Paper presentation: The Networked China Researcher

I have just attended the conference Digital Disruption in Asia: Methods and Issues at KITLV/Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies in Leiden. The workshop brought together a number of scholars to discuss both digital methods and the impact of digital technologies on Asian societies.   I presented a paper that discussed my own experiences and thoughts on social media use for research, The Networked China Researcher: Challenges and Possibilities in the Social Media Age


The Internet, apart from being a fascinating field of study in its own right, has opened up new possibilities for scholars to get news, gather data, connect with informants, and in general stay updated on rapidly changing developments in Chinese society. Social media have added yet another dimension as it enables researchers to catch up with events and public debates as they unfold and get valuable insights into the daily life and views among scholars, opinion leaders, and informants. The technological affordances of social media, such as time-space compression, real time updates, and interconnectivity, facilitate engagement with the field and informants regardless of one’s physical presence. In fact, social media has become an ethnographic place/field in its own right where the researcher spends considerable time gathering information, observing, engaging and interacting with both scholars and informants. Our understanding of the “field” and what “being in the field” actually means have thus changed with the advent of the Internet and social media, as have our ethnographic methods. For me this “digital leap” has been an equally, if not more, transformative experience as that I experienced when I went from more classical Sinology and text-based research to ethnography, participatory observation, and interview-based research in the early 2000s.

In this paper I will discuss how digital technologies, in particular social media platforms, have changed the ways many of us conduct research, gather information, and interact with informants, and the possibilities and challenges, including the new ethical issues that arise as a result of our digital connectivity. It is also worth remembering that the researcher herself/himself leave many digital footprints on the Internet and social media. Our informants are not only able to read about us online, finding information about both our professional and private lives, and befriend us on social media, but they can also publish information about us and our research. These new developments opens up for more visible and easily accessible research(-ers), which can make research more participatory and democratic in nature. Researchers however need to be aware of and learn how to navigate this new visibility as it not only has consequences for researcher-researched relationships but also pose challenges and possible dangers in an authoritarian research context. This paper aims to address the lack of a systematic discussion in the literature on how digital technologies change research practices in and on China.



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Workshop 2-3 May: Scholars, activists and filmmakers

This workshop brings together scholars, activists and filmmakers from Asia and beyond. The participants will discuss their different views of and experiences with film, including using films as a research tool, documenting and engaging with social issues, developments and injustices in and through film, and appropriating film as a form of witnessing and activism. At the workshop we will screen a number of recent documentary films focusing on developments in Burma/Myanmar, Indonesia, China and Japan.



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China’s growing E-commerce hitting the countryside: Nongcun Taobao

China is not only the world’s biggest Internet nation in terms of absolute numbers of Internet users, it is also a huge market for e-commerce. According to Nielsen there are 380 million online shoppers and online sales contribute to 11% of total retail sales. The spread of smartphones is helping this trend, and in 2015 71% of urban online shopper used their phones to shop online. But it is not only the urban middle-class who shop online, online shopping is also taking off on the countryside as more people use Internet there too. However, the rural-urban gap is still huge as only 30% of the rural population, compared to 64% of the urban population, was using the Internet in 2015.

Since 2014, Alibaba, the owner of Taobao, China’s largest e-commerce site, has developed Nongcun Taobao, i.e. Village Taobao. They have developed a special app but also built service stations in villages where farmers who wish to use e-commerce platforms can get help with both buying and selling. Alibaba is planning to invest 100 billion RMB over the next three to five years to build over 100,000 village service station.

The government is also helping promote both rural e-commerce and internet infrastructure on the countryside. Last year Premier Li Keqiang proposed to invest 140 billion RMB in internet infrastructure for the countryside to provide at least 50,000 villages with Internet access by 2020 with the goal that 98 percent of the rural areas would have internet access. In the No. 1 Central Document adopted in January this year, rural e-commerce is a prioritized area. Many local governments have also included e-commerce for agriculture in their local five-year plans. The National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) recently signed a cooperation agreement with Alibaba to develop 300 trial regions and some 10 000 village service stations every year. While the rationale for Alibaba is to tap into the growing rural e-commerce market, the government sees this cooperation as a way to encourage people to go back to their hometown to start businesses and also develop and modernize agriculture. In March, Alibaba signed another agreement, this time with the Communist Youth League, to train and support 1 million college graduates to return to their villages to start e-commerce businesses.

IMG_2583When I recently was in China I ran into one of these Nongcun Taobao service stations in a village I visited. The station had been set up last year and was run by a young man, paid by Alibaba, who thus had returned to his home village. The village, like many other villages in China today, have seen out migration of young people so that it is mostly older people and children living there today. While some people themselves were able to go online to buy things, others needed help and came to the young man for help. The service stations thus help villagers without any computer skills or internet access to shop or sell products online. An additional advantage of Nongcun Taobao is that it provides coordinate delivery to villages where delivery companies otherwise wouldn’t deliver. As the advertisement on the village wall above says, the service provides convenience and brings bountiful products at good prices to the village.  While I was sitting chatting with the young man, another man came into the center to pick up a fishing rod that he had ordered. Among the other deliveries that day was a child’s bicycle and an ice-cream machine.

The rapid development of e-commerce and Nongcun Taobao, and the close cooperation between a private company and the Chinese state, shows the great importance put on developing and using the internet for business and economic growth.  While the space for talking politics on the Internet is strictly controlled and shrinking, shopping is a safe haven and actively promoted by the Chinese state leading China to become the world’s top one e-commerce country.


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Hans Christian Andersen Award 2016

At the Children’s Book Fair in Bologna beginning of April, Cao Wenxuan 曹文轩, a Professor of Children’s Literature at Beijing University (see the Wikipedia entry and the longer baike entry), received the biennal Hans Christian Andersen Award, the highest international award for children’s literature: “His fluid, poetic prose depicts honest, sometimes raw and often melancholy moments of life.” (see also the BBC announcement). Among the jury members was one Chinese woman, Wu Qing, daughter of the, at least in China, famous children’s book author Bing Xin.

These news were quite surprising to me as Chinese children’s literature does not seem well-visible and well-regarded in China. Translated picture and young adult books are increasingly published, though, and there are a number of magazines dedicated to children’s literature. The writings in those display, however, mostly an educative character, and the illustrations are not quite inspiring – although readers are nevertheless excited about the magazine (see e.g. these pictures from the magazine A World of Children’s Fairy Tales). The reason for this neglect of picture and other children’s book genres is not yet entirely clear to me, as some of the children whose blogs I read show keen interest in writing their own stories, and mothers discuss the newest picture and children’s books on the market.

Hopefully with Cao Wenxuan receiving this prestigious award, interest in children’s literature will increase and also it’s visibility and recognition as a form of literature that can be taken as serious as The Journey to the West and other classics which, along many meters of bookshelves filled with study books, can still be found in the Children’s Books departments of bookstores (he is, however, not unanimously accepted in China and criticised for misogyny in his stories).

Although this blog does not deal with digital media, I found these news noteworthy in this space nevertheless, as the intermingling of printed stories and discussions about them on the internet has an impact on the latter. Interest in printed stories thus might not diminish due to digital media (see also this Guardian article about the question: Can the web save the press from oblivion?).

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ICT in a rural boarding school

A selective review of Mette Halskov Hansen’s Educating the Chinese individual: life in a rural boarding school (2015), University of Washington Press

During fieldwork in a rural boarding school between 2008 and 2012 Mette Halskov Hansen observed that “it was mobile phone use among [students that symbolized intensified modernization of the rural boarding school, the students’ growing demand for individual space, and the weakened trust in authorities. […] Students used it to establish and maintain long-term social networks, to keep contact with friends inside and outside of their school and to play games and access information, especially about popular sporting events, music or movies” (62). Due to her continuous insights into schools in China, Hansen explains that nearly all students (at least those between 15 and 17 whom she studied) have a mobile phone from 2006/7 onward which are either tolerated, ignored or banned by teachers.

The mobile phone is in use during all kinds of time: small breaks, free time, and during classes. Hansen writes that “[E]very day and every hour, students knew exactly what they were supposed to do, and they learned to very efficiently exploit short breaks and unexpected moments without surveillance to socialize, play around, check sports or other news on their mobile phones, talk with friends in the class or send text or Internet messages on the widespread instant messaging software service known as QQ” (50). In fact, Hansen quotes a teacher saying that students “are controlled by their mobile phones” (158).

Another school of the town in which she did research managed to successfully ban mobile phones of which teachers believed that its use “weakened self-discipline and prevented them from concentrating on their studies” (52). This school had instead set up telephone booths on campus so that students can call their parents. Needless to say, calling their parents would only be a minor part of what students need their mobile phone for (and it wasn’t part of the above-quoted list). Interestingly, at one point, Hansen observed a presentation by a professional who was hired to motivate the students to study harder for their final exams (to get an impression see this bundle of youku videos, and the website “Chinese Net for inspirational Lectures” where the lecturer was found). One part of this presentation was spent to have some students call their parents in front of all the other students and staff and tell the (surprised) parents that they will do their best and that they love them. This must have been rather awkward for both sides – and I believe that this action shows different points of ideas of staff and students about the diverse purposes of ‘a telephone’. Of course, teachers themselves use QQ and the Internet (151).

Discussing the process of individualization and the role of choice in contemporary Chinese society, Hansen points out that the internet and mobile phones are used according to the norms of individualization processes: “students were faced with new options for expanding their knowledge of society and global changes through cheap and easy access to the Internet and for increasing their possibilities of communication through the mobile phones that nearly everyone had” (168). Moreover, the integration of different electronic media in students’ lives is used as a marker for different generational experiences (169).

Hidden transcripts – shatter zones

Most of the mentioning about using the mobile phone for accessing QQ, games, and the internet can be found under the subtitle: ‘Students’ quests for individual space’ (60 ff). Here Hansen shows that students use the internet as (one of) their individual escape space. From 2012 onward, Hansen writes, students put “substantial, though unorganized and uncoordinated, pressure” (67) on school authorities and teachers by using their mobile phones despite regulations against it. In these actions she found “elements of ‘hidden transcripts’”, referring to James Scott’s study about everyday resistance in peasants’ lives in Malaysia. Using hidden transcripts by subaltern subjects denotes using resistance in subtle, i.e. not public, ways against the state or authorities (ibid).

While reading this part I actually was more reminded Scott’s “shatter zones”.
Scott uses this term in The art of not being governed: an anarchist history of upland southeast Asia (2009), which describes the different ways in which people from highland cultures tried to escape state-making procedures and captivity until the 1950s by different means, but especially by living in more inaccessible areas. “Shatter zones” is space created for themselves: “the diagnostic characteristics of shatter zones are their relative geographical inaccessibility and the enormous diversity of tongues and cultures” (8). One important part of living in a shatter zone is to leave no paper trail, no written record in the usual sense, to be multilingual and flexible in their culture. Because Hansen describes the mobile phone and the internet as spaces that students create for themselves, I thought of their use of the mobile phone as shatter zones – also based on the speed with which ‘the hot’ expressions change among the youth and different groups of young people, and the desire to find ways and channels to not only circumvent the firewall and censorship but also to keep a certain privacy and at times anonymity. Certainly, QQ will not provide any of these, but chatting on QQ at least provides a ‘hiding’ space from teachers (who chat with their own friends).

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Bringing politics back in: New technologies, teaching/learning and political power in Chinese classrooms

Abstract for my paper at this year’s CIES conference:

There is a vast global market of information and communication technologies to be used for educational purposes (ICT4E), both inside and beyond formal schooling. Both the products on offer and the large bulk of academic literature and strategic documents concerned with ICT4E tend to look at these technologies as providing simple technical solutions to complex educational problems. Moreover, the utilization of these technologies seems to occur irrespective of social, cultural, or political context.

My presentation argues that we need to take into account the politicization (or re-politicization) of ICT4E within their contexts of production and implementation. Drawing on theoretical approaches particularly developed within science and technology studies, my paper will investigate the social and political ecology in which globally marketed ICT4E become embedded when hitting educational ground. This will be illustrated by looking at the case of ICT4E in China: first, through an analysis of how official documents envision the use of new technologies for educational purposes; second, through an analysis of the Chinese academic debate about using ICT in education; and third, through preliminary results from class room observations that I have conducted at various (urban) Chinese schools over the past two years.

The presentation will show that the global claim and political innocence of ICT4E are more imagined than real but instead are intimately linked to a society’s political visions and social structures. The paper thus locates itself in the more general discussion within comparative education about the global-local nexus of how educational policies and practices get produced, diffused, adopted, and appropriated, however expanding this discussion by the help of additional insights from the area of science and technology studies.

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Workshop 3 March: Visions, Resistance and Possibilities for Empowerment

At this workshop three project members from the Digital China research group and one affiliated researcher will present their work. They will discuss various aspects of the Chinese government’s underlying vision and strategy but also address possibilities and processes of resistance and empowerment among different group of citizens made possible through ICTs. Svensson will address both the top-down and bottom-up visions and negotiations and forms of resistance, whereas Brehm provides a comparative empirical analysis of how political institutions shape internet adoption. Gustafsson adresses memory making online, one particular form of resistance and empowerment, whereas Liu looks at contentious collective action and its digital dimensions which is a more direct form of resistance.

Marina Svensson, “The Internet and Human Rights in China: Official visions and grassroots resistance”

Stefan Brehm, “The political user value of the internet – a theoretical and empirical investigation into regime-dependent technology adoption”

Karl Gustafsson, “Collective memory 2.0: Remembering and forgetting on the internet in China”

Liu Jun, “From ‘moments of madness’ to ‘the politics of mundanity’ – research digital media and contentious collective action in China.”

3 March, 2016, 9.15-13.00.

Location: Centre for East and South-East Asian Studies, Scheelevägen 15, Room Alfa 101

Open event, all are welcome!

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Lecture 16 February: The Internet and Human Rights in China

Marina Svensson has been invited to give a lecture at the Norwegian Centre for Human Rights, Oslo. The lecture is entitled The Internet and Human Rights in China: Official visions and grassroots resistance and will take place 9-10.30 on 16 February.

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Digital China — Visions, Negotiations and Experiences

Barbara Schulte and Marina Svensson presented the project at a seminar arranged by the Asian Dynamics Initiative at Copenhagen University on 27 November. The presentation also addressed the Chinese government’s underlying ideology, strategy, and vision in the field of ICT, and how ICTs are envisioned and experienced among other actors such as different group of individuals, civil society organizations, and schools. The focus was on hegemonic and counter-hegemonic discourses on ICTs and negotiations and contestations over ICTs among different actors and stakeholders.

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Notes from Internet Days, 23-24 November

I have just attended the annual Internet Days in Stockholm. The event is organized by IIS (The Internet Foundation In Sweden), which is an independent organization working to promote Internet development in Sweden. The organization is responsible for Sweden’s top-level domain .se (and also .nu), registration of domain names, and the administration and technical maintenance of the national domain-name registry. It also publishes the most comprehensive statistics on the Internet habits of the Swedish population (see English summary of the 2015 report). IIS also publishes other reports on specific issues, recent reports include women in the IT industries, senior citizens’ use of the Internet, and easy to read reports on Tor and other more technical topics. It has also published a book (and made a film) introducing elementary school children (class 1-3) to the Internet. Another very cool project is the virtual Internet museum that provides rich textual and visual information on the development of the Internet in Sweden. The site/museum for example includes reports on the Internet on Swedish television as well as interviews with Swedish Internet pioneers and IT entrepreneurs. One film clip from 1969 shows speculations about the future use of computers for ordering clothes and doing banking transactions, speculations that would have seemed rather wild at the time (that incidentally also shows the very gendered stereotypes of that time).


The Internet Days this year included keynotes by critical voices such as Evgenij Morozov (see the video recording here) and Ethan Zuckerman (here). The topics discussed at the different panels ranged from hotly debated political topics such as privacy and surveillance, more technical topics such as infrastructure and cloud services, coding and digital technologies in the class-room, and how we as individuals deal with the digital in ever increasing aspects of our lives. The event was also a space for different start-ups and makers. All the keynotes got personalized clocks made by 14 year old teenagers, inspired by an American case earlier this year when a young boy was briefly arrested because he brought a home made clock to school that teachers and police initially believed was a bomb.

The first day of the event I attended the panel Hardwiring Freedom (you can read more and watch it here) arranged by Annie Machon, the former intelligence officer for MI5 , and Simon Davies, a long-time campaigner for privacy and a founder of Privacy International. They have started a new organization called Code Red that was set up in 2014 to fight surveillance and political deception, defend privacy, and support whistleblowers. The organization is developing a new indexing platform for human rights, fundamental freedoms and civil society data that would increase the visibility of such information on the Internet. The speakers in the panel included William E. Binney, the NSA whistleblower who left the service already in 2001 after 9/11 (interviewed here on PSB). The panel discussed issues related to privacy and governments’ misguided justifications for surveillance. In the aftermath of the attacks in Paris earlier this month many governments in Europe are again calling for more surveillance and access to personal data of suspected terrorists. However, as pointed out by several speakers, and also in media reports lately, including in this Washington Post article, giving governments more discretion to engage in surveillance doesn’t make us safer or protect us from terrorist attacks. Several countries in Europe have recently discussed laws that give governments’ stronger power of surveillance. The UK has proposed a bill that Human Rights Watch and others see as a threat to privacy and not compatible with existing EU rulings, whereas France earlier this year enacted a new law that also have been heavily criticized.

I have on this blog earlier briefly written on privacy online in the Chinese context, noting the lack of a robust public debate on matters related to privacy and surveillance. Whereas many civil society organizations in the West (as we heard in Stockholm) are engaged in debates on mass surveillance and fight to protect individuals’ right to privacy, sometimes also having an impact on governments, there are no public debates or space for similar organizations in China. The lack of a serious discussion on privacy and surveillance are due to censorship and control of such debates and academic research, and the fact that the state privileges “national security” over individual privacy. The proposed new National Security Law  announced by the NPC Standing Committee in the summer will give the Chinese government even more power to control the Internet. The draft has been circulated for comments and both the media (see Chinese version of Financial Time and the newly launched The Initium based in Hong Kong) and Western human rights organization such as Human Rights Watch have commented upon and worried about the laws implications for privacy and press freedom.

Cloud-Computing-cap                                            Image from an article on clouds in Forbes

Talking about privacy issues in general Ranking Digital Rights has recently evaluated eight of the world’s biggest Internet companies on their public commitments and policies affecting users’ freedom of expression and privacy. In their study Google scored the highest whereas Tencent, the only Chinese company on the list, came in second-lowest. The issue of privacy is particularly complex when it comes to global Internet companies, one example is cloud services that were much discussed at the event in Stockholm. China was not discussed but it is important to note that international products such as Dropbox and Google Drive are blocked in China ( provides updated information on blocked sites), and thus only accessible if using a VPN although China is also cracking down on VPNs.  The Chinese government has prioritized the development of cloud computing (discussed for example in the report Red Cloud Rising: Cloud Computing in China), and domestic cloud computing has developed quite rapidly in recent years with many different companies on the market and even expanding abroad. The issue is of course how safe one’s data is if one are using a Chinese cloud service, a topic I would like to know more about.

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