China Social Media Talk: What’s Next?

17:57 (UTC±00:00), 05 NOV 2014 | GBR HARROW, GREATER LONDON

DF Westminster CMC 2014 11 06 Talk 800

It never mattered that the talk ran just a tiny bit overtime: the audience, made up of nearly everyone, including key scholars and ordinary students, were very much interested in the Chinese social media world. Today’s talk I gave, however, answered some existing issues whilst leaving lot of new ideas and insights to be discovered and discussed upon, ending with a very open-ended question: What’s next?

For many, the Chinese Internet resembled an at times chaotic mix of contradictions, misconceptions, difficult-to-understand political terminology, and much more. Academics taking part in the China Media Centre’s first seminar this new term noted that in terms of social media in the country, much of China’s developments were in fact quite much in tandem with “the rest of the world”, yet a confusing-and-exasperating Great Firewall remained. It was quite obvious that politics and porn was to be avoided to prevent sites from being blocked in China, yet lesser known were restrictions for sites hosted inside China and the “invisible censorship” — self-censorship — as well as their effects and roles played. Twitter and Facebook were “safely” gone behind the wall inside of China, yet even with sites like LinkedIn, which remains one of the “international” social media sites inside China, there was still a question of how it might remain inside the country, if self-censorship was a viable way to continue operations, or if the Chinese used sites in very different ways than the rest of the world — if a simply “copy to China” wasn’t very much “the magic potion” outside entrepreneurs had hoped for.

The talk sometimes extended beyond the “purely technological” and, as you might have expected for China, went a little political. But it also went cultural. “Mr Sci and Mr Dem”, as science and democracy were first referred to around the founding of Sun Yat-sen’s Republic of China, were mentioned, but also talked about was the fact that the Chinese had in essence not ever elected by direct popular vote a leader at the national level. Differences also existed in what priorities the average Chinese in the street had; but comparisons were also drawn between “indirectness”, complaints to the authorities in both China and the UK, but just how vocal citizens got online on social media, especially in the face of controversial issues.

The approximately 2-hour long talk-and-Q&A session was a mere briefer into the Chinese social media world, as the room was filled with both Western veterans but also Chinese natives who were both familiar with the world of Chinese social media, as well as others who had come in to listen to the talk. The Chinese authorities had to be smart in how they used the three tools I had mentioned to deal with movements and sentiments on the Web — regardless if they chose to tackle, tame, or harness the conversation online. The conversation itself in the talk was little filtered: scholars, individuals, movements and events from all walks of life, were all mentioned. The diversity of views shown and reflected showed that this was an objective attempt to understand Chinese social media, as quotes from Chinese leaders followed those who were the first bloggers in the country, as well as those with at times sharply critical views of censorship in the country. Indeed, as the talk mentioned at the very end: There was no clear answer to the question, What’s Next? — we could only have hoped that we provided fragments becoming part of the elements that make up this question to be answered, day by day, as we move into the future with every passing hour.

Many thanks to everyone who came, for the sharp and challenging questions, for the at times very lively debate, but also to learn and share more knowledge, facts, and views. Many thanks also to Dr Paul Dwyer for chairing this talk, and for the China Media Centre of the University of Westminster for making today’s event possible.