Being an Active Part of the International Conference on China and the Changing Geopolitics of Global Communication in London

01:57 (UTC±00:00 +DST), 10 APR 2016 | GBR HARROW, GREATER LONDON

Call it a perfect transition from London to Beijing as I prepare to head back to China — taking part in an academic conference organised both by the University of Westminster in London, and the Communication University of China in Beijing.

This time, I was both Chair and Speaker in the same event, and also had an opportunity to ask an academic colleague about his presentation which would ring bells all over China’s younger generation born in the 1990s.

Chairing the Cultures of Communication Panel

2016 04 09 Chairing

After a morning with lots of interesting keynotes, including one by the esteemed Professor Daya Thussu, I next chaired the morning panel on Cultures of Communication.

I was very impressed by a talk to start the panel off by Professor Janaina Antunes of Pontificia Universidade Catolica de Sao Paulo in Brazil. Whilst the term glocal was never new to me, especially in recent years, applying this in a more detailed context, and additionally in a BRICS concept, was very much novel.

The next speaker, Ms Wang Xinyuan of University College London, talked about an issue I increasingly paid a lot of attention to, and which touched upon a few topics I myself touched upon last November at the British Academy: the shift from rural to urban China, and Chinese digital media for these new city migrants. It is astounding how the humble smartphone can be quite everything to those who are just starting out in the big cities.

Mr Gao Bowen, of Southern Illinois University – Carbondale, in the United States, was next with his talk on cultural representations on social media. The reality show, Divas Hit the Road, dealt with divas — who were used to be basked in luxury and loads of attention — who were then in very different situations were in when they were on the go. How YouTube content defined Chinese culture via this show was his main content — and interestingly, he also focused on mainland Chinese resident overseas, who actually had direct access to YouTube.

The morning concluded with quite a thought-provoking talk form Dr Zeng Jinhan of Royal Holloway, University of London. We actually knew one other on Twitter, so it was very interesting to tune into a fellow tweeting academic. Some thoughts that really had you thinking were shared amongst how the authorities in China were harnessing big data and how governance came into the picture. The way he presented it also attracted a lot of well-earnt attention.

Speaking at the Internet in a Changing China Panel

2016 04 09 Speaking

Unexpectedly beginning the afternoon as the real first speaker (after the first scheduled panelist, unfortunately, wasn’t able to show up), Professor Anthony Fung of the Chinese University of Hong Kong chaired the afternoon panel with me beginning the talks. My talk, Asserting Internet Sovereignty: Examining Internet Governance on China’s Terms and its Challenges, dived into an issue some wouldn’t really touch with a bargepole — but being Swiss, I presented it as objectively and as neutrally as possible.

I started out by saying that the way content was controlled in China was framed different in Beijing and in the outside world. Whereas the Chinese authorities stressed a (relatively) full legal set, closer to legislation or regulation, the outside world wouldn’t be too hesitant to slap it the C word — “censorship” being that very word.

The current situation that had become either the “Net Nanny” (as Jeremy Goldkorn would say) or the “Great Firewall” (as the rest of the world might say) was not invented overnight. In fact, the first such pieces of the legal apparatus was with us already 20 years back, when a 01 February 1996 Temporary Regulations for the International Network Communications of Computers Networks of the People’s Republic of China was approved by the Chinese State Council. Since then the law has been expanded, strengthened, toughened, slightly changed, fortified with a secondary piece of legal instrument — and then ultimately making its way to national laws on security. If you read into the law carefully, what you have today — with illegal content blocked being the most “visible” element of “the Wall” — was already prescribed by the law-books in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The term Internet sovereignty, then, arguably referred to an extant system only by name: it was not an “all-made-in-late-2014 new invention”. I also skimmed over what elements of content control were visible as opposed to invisible, a topic I had covered in much greater detail at the LSE in February 2015.

The biggest challenge for China would be how it might explain why it could post its own content on services such as Twitter and Facebook, whereas access for those on the mainland would be encumbered. I argued there were many different aspects that had to be considered; this was no easy task at all.

We also had Mr Adam Knight from the University of Oxford talk about the change from China being a mouthpiece society to a microphone society, with user-generated content a key aspect as well as peer-to-peer content controls in Chinese cyberspace. Also, we had a presentation from Professor Mei Hong of Southwest Jiaotong University on Chinese Internet literature. The China Media Centre itself had a seminar which discussed a similar topic — I remember that seminar with Prof Hockx from SOAS that I chaired in late February 2016.

Generation 1990s Language on the Big Screen

2016 04 09 Q + As

Professor Fung chaired the panel very well, and it was quite interested when, in his Against Globalisation: The Subcultural Possibility and the New Cultural Dimension in China talk at the main plenary hall (after the final panel), he described in his talk the rise of Chinese elements of culture — even if it was “based” or “inspired” on those in neighbouring countries, such as Korea or Japan. I was much inspired to ask a question based on a term he had raised in his talk.

Indeed, such terms used in the presentation must have appealed to a generation born in the 1990s — 二次元 (er ci yuan), in essence related to the imagined worldview or perception of the youth, was a term that would almost certainly ring a bell with the generation born in the 1990s. As long at such expressions of culture were visibly apolitical — especially if they showed their “cute” or “unharmful” elements — they’d be out of Zhongnanhai’s radar.

I did make a remark saying that the term was very familiar to those born in China in the 1990s, and that they, as well as those of a similar age group (generally, those born from 1990 to 1999 and around five years before or after both ends of the range), accounted for around 50% of the Chinese online population — and at this, based on late 2015 CNNIC figures, 25% of the entire Chinese mainland population (as just over half of China was online by then). I was informed, though, that even in spite of such numbers, as long as what was being conveyed was apolitical, things would just continue with no interference to speak of.

The conference ended with unique insights by Prof Hugo de Burgh, Director of the China Media Centre, especially on his analysis on the messages Beijing and its leaders had sent to national media bodies in recent months and weeks. Following this, and during the concluding refreshments, a new scholarly journal was announced.

This in essence puts to a close major public academic events I had been involved here at the University of Westminster, although this will not be my “ultimate final” academic event in London for the time being, nor do I hope, forever. Even when I head back to Beijing, I’ll still be happy to hop back to London every once in a while should such a conference wave its hands at me, so to speak!   

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