Computers in Chinese schools cannot close the urban-rural divide

Reposted with permission from the Mercator Institute for China Studies

In a recently published blog, I argue that digital solutions have not delivered on the promise to guarantee high-quality education for all in China. The introduction of information and communication technology has encountered resistance from teachers and parents. It has also created a new divide between the producers and the consumers of ICT content.

The idea is certainly tempting: if all students in a country had access to the same kind of digital resources – such as state-of-the-art textbooks, individualized and interactive learning tools or micro-lectures by excellent teachers – wouldn’t that help decrease the performance gap between students and teachers at both elite schools and disadvantaged schools?

The Chinese government places high hopes in the equalizing effect of information and communication technologies in education (in short, ICT4E). China’s 13th Five-Year-Plan (2016-2020) promotes digital solutions as a way to bridge the divide between rural and urban schools; and party and state leader Xi Jinping wants “millions of children to enjoy high-quality education.” China is pushing ICT4E not only domestically, but also aims to export its digital education products to the rest of the world, particularly to African countries.

Considering China’s global ambitions, it is fair to ask how digital education initiatives have fared within China. So far they have not yielded the intended results. Paradoxically, ICT4E can actually create new inequalities between high- and low-performing schools.

At first glance, China’s heavy investment in ICT4E has born fruit. By 2016, 87 percent of all primary and middle schools had access to the internet; 80 per cent of Chinese classrooms had multimedia facilities; and teachers can now draw on millions of online instruction units. The picture looks less favorable when taking the individual student into account: 8 students in average share a computer at school (OECD: 1.3 students per computer). At home, only 59.8 percent of students have access to a computer (OECD: 91.2 percent), and only 64.6 percent have an internet connection (OECD: 94.3 percent).

Technologies are used for teaching, not for learning

These numbers however tell us little about how digital teaching methods are employed, and whether they have led to the desired improvements in student and teacher development.

The most striking observation from my fieldwork at schools in regions as diverse as Beijing, Kunming, Zhejiang Province, and the greater area of Chongqing was that the new technologies were used for teaching, but not for learning. They were mostly used by teachers for presentation purposes, e.g. for powerpoint and smartboard presentations, or for showing micro-lectures downloaded from the internet.

Students on the other side had little to no contact with ICT4E. Firstly, they did not use information and communication technologies for knowledge-seeking purposes. This fact is confirmed by international studies, which find that Chinese students rarely use the internet for school-related tasks and that they are not taught how to navigate the internet efficiently.

Secondly, ICT4E were neither used for individual learning nor for interactive purposes. School principals and teachers attributed this to problems of access, e.g. in the students’ home environments or in the dormitories, and lack of skills in the students’ families, such as parents and grandparents being unable to help children with these tasks.

Thirdly, teachers as well as families were generally reluctant to view ICT as capable of replacing books and teacher-centered learning. Computers and information and communication technologies were rather seen as distractions that needed to be constrained and should be used as rewards for students who studied diligently (with clear time limits, of course). This attitude towards ICT as potentially dangerous and non-virtuous has also been found in earlier studies on Chinese youth.

Fourthly, and perhaps surprisingly in a society that is exposed to tight political and ideological control: there is almost no training in digital literacy for either teachers or students. In a time when content from the internet can challenge conventional media and politics, students and teachers alike are given astoundingly scarce guidance as to how to retrieve reliable information. Most training in ICT regards technical questions, such as how to use a computer, or design a presentation; but even those classes are often replaced by subjects that are deemed to be more relevant to the university entrance examinations.

Urban schools produce, rural schools consume content

The fifth finding came as even more of a surprise: in many cases, disadvantaged schools were better equipped than their urban counterparts. While smartboards – including ready-made presentations and lectures created elsewhere – were integral parts of teaching in rural areas, many well-off schools refused to use these technologies entirely. In fact, teachers at high-performing schools did not even believe that ICT could improve student performance, and preferred traditional methods of teaching.

Ironically, many of these high-performing schools had produced the ICT content (mostly in the form of micro-lectures and micro-lessons) that was then distributed to rural schools. After taking the credit of having participated as an ICT4E producer – not seldom resulting in awards and prizes – these schools would then return to their old ways of teaching.

As has also been suggested by a study carried out in Sichuan Province, this division into active producers and passive consumers of ICT4E can create new inequalities: whereas prestigious schools use ICT4E to add even more feathers to their caps, disadvantaged schools are expected to reproduce the lessons from elsewhere. To replace, or complement, low-skilled teachers with ICT4E may look like a smart shortcut; but it runs the risk that, firstly, less emphasis will be placed on training highly qualified teachers for all schools; and secondly, that teaching will lose local relevance and thereby its connection to students’ lives – which is likely to impact learning negatively. ICT4E should not simply be reduced to “scripted lessons,” which have been criticized for creating “zombie teachers” who teach irrespective of teacher-student dynamics, class and student context, and the wider community in which the school is situated.

The risk is that the use of ICT4E in China amplifies a more controversial feature of the Chinese education system. In many cases, the technologies have been employed to incentivize cramming (instilling content) rather than active learning. What is lacking in the Chinese education sector – also according to Chinese experts – are bottom-up strategies for learning: students need to be able to formulate their own questions, learn about various ways to seek relevant information, and come up with their own ideas and solutions. ICT4E can assist in these processes, e.g. by facilitating communication or knowledge seeking and sharing. However, the use of technology cannot transform established educational practices overnight. As long as high-stakes examinations reward rote learning, inquiry-based learning will be subordinated to the goal of achieving high test scores.

To read more about the Chinese ICT4E initiatives and their outcomes, and other public services overhauled by the Xi Jinping administration, see the freely downloadable MERICS paper on China Serve the People: Innovation and IT in China’s Social Development Agenda.

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Digital China: Visions, Puzzles and Challenges

Welcome to a joint event organized with the Foreign Policy Association in Lund on 26 September at 19.00.

By the end of 2017, the number of China Internet users totaled 772 million, with a penetration rate of 55.8%. The Chinese government has embarked on a comprehensive strategy of applying information and communication technologies (ICT) and big data solutions in different realms, including governance and commerce. China has also become a leader in developing artificial intelligence (AI) and different surveillance technologies (for example facial recognition technologies). How should we understand the Chinese puzzle, where rapid informatisation, digitisation, and innovation in ICTs are the result of both heavy state investment and rapid market developments that co-exist with censorship and a lack of freedom of expression? What are the implications for the rest of the world and global Internet governance? What are the views on the ground and how do Chinese people actually use ICTs? This panel debate brings together scholars from different fields for a discussion on the visions, practices, and dynamics of digital China.

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Conference participation at the 16th China Internet Research Conference in Leiden

At the upcoming 16th China Internet Research Conference to be held in Leiden 22-23 May I will be presenting a paper on a Chinese photo app. I have been using the app myself and you can see how it looks like here (my page which shows I have posted 27 photos and have 910 followers) and read the abstract below.

Photo Sharing on Kuaipai kuaipai: Visions, affordances, individual uses and community building


Photography is today a big passion among increasing groups of Chinese people who are motivated by artistic aspirations and/or use photography for self-expression and communication. New digital technologies, including the development of smartphones and different social media sites, have enabled new forms of photographic practices and visual communication. People use a range of different social media platforms, such as weibo and WeChat, as well as different photo apps such as Tuchong and Kuaipai kuaipai to post and share images. Each of these platforms come with their own affordances, visions, and expected audiences that influence how people select, post and share images.

In this paper I focus on the photo app Kuaipai kuaipai that was set up by the newspaper Dushi kuaibao in Hangzhou, a fact that has shaped its vision, content and relationship to users. Apart from using the app myself, including serving as a curator/editor, and interviewing two people behind it, I have also to date interviewed 12 users, including seven in face-to-face interviews and five over WeChat. My sampling was purposive and exemplary and included different users in terms of age, gender, types of photos posted, and professional backgrounds, including a few making a living out of photography. My interviews aimed to understand people’s views on photography, photographic practices and changes over time, different patterns of posting and sharing photos on the app and across other social media platforms, forms of interaction and sense of community on/through the app, as well as their engagement in different offline activities organised by the newspaper/app.

My study is informed by works on digital photography and mobile phone camera that underline both continuities and changes from the analogue age with respect to how photography is related to memory, communication and self-expression. The main findings of the study is that the app was built upon a vision of photography as a way of life where people are encouraged to both document and share everyday life and rapid changes in society. The app also strive to create a sense of community through involving users as editors/curators and by organising different online and offline activities. This vision and possibilities for active involvement was attractive to many of the users at the same time that they also appreciated the acceptance of different types of photography and aesthetics. The app is an example of how digital technologies can help create new (visual) practices and a sense of community, and for several of the interviewees the app also encouraged and helped them develop and find a unique voice as photographers. In addition it increased interactions between professional photographers and ordinary citizens who incorporate photography into their daily, networked lives. Chinese people today increasingly communicate through and with photography and other visual forms, and for some this medium might be more powerful and empowering than writing.


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Internet Governance and Human Rights Conference

On 24th April I gave a presentation on “Human Rights and the Internet in China: New Frontiers and Challenges” at the Internet Governance and Human Rights Conference. The conference was arranged by the student group On the Margins from the Department of Social Work at Gothenburg University.


The Internet has arguably become the most crucial infrastructure in contemporary society, yet its governance remains somewhat obscure. Governments, companies, engineers, activists and researchers come together to develop principles, norms, rules, procedures, and programmes that shape the evolution and operation of the Internet. What does this Internet governance mean for human rights, for example, in relation to privacy, online freedoms and various accessibility-related issues? This conference brings leading scholars and practitioners to the University of Gothenburg to share their knowledge and debate the issues.

JAN SCHOLTE, University of Gothenburg
“What is Internet Governance?”

NICOLA LUCCHI, University of Jönköping
“Reshaping the boundary of freedom of expression in the Digital Age: Internet and Media Pluralism”

MARINA SVENSSON, University of Lund
“Human Rights and the Internet in China: New Frontiers and Challenges”

NIELS TEN OEVER, University of Amsterdam
“Internet architecture, governance and values in times of ossification and commercialization”

“Addressing human rights: the opportunity and responsibility of civil societies participation in Internet Governance”

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Open lecture in Uppsala

I will give a lecture at the Foreign Policy Association at Uppsala University on 19th April about Chinese digital society and its challenges. The lecture will be in Swedish and is entitled Kina uppkopplat och nedkopplat: Det digitala samhället i en auktoritär stat.

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Congested curricula and incompatible goals: the curious absence of ICT from school-based learning in China

I presented this paper at the 46th congress of NERA (Nordic Educational Research Association), March 8-10, 2018.

Worldwide, information and communication technologies (ICT), particularly in the sense of digital literacy, are increasingly considered as both inevitable and indispensable parts of the school curriculum. Also, international student assessment studies like PISA have on several occasions assessed computer and information literacy. Additionally, classrooms, teaching and learning, as well as school administration and school-family interaction have become more and more web-based.

China is no exception to this global trend. In parallel to its massive investment in digital infrastructure and technology, it has launched large-scale plans to digitalize education and schooling. The declared goals are not only to make teaching and learning more efficient and interactive, but also to bridge rural-urban divides in educational access and quality, thus reflecting challenges that can be found both in developed and developing contexts.

The aim of the paper is to investigate how these ICT initiatives operate on the ground, and examine (1) to which extent, and which ways, digitalization has affected the school, teacher-student-family interaction, and student learning; and (2) if these ICT initiatives have, as proclaimed, made learning more efficient/interactive and education more accessible and equitable.

The paper draws on both document analysis (government plans for ICT in education, curriculum documents etc.) and data collected during fieldwork at Chinese schools. These data include (1) interviews with teachers and school principals; (2) class observations; (3) interviews with educational experts; and (4) lay observations made by Swedish students on an exchange visit in China.

The analysis draws on the concept of ‘translation’ as utilized within Scandinavian neo-institutionalism: globally travelling ideas and programs are not only literally translated into the local context’s words, but also into this context’s institutions and action frames (e.g. Czarniawska and Sevón, 2005); as well as on the concept of ‘micropolitical literacy’ (e.g. Kelchtermans, 2002), which takes into consideration teachers’ political and emotional learning processes when implementing the curriculum.

In the course of transferring and implementing ICT into Chinese schools, the proclaimed aims of efficiency, interactivity and equity do not only become watered down, or at times completely lost; but due to structural constraints and system-inherent logics, these aims are frequently found to have been transformed into their exact opposites: regarding learning processes, into more teacher-directed learning and less interactivity, accompanied by teacher perceptions of ICT as distracting from, rather than facilitating, learning; and regarding educational equity, into an even greater divide between the digitally able, active, wealthy schools in urban centres, and the passive and poor schools in the countryside, whose role it is largely to ‘receive’ the digital content provided to them by their wealthier, better-quality peers.

Even though the empirical data pertain to the Chinese context, questions of curriculum implementation in diverse social, cultural, and political contexts are of more general interest, and findings can also provide theoretical insight. More concretely, the lay observations made by Swedish students, and analysed for this paper, contribute new methodological insights concerning lay theories/lay comparisons.

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Nature in Chinese digital games for children

At the second conference of the European Association of Art History in Zürich, 24-27 August 2017, I presented some findings from my ongoing research about how the natural environment is depicted in games and apps for children. The presentation focused on the visual analysis of fourteen apps available for free (and one for 10 SEK) for children in the age range 6-8 categorized under ‘protecting the environment’ and ‘protecting forests’. I studied those apps partly based on research of children’s books. Children’s books, created by adults, are the site of a power struggle; pictures in them are designed within the framework of a certain ideology. Perry Nodelman, a researcher of picture books, finds that “picture books are a significant means by which we integrate young children into the ideology of our culture” (1999, 73). He explains that ideologies are not necessarily undesirable, as we need this system of beliefs to make sense of the world, social life, the environment etc. Similarly, computer games, be they within the category of ‘educative games’ or pure ‘entertainment’ for children, are also made by adults and exist within a certain ideology of what ought to be. The research question was what kind of nature do the images portray?

Children must learn to decode images. Picture books, when available, are good tools to do so. Although China becomes the guest of honor of the biggest children’s book event, the Bologna Children’s Book Fair in 2018, and although Chinese artists have won prices for their texts and images for children’s books, picture books in Chinese children’s rooms (if they have them), kindergarten or schools are rare and not many parents can afford them, and neither can kindergarten or schools in the countryside. Therefore, I suggest that children are more likely to see images on the computer or the mobile devices and apps than in books.

Due to the effects of climate change and the rapid decline of natural environments worldwide we see a greater emphasis on environmental education from kindergarten and elementary schools onward. Also in China environmental education, how to do one’s own personal effort against environmental degradation is part of the curriculum (see this post). On behalf of the environment and against wastefulness of resources, urban children learn that it is better to walk to school instead of being driven by car, to take the stairs instead of the elevator or escalator, to turn off lights, to save water, and turn down the air condition etc.

Research has found that children’s knowledge and image about their environment depends on their geographical and cultural background and also on social background and their conscious exposure to nature. Furthermore, depending on their cultural and educational background, people place themselves in different positions when they are asked to draw landscapes, which means that their perception of landscapes differs, as well as their ideas about their own place in nature. Nature pictures in schoolbooks for sciences, moreover, have been pointed out to play an important role in the formation of an understanding of human’s role and interdependency of nature. Finally, depending on their age, children have different insights into their natural environment. Also education at school has a great influence – negative or positive about how children perceive nature, where and under which circumstances they grow up they gain different awareness of their interdependency with nature (for example urban children and rural children who work in agriculture).

The pictures in the apps I analyzed show an urban environment with cute animals that need to be assisted in their environmental protective acts. Nature is related to food (mostly sweets), it has to be transformed (for example by cutting a tree to make it look like the head of a panda). Most important and recurrent in other games is water management like watering beautiful flowers, turning off a dripping tap, collecting rainwater. But also sorting trash is a significant theme. In those games nature is background only; it is seen as trees and open grass fields and in weather events (cozy snow). No animals apart from the anthropomorphized actors are seen (and no humans). Children in those games are trained in ‘environmental saving’ activities that they are introduced at school. Sorting trash, for example, is now a great concern in Chinese cities where it has been introduced a few years ago but with still little result. Thus, the games, ‘citi-fied’ (often suburban) as they are, fit into the environment of the children that play them.

Perry Nodelman, 1999, Decoding the Images: Illustration and Picture Books. In Peter Hunt (ed.) Understanding children’s literature: key essays from the International Companion Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature. London: Routledge, 69-80.

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Fairy tale transformations in the Chinese internet and the representation of women and girls

Ever since childhood I loved fairy tales and I still do so now. But only about a year ago I started searching for Chinese fairy tales online. I don’t know why it took me so long to also start checking out fairy tale and story telling apps, but I finally did it. I presented some ideas and mostly questions around those apps (and a game) at the “Age Agency Ambiguity – gender and generation in times of change” conference in Oslo this year.

The questions revolved around the digital telling of stories: How do fairy-tales and the telling and consuming of fairy tales change in the internet? Does story-telling differ much from reading fairy tale books, shows in the radio, theatre, comic strips, and films or do fairy tale apps (and also digital games) merely broaden or even enhance and combine all other forms of story telling? There is a long standing history of studying fairy tales alongside changing technology, and while fairy tales are very flexible and lend themselves to changes in presentation, they undergo transformations with changing technology. The presentation was based on a feminist approach to fairy tales, resting on a tradition of studying women and girls in mostly Western fairy tales, and the importance and neglect of women collectors and story tellers.

What I wanted to present in Oslo were first the princesses in fairy tales in China. However, most princesses in China are often Disney princesses and I found much more interesting characters: Little Red Riding Hood, The Girl With a Pin in Her Head from story-telling apps, and the most vicious bird in Chinese history in the game Ubume (in the Chinese game Yinyangshi, here’s her cosplay version). The apps I looked at were for children age below 5, and age 6-8. Apps for younger children are often audio-apps. The thumbnails attract a certain age and sex, but otherwise the stories come without pictures. In the reading apps anything is read, from Snow White (among the most popular fairy tales) to Journey to the West, to Frozen, a film that sparked a lot of discussion among researchers in the west, but also among women bloggers in China who found that the film’s value lies in that it promotes living on one’s own strength as a woman and not having to rely on men. Apps for older children included short films.

After providing historical background of feminist theories of and approaches to fairy tales and a brief account of fairy tales in China, I introduced the apps and the game and discussed how the fairy tales are visualized and told and how they changed in their digital forms. As a very preliminary conclusion I found that
1) fairy tales indeed undergo transformations when told in apps, and more interestingly so in games. The stories in apps – only spoken, visualized in films or static pictures like in a book – and the possibilities to switch between diverse stories in apps enables children to gain greater intertextuality abilities at a higher pace. Intertextuality is a necessity that helps to understand mostly visual but also textual clues that children and adults are exposed to in different media (including apps, films, TV shows etc).
2) Chinese stories are put into the category of fairy tales. While there used to be the consent that fairy tales are largely Western which found their way to China only in the beginning of the 20th century, app makers add Chinese tales under the category of ‘fairy tale’. Although under scrutiny, such stories indeed fall into the category of fairy tales, they have hitherto not been clearly categorized and studied as such; app-makers change this.
3) In visual terms, Chinese and Western (Grimm/Andersen) originated tales are told with different images to distinguish their origins (that includes the landscape background, e.g. typical Yangshuo-like mountains for Chinese landscapes; Dutch windmills to denote Western stories and the like).
4) Girls and women are depicted in international slender standards and with either cute large manga-style sprinkling eyes for good characters and certain make-up and sharp-edged clothing (and no sparkling eyes) for evil characters. Ubume, the evil bird character, is represented in a style that fits into modern youth culture of not abhorring ‘evil, but one can admire her vicious beauty and strength.

Much more needs to be explored in story-telling apps. For example, it would be interesting to see whether story app makers are more men or women and how this changes the story-telling and selection. As those 19th century men who wrote down and published the stories that became fairy tales inserted their male-centred world-view into the fairy tales, could contemporary women app-makers take the chance to reclaim the stories or are they bound by capitalist values?

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Conference news: Digital Culture and Society: Chinese and European Developments

On October 19-20, 2017, Stefan Brehm, Barbara Schulte and Marina Svensson attended the conference Digital Culture and Society: Chinese and European Developments held at the Nordic Centre, Fudan University, Shanghai.

Stefan’s presentation was entitled Let’s talk! Are online stakeholder dialogues empowering Chinese citizens?


Chinese citizens articulate demands and voice grievances in social media; they organise resistance, reach out for help, ask for advice, and share information. In this context the academic literature debates Internet use as driver for enhanced political deliberation. The focus has been state-society relations. Grievances, however, are often related to the consequences of corporate misbehavior in particular environmental pollution and worker exploitation. As a result, interaction between citizens and firms is increasing. From this perspective social media may constitute a new driver for economic deliberation. This paper seeks to explore this hypothesis in the context of China. I use Habermas’ theories of communicative action and democratic deliberation to develop a framework for analyzing stakeholder dialogues between corporations and citizens online. I apply this framework to a case study of a multinational enterprises’ online engagement with Chinese citizens in a second tier city between 2004 and 2017. The results suggest that the conversation mode changed from information towards persuasion. Yet there is little evidence that online stakeholder dialogues serve as deliberative means.

Barbara’s presentation was called Education and New Technologies in China: The Politics of Visions and Strategies


In the Western hemisphere, the opposition of surveillance versus privacy appears to be common sense: any technology use with the potential risk of infringing upon personal integrity and privacy is in return expected to lead to substantial improvements in security in order to constitute a legitimate course of action. In China, the main problem of inhibiting the free flow of information is rarely seen in the potential violation of privacy rights but in the disadvantages that could emerge for China’s innovative capacity. These two different approaches towards digital control and surveillance are reflected in a number of fields, including education. Outside China, it is particularly the concept of critical digital literacy that has been focusing on how each individual can be equipped with the necessary tools to critically handle the infringing effects of digital technologies. In China, the relationship between education and technology is deeply intertwined with the nation-state project: new technologies are supposed to support the country’s modernization, which in turn is considered of utmost importance for the economic well-being and sovereignty of the nation. This paper investigates how the interaction between education and new technologies is framed in Chinese society, by focusing on the political visions and strategies that underlie potential uses of communication and information technologies (ICT) for educational and pedagogical purposes. It will be analyzed how official visions as articulated in strategy papers and guidelines portray the interrelationship of education and digital technologies, to then investigate how these items have been utilized by educators.

Marina’s presentation was entitled Mediated Visions: IT Entrepreneurs and Internet Visions in China


In order to understand how visions and narratives about the Internet are articulated, negotiated, and circulated in China, one needs to address and unpack a number of interrelated issues. It is important to map who has the possibility to articulate visions on the Internet in China, who is actually doing it and why, what having a ‘vision’ actually means, and which platforms different individuals and institutions have at their disposal for articulating these visions (including policy documents, news media, academic journals, art etc). Visions can be embedded in technological solutions and products, and also driven and articulated by IT entrepreneurs and companies that create new demands, behaviours and visions. The development of the Internet has to an important degree been driven by IT entrepreneurs, such as Bill Gates of Microsoft, Steve Jobs of Apple, and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, who have been very good in articulating their visions and through their products also shaped ordinary citizens’ visions of the Internet. Chinese IT entrepreneurs such as Jack Ma of Alibaba have also to varying degrees articulated their visions on different platforms. In this paper I focus on a selected number of Chinese IT entrepreneurs and discuss whether and how their visions differ from their Western counterparts, and how they are articulated and speak to Chinese conditions. I also focus on where these visions have been circulated, whether it is in traditional media or on the Internet itself, and how this has shaped how these visions are articulated and circulated.



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New article: Chinese collective memory on the Internet: Remembering the Great Famine in online encyclopaedias

New article by Karl Gustafsson in Memory Studies

Article abstract

Recent research on how the Great Chinese Famine was debated on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, in 2012 suggests that information and communication technologies can challenge official versions of the past and increase pluralism in collective memory narratives in authoritarian states. This article suggests that analysing change in the treatment of the famine in Chinese online encyclopaedias during and following the debate helps us further explore the debate’s impact. Moreover, it allows us to determine the extent to which Chinese online encyclopaedias function as the type of memory place that previous research on Wikipedia in other contexts might lead us to expect. The article concludes that the changes made to the narratives about the Great Famine in Chinese online encyclopaedias following the debate were rather limited and that the Chinese online encyclopaedias have not yet developed into participatory and pluralistic memory places that challenge official narratives.

The fulltext PDF is available for download here:

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