appropriation of surveillance technologies but constitute resistance and a challenge to governmental and corporate surveillance, and thus contributes to multiveillance i.e. horizontal and participatory monitoring.

Last week I went to the Hasselblad Center to see the exhibition Watched! Surveillance, Art and Photography that included works by a range of artists with a special focus on photography and the European context. In the exhibition there were some interesting works by Trevor Paglen and James Bridle who long have been involved in documenting and visualizing surveillance. Trevor Paglen, who in 2014 was awarded the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Pioneer Award, has for example taken photos of NSA bases and American satellites. A very disturbing art work was Mishka Henner’s work No Man’s Land based on internet forums where men share images and locations of alleged sex workers using Google Street View. His work show corporate surveillance and how male sex buyers are using these technological affordances, and it also illustrates the vulnerability and asymmetries built into surveillance regimes. Other vulnerable groups are migrants and refugees, and several artists, including Tina Enghoff, Julian Röder, James Bridle, and Marco Polini, dealt with how surveillance and diverging visibilities affect these groups.

The very rich and beautiful catalogue, apart from the art works, also includes several insightful articles by some of the artists, as well as art curators, and media and surveillance scholars. There is also a very informative short video about the exhibition where the curator introduces the exhibition and some of the works, and several of the artists discuss their own works.


There have been other major exhibitions addressing surveillance and art at different art institutions and museums. In 2010, for example, Tate organized Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera, and in 2015 the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art organized Panopticon: Visibility, Data, and the Monitoring Gaze. Earlier this year the Pratt Institute organized the exhibition Little Sister (is watching you, too), whereas Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum organized To See Without Being Seen: Contemporary Art and Drone Warfare. And I am sure there have been other exhibitions on this topic.

This year, Laura Poitras, also held her first solo exhibition, Astro Noise, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, with art and video installations addressing topics such as a mass surveillance, the war on terror, the U.S. drone program, and Guantánamo Bay Prison. Topics that are also the focus of her films within the 9/11 trilogy, My Country, My Country (2006), The Oath (2010), and of course Citizenfour (2014) that documents her meetings with Edward Snowden and the revelations of the National Security Agency’s global surveillance programme. The exhibition also resulted in a book, Astro Noise: A Survival Guide for Living Under Total Surveillance, with articles and works by artists, authors, data journalists and activists, including Trevor Paglen, Ai Weiwei, Edward Snowden and Kate Crawdord, that illustrate different aspects and responses to mass surveillance and the ‘war on terror’.

In 2015 Rhizome and the New Museum in New York in an art-meets-tech event  paired activist Jacob Applebaum and artist Ai Weiwei. Their art project was documented by Laura Poitras in the film, Art of Dissent, showing them working on their project Panda to Panda, stuffing toy panda bears with shredded N.S.A. documents and memory cards as a backup, and talking about their experiences of surveillance.

Ai Weiwei is the Chinese artists who most explicitly and actively have engaged with different types of surveillance. When surveillance cameras were installed outside his studio, he hung lanterns from them, and in an act of defiance while under house arrest in 2012 he installed web cameras in his home and broadcast 24-hour live on a website called weiweicam. This form of self-surveillance was too much for the Chinese authorities, however, so he was soon forced to close down the cameras.  Ai Weiwei has also made other artwork addressing surveillance, including a sculpture entitled Surveillance Camera and Plinth made in marble. Another work that reveals a very close up and haunting experience of surveillance is S.A.C.R.E.D, a series of lifelike dioramas depicting his 81-day imprisonment. The work, which was first shown in Venice, is exhibited in small metal boxes and the viewer needs to peer through tiny windows in the ‘roof’ and ‘walls’ and thus in a sense becomes an accomplice in the act of surveillance. He has over the years also documented the constant police surveillance and a selection of these photographs that exemplify sousveillance are included in Laura Poitras book Astro Noise. Surveillance and sousveillance are also dealt with in many of Ai Weiwei’s documentary films beginning with his first film Disturbing the Peace.


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Child welfare 2.0 in China – a thought experiment

End of June I had the opportunity to give a presentation at the ICC at Sophia University, Tokyo. This presentation came as a result of the work of the Pufendorf project ‘Sustainable Welfare’ mentioned in the previous blog. In one chapter of the edited volume Sustainability and the Political Economy of Welfare Eric Brandstedt and Maria Emmelin suggest that it might be possible to cultivate social capital in order to create sustainable welfare, i.e. human welfare that does not build on the exploitation of environmental resources (western welfare states such as Sweden for example are unsustainable and do not serve as good examples for other states that would like to develop their human welfare systems, such as China).

In my presentation at Sophia, which was thought of as a starting point of a new research about children within our Digital China project, I deliberated about the possibility of creating a sustainable child welfare based on social media as the facilitator of social capital. So far, based on the rather scant research I have could gather on this topic, I found more negative points that speak against using digital methods in welfare systems (especially from the point of view of human dignity). However, the reason why I initially believed that digital child welfare would be mostly positive is due to the research about the capacity of social media to enhance social capital. Building on social capital is seen by Brandstedt and Emmelin as a possibility to create sustainable welfare without creating great (environmental) costs. Furthermore, social capital has been pointed out as one of the great benefits of social media for young people (and others, but especially young people). The idea of bridging and bonding social capital has already been tested on Chinese internet communities, also including youth, and also regarding questions of personal well-being. The possibility of social media communication to send and receive quality information has been highlighted, as well as the bonding potentials that have positive effects on people.

Another positive effect of using digital methods in child welfare lies in their beneficial outcomes for children with disabilities. Computers and also the internet are not only learning tools for visually, speech or hearing impaired or for children whose movements are compromised but they have also been found to be beneficial tools in getting connected with children who live through similar problems, which can lead to a decrease in the mental burden. Furthermore, young people who belong to sexual, physical, ethnic minorities, who are queer, LGBTQ, whose sexuality is not according to normative standards can experience relieve in communicating via social media, especially when they live in remote areas and feel left alone or so different from others.

Yet, without further dealing with them in detail, the negative points are more serious and include 1) surveillance and infringement of privacy of the child and the possible increase of inequality; 2) problems with trust and abuse of power in digital communication; 3) the importance of physical contact with people, which is diminished with digital methods; 4) the unsustainability of digital technology.

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