Further notes from China and the New Internet World conferences in Oxford 14-15 June, 2013

As Barbara Schulte earlier wrote on this blog, several of us from the Digital China group attended the China and the New Internet World conferences in Oxford last week. It was a good opportunity to meet many of the scholars working in the field, listen to current debates, and be updated on recent research. Scholars from different disciplines discussed a wide range of topics making use of different theories, concepts and methods. A number of things caught my attention.

China Internet research: Disciplinary perspectives and some missing actors

I unfortunately missed the presentations by Bu Wei, Jack Qiu and David Kurt Leopold on the development of studies on the Chinese Internet, but look forward to read their findings when their articles are published. However, based on the programme and my participation at other panels it seems that the majority of the scholars presenting came from the field of media and communication studies, although there were some representatives from other fields such as law, political science and sociology. There were, to the best of my knowledge, no scholars from the field of international relations or economics. This might reflect the field of Chinese Internet studies, and the fact that one of the events were organised in the form of a pre-conference to the International Communication Association.

However, the Chinese Internet has very strong and clear geopolitical and economic dimensions and impacts. The geopolitical dimension of Internet governance is obvious from this spring’s unfolding disclosures and heated debates about Chinese cyber-hacking and American monitoring of the Internet and telephone communications. With Chinese ICT companies being some of the world’s most dynamic and successful, and given the fact that they play a crucial role in censorship and control, more research into the business model and workings of Sina, Tencent, Huawei, Baidu and others seems called for. The interplay between communication, law, economics and politics also make interdisciplinary studies particularly crucial in order to grasp the complexities and dynamics of the Chinese digital society.

Weibo research: A growing and maturing research field

Many panels and papers dealt with different aspects of weibo and its impact on Chinese society. I myself also presented a paper discussing who has a voice on weibo, and whether and how old inequalities are re-created on-line or whether and to what extent we hear new voices on weibo and their impact on public debates. The growth and importance of weibo as a platform for news information, networking and mass events has encouraged researchers to study its implications for public debates, social mobilization, and changing state-society relations. Some scholars have provided more general overviews of different aspects of weibo use and their changing speech patterns (Fu et al 2013a; Sullivan 2013; Svensson 2012a), while others have made some first attempts to make comparisons between Twitter and weibo (Sullivan 2012; Svensson 2012a). A very good paper by Gillian Bolosver from the Oxford Internet Institute investigated how dissemination patterns of news on weibo differ from Twitter.

There has been a particular strong focus among researchers to document and explain censorship patterns on weibo (Bamman et al 2012; Fu et al 2013b; King et al 2013; Tao et al 2013, and organisations such as China Digital Times and Hong Kong University’s WeiboScope). Several papers at the conference also dealt with this topic, including the issue of real name registration on Sina weibo. Another line of research has been to evaluate weibo’s potential for protests, and social and legal mobilisation (Hu 2012; Teng 2012; Tong and Lei 2013; Wu 2012). Many researchers focus on specific cases of mass events on weibo such as the Wenzhou rapid train crash (Tong and Lei 2013; Wu 2012). Given the rise of governement weibo accounts another trend in weibo research is to study weibo as a tool of governance or social management and as part of the state’s adoption of new communication tools in general, and whether it might strengthen the state’s legitimacy and control (Noesselt 2013; Ma 2013). A paper at the conference by Jesper Schlæger and Min Jiang also addressed this topic.

Some scholars have addressed the role and importance of weibo for journalists and media developments (Zhang 2012; Svensson 2012b), and at the conference some scholars also addressed the media’s use of weibo, including Gillian Bolsover mentioned above, and Zhan Zhang who addressed foreign media’s use of weibo in China.

Missing in much of the debates and research on weibo hitherto has been the issue of how digital divides and socio-economic inequalities are played out or reinforced on weibo, the extent to which marginalised groups, such as women, ethnic minorities, and migrant workers, have a voice on weibo and can influence public debates, and, in other words, which topics and issues are privileged or missing on weibo and why. The issue of adoption and diffusion of weibo use among different groups of users is also an important issue that remain under-researched. At the conference, apart from my paper, several other scholars however also addressed some of these issues, including Cara Wallis who discussed women and their weibo and wechat use, and Wei Wang who focused on one particular labour organisation in Shenzhen and its use of weibo.

I was particularly intrigued by papers that made use of social network analysis and other tools to document and analyse communication patterns and re-tweeting dynamics on weibo. But as one of the scholars, Gillian Bolsover, reminded us, this quantative approach would benefit from a closer study and interviews that would eluminate the actual nature and position of the users and their re-tweeting/following habits. She also warned that one should be aware that some of the re-tweets might come from robot&zombie users.

Privacy and security on the Internet: An important research field

There were several interesting papers that dealt with privacy and Internet regulations, and addressed the complex and contested multiple relationships between the state, companies, civil society, and individual users. There are deeply contested political, legal and economic debates on how to understand and balance privacy and security in the Chinese society as well as in other societies. We have in our blogs not yet touched upon the NSA affair and its implications for this debate, and for China-US relations and global Internet governance issues, but we will have reason to come back to this topic in the future. Chinese officials reactions have been hesitant and cautious so far and it will be interesting and important to follow this issue.

Recent research on weibo:

Bamman, D., B. O’Connor, and N. Smith (2012), “Censorship and Deletion Practices in Chinese Social Media.” First Monday 17: 3–5.

Chan, Michael, Xuan Wu, Yinqi Hao, Rui Xi, and Tian Jin (2012), “Microblogging, Online Expression, and Political Efficacy among Young Chinese Citizens: The Moderating Role of Information and Entertainment Needs in the Use of Weibo,” CyberPsychology, Behavior & Social Networking, Vol. 15, Issue 7, pp. 345-349.

China Digital Times, “Sensitive Sina Weibo Search Terms,” accessed at https://docs.google.com/a/chinadigitaltimes.net/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0Aqe87wrWj9w_dFpJWjZoM19BNkFfV2JrWS1pMEtYcEE#gid=0

Fu, King-wa and Michael Chau (2013a), “Reality Check for the Chinese Microblog Space: A Random Sampling Approach,” PLoS ONE, 8(3), March 2013, pp. 1-7.

Fu, King-wa, Chung-hong Chan, and Michael Chau (2013b), “Assessing Censorship on Microblogs in China: Discriminatory Keyword Analysis and the Real-Name Registration Policy,” Internet Computing IEEE, Vol. 17:3, pp. 42-50.

Hong Kong University, WeiboScope Search, accessed at http://research.jmsc.hku.hk/social/search.py/sinaweibo/

Hu, Yong (2012), “Spreading the News,” Index on Censorship, 41(4), pp. 107-111.

King, Gary, Jennifer Pan, Margaret E. Roberts (2013), “How Censorship in China Allows Government Criticism but Silences Collective Expression,” American Political Science Review, May 2013, pp.1-18

Ma, Liang (2013), “Diffusion of Government Microblogging,” Public Management Review, Vol. 15: 2, pp. 288-309.

Noesselt, Nele (2013), “Microblogs in China: Bringing the State Back In,” GIGA Working Papers, No. 214.

Sullivan, Jonathan (2012), “A tale of two microblogs in China,” Media Culture and Society, 34:6, pp. 773-783.

Sullivan, Jonathan (2013), “China’s Weibo: Is faster different?” New Media and Society,

Svensson, Marina (2012), “Samhällsdebatt, aktivism och välgörenhet på mikrobloggar (weibo) i Kina” Kinarapport nr 4, 2012, sid 31-41.

Svensson, Marina (2012), “Media and civil society in China: Community building and networking among investigative journalists and beyond,” China Perspectives No 3, 2012, pp 19-28.

Tao, Zhu, David Phipps, Adam Pridgen, Jedidiah R. Crandall, Dan S. Wallach (2013), “The Velocity of Censorship: High-Fidelity Detection of Microblog Post Deletions,” accessed at arXiv.org

Teng, Biao (2012), “Rights defence (weiquan), microblogs (weibo), and the surrounding gaze (weiguan),” China Perspectives, No. 3 2012, pp. 29-41.

Tong, Yanqi, and Shaohua Lei (2013), “War of Position and Microblogging in China,” Journal of Contemporary China, Vol. 22:80, pp. 292-311.


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