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.


Uncategorized 0

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.


Uncategorized 0

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.

Uncategorized 0

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.”

Uncategorized 0

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.


Uncategorized Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 0

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.

Uncategorized Tagged , | 0

What is possible, what is imaginable? Stories about low carbon life in China

From 2014-2015 I was member of a research project of Lund University’s Pufendorf Institute ‘Sustainable Welfare’. We concluded the project with the volume Sustainability and the Political Economy of Welfare edited by Max Koch and Oksana Mont and recently published by Routledge. In one of the chapters that I was co-authoring (“What is possible, what is imaginable? Stories about low carbon life in China” by Erin Kennedy and Annika Pissin) I used Chinese children’s blogs to find out what children learned at school and at home about carbon emission and what they could contribute to lessen it. We juxtaposed those blog entries with statements from World Café discussions with university students organized by Erin Kennedy in Shanghai. Through these sources, we explored the current discourse among youth on environmental issues such as climate change and carbon emissions and point out that understanding how today’s youth envision their future can be helpful when developing more innovative and adaptive methods for achieving China’s reduced carbon emissions goals by 2030. In terms of research concerning ICT, this chapter was interesting because of the combination of interviews/ World Café discussions with written sources by children in the internet. We thus found correlations between what the young students believed can be done with regard to CO2 emissions and smog in cities and what elementary school children wrote about it; the children’s blogs were also good material to juxtapose with statements about similar topics from children in other parts of the world.

Uncategorized Tagged , , , | 0

Conference paper at CIRC: Heritage and social media in China

I just attended the 14th Chinese Internet Research Conference (CIRC), which also was a post-conference to the 2016 International Communication Association (ICA). This year the conference was held at Fudan University, Shanghai. The conference offered an opportunity to get an overview of current research, new hot topics, and both theoretical and methodological discussions. I presented a paper that combined my interest in cultural heritage and new media.


Mediatization and cultural heritage: Plural voices and new platform

Recent work on heritage and social media has highlighted how social media offer new possibilities for citizens to share memories, identities, local culture and heritage, and thus constitute a more participatory and democratic platform (Giaccardi 2012). Social media encourage and enable new forms of engagement and interpretations of the heritage through user-generated content, personal reflections, interactions with others, and sharing of visual materials. As a result the experience of heritage has become more personal, performative and visual in character. New digital technologies are also used by heritage institutions such as museums to involve local communities in the co-production of heritage (for example through the use of Facebook, Instagram). The visual nature of social media engagement needs to be emphasised as the act of taking and sharing photos is quite central (Freeman 2010). Another important feature is the mobile nature of social media that enables real-time heritage engagements through smartphones, QR tagging, and apps, which reinforces the lived and performative aspects of heritage. Social media can support both the formation of new publics or communities by enabling strangers to share memories and experiences with places, historical events, and cultural practices, as well as enable existing communities to strengthen their ties and help them remember and experience their own heritage in new ways.

This paper discusses how different actors in China today use a wide range of digital technologies to mediate, visualise and celebrate local traditions and heritage. The mediatization of the cultural heritage increasingly takes place through film on digital video sharing sites and on social media platforms such as WeChat. These digital technologies enable Chinese citizens and local communities to bypass traditional heritage institutions as they now themselves are able to celebrate and document local history and cultural practices. This may also include heritage that official institutions have overlooked or do not acknowledge as heritage. New online communities have emerged around new topics of interests, specific cultural practices and architecture, or centre around place-based identities. This paper focuses on different groups such as local communities, heritage enthusiasts, informal networks and formal organizations, but also addresses the use of social media by official heritage institutions. Many informal networks, organizations, and official bodies have recently set up special WeChat groups that provide information and document local history. For individuals and local groups social media practices are however embedded in offline heritage practices, including travel and participation in different cultural events, and the paper also addresses these online/offline connection and embeddness. The paper is based on long-term ethnographic work, both online and offline, participation in different heritage activities as well as interviews with members of different heritage WeChat groups and other actors.

Uncategorized 0

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.



Uncategorized 0