Reflections on the 12th Chinese Internet Research Conference

When we argue for something on paper we like to polarise. It seems that basically any issue can be discussed controversially by identifying two opposing opinions or literature strands. Such a dialectical approach to knowledge construction suits us well because it is deeply embedded in our philosophical and hence academic understanding of the world.

The 12th Chinese Internet Research Conference has not been much different in this respect. Researchers open the virtual spaces that they are looking at with the help of a dialectical approach. There are two major dimensions – Is Internet use culturally or politically conditioned? And do we best understand Internet use through Big Data analytics or anthropological field observation? Researchers will then carefully position their own work along these continua – et voilà we come to the conclusion the world is flat. Of course we all are aware of the lacking third dimension that lifts up our observations from a two-dimensional ground and elevates them to a more general understanding – theorising!

I believe it is fair to say that the 12th CIRC demonstrated remarkable progress in terms of methods and research scope. The emerging observed and measured reality of Internet use in China becomes more differentiated, better reflected, demarcated, and visualised. But our findings have not taken off ground towards a uniting theoretical ambition. Still it was a splendid conference and I enjoyed many of the research paths that participants introduced.

Culture and politics are always blended and there is as much a political culture as there are cultural politics. Still the sessions during the conference made a general distinction between the two categories – a difficult task in the face of topics such as ‘public opinion on weibo’, ‘digital nationalism in online networks, or ‘biopolitics in the blogosphere’. Often it seemed to me that the distinction between politics and culture does not refer to the topic but to a researcher’s disciplinary background. Needless to say that the deepest gap yawns between political scientists and economists on the one hand, and anthropologists, and sinologists on the other. And closely related to the disciplinary background are – as usual – the deployed tools where the former would favour quantitative approaches and the latter qualitative methods.

Polarising Qualitative and Quantitative Methods

Things are intertwined indeed as the distinction of culture and politics is rooted in the disciplinary cultures of knowledge construction and related toolsets. In line with this observation the conference opened with a ‘spotlight session’ featuring Tom McDonald, an anthropologist from ULC, presenting a long-term ethnographic study with the title ‘little treasures: parents and their QZone baby photos in a small rural Chinese town’. Tom’s point of departure are status updates and photographs related to childbearing, or the first few months of a child’s life on QZone. The idea of his project was to go beyond an analysis of the published content. To this end he conducted 13 months of intensive ethnographic fieldwork with the aim to situate posting practices within villagers’ lives, society, and culture.

This approach was contrasted with a concluding ‘spotlight session’ where Zhang Weiyu from NUS presented her work on ‘celebrity activism on Weibo’. This piece of research goes more into the direction of big data analytics. The aim was to understand Weibo celebrities’ approaches to influence public opinion on social issues, and measure their impact. The study focuses on discussions about PM2.5 and uses data extracted from Sina weibo (sample of top-100 celebrities).

Polarising Culture and Politics

Between these two poles was a whole conference universe. I will not be able to summarize all the sessions that I attended. But I believe a summary of the two debate sessions on ‘Internet Culture’ and ‘Internet Politics’ can provide a glimpse of what’s going on in academic research.

Silivia Lindtner from US Irvine and Fudan University opened the Internet Culture’ debate by raising the question ‘who are the producers of the Chinese Internet?’ She posits that we are very busy looking at Internet users while we forget the makers. The ‘makers’ are technology producers committed to the design and implementation of Internet technologies. Silvia described the ‘maker movement’ since its inception in 2007, their venues, their values, and their aspirations. She situates maker spaces in the broader context of technology markets, policies, and locations. The overarching question of her research is ‘what brings makers, politicians, venture capitalists, and corporations together in order to shape a system embedding and nurturing the creativity, and commercial potential of maker spaces’.

Han-Teng Liao from University of Oxford talked about ‘Chinese cultural thickening and web spheres’. His research is concerned with the role of China’s ‘Great Firewall (GFW)’ as an artefact for promoting a specific translocal or national process of articulation and expression of meaning. He uses ‘web spheres’ as a construct to define communicative/information spaces and relates these spheres to distinct modes of cultural thickening.

Gabriele de Seta from HK Polytechnic University further develops this idea of the GFW as a fundament for Chinese Internet culture. He seeks to reconsider, what he calls a naïve discussion of the Great Firewall of China in light of the question it raises about our ethics, our ideology, and us. He stresses the necessity of ethnographic studies in order to understand the actual impact of the GFW on user practices and the cultures of circumvention. He posits that what is needed is ‘local knowledge’ rather than speculation. His work depicts the portmanteau ‘fan qiang’ (leaping over the wall) as an informed, situated and pragmatic practice in everyday use of digital media.

Finally Kechagn Fang from the University of Wisconsin-Madison discussed the ‘emergence of partisan online media in China’. To this end she looked at 688 articles featuring three representative cases in 2013: Bo Xilai, The 3rd Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, and the death of Margret Thatcher. She describes partisan media as younger and smaller compared to traditional media but with a greater proportion of opinion content directed to a relatively well-educated audience. She finds that there are far more similarities within conservative websites and within liberal websites than between the two groups. Furthermore, conservative websites source more from Party mouthpieces while liberal outlets favour information from market-oriented, and foreign media.

The presented research and the following discussions suggested to me that culture and politics are two sides of the same coin indeed. The politics of surveillance, and information control produce distinct cultural spaces while at the same time cultural practices challenge the political status quo and mainstream opinion. But it is not all about coproduction. Whether a certain practice belongs to the cultural or political sphere depends very much on whom you ask to judge.

The debate session on Internet Politics opened with a statement that the political effects of the Internet in China suffer from a lack of appropriate theoretical frameworks. Here we go! The contribution was made by Gillian Bolsover from Oxford University. Gillian posits that the problem is the absence of ‘home grown’ theories and the dominance of theories generated in a Western context. She therefore seeks to develop a more appropriate normative framework for analysing the political effects of the Internet in China. She bases her argument on Michael Freedan and his quest that political theories should take into account what individual people think, say, and do; what normative goals they aspire to, and what productive changes can be made given current constraints. Gillian presents three frameworks to ease cultural dominance: Benchmark in terms of welfare rights rather than human rights, understand the Internet as a means to enable watchdog functions rather than a weapon to overthrow the system, concentrate on communitarian style political speech rather than rational, independent deliberation.

Séverina Arsène from the Centre for Research on Contemporary China in Hong Kong was ‘tracing the Chinese government’s bet on the Internet’. She states that Chinese leaders frequently highlighted the need to keep up and compete with developed countries in the field of information technologies. In this vision China needs to climb up the innovation ladder and create dominant companies in industry and services in order to acquire more autonomy and leverage for economic growth. But the Chinese Internet played also a critical role in the modernisation of Chinese administrations through e-government and open data initiatives, which created dissonances within the Chinese system.

Adrian Rauchfleisch, University of Zurich depicted ‘Chinese social media companies between user interests and government regulations’. Adrian presented a regulatory approach asking what instruments does the Chines state use to affect users? The main claim of this research is that regulations targeting Internet companies and Chinese netizens with direct criminal or administrative liability are highly effective to control information flows and public opinion. Government Weibo accounts, by contrast have a limited impact on public opinion.

Bo Mai from University of Pennsylvania presented a study in the same vein but with a quantitative approach. He looked at ‘web tracking with Chinese characteristics: a critical perspective on the emerging online surveillance market in China’. The study claims that there is a growing web-tracking market in China, which has facilitated both commercial and political surveillance. The empirical data for this research came from 500 popular Chinese websites. The researches recorded third-party requests – a practice that forms a ‘hidden web’ that may facilitate large-scale data curation and profiling. Third party requests are based on technologies that can serve commercial interests and political preferences. The analysis suggests that there is a network of hidden data flows, which exposes netizens to both commercial and state surveillance.

The political debate on the Chinese Internet appeared busy with technological developments and their implications for stabilising or challenging an authoritarian system, for protecting privacy, and facilitating economic growth as yet another means to stabilise incumbent rule. While these studies provided intriguing insight, and detailed understanding of the political impact of Internet use Gillian’s quest for more appropriate normative frameworks stood out – at least in my opinion. I am not sure whether the normative assumptions are the biggest obstacle for theorising but it is certainly a good start.

The clashes of disciplines will not have disappeared until we reconvene next year for the 13th Chinese Internet Research Conference in Canada. But hopefully we will then be able discuss theory building more prominently.

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