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Digital China Project Descriptions

Data Capitalism – Do Digital Footprints Change Power Relations in China? (Stefan Brehm)

China's Digital Memory-scape (Karl Gustafsson)

Policy innovation and e-government in China (Christian Göbel)

Children´s use of ICT in China (Annika Pissin)

ICT and education in China (Barbara Schulte)

Managing use of new technologies in changing institutional and network contexts: The case of ICT firms in China (Tommy Shih)

Voice and Power in Digital Spaces of Communication in China (Marina Svensson)

Stefan Brehm: Data Capitalism – Do Digital Footprints Change Power Relations in China?

Digital devices are permeating the lives of a rising number of the world’s population in more and more profound ways. Our digital footprints constitute a high-value commodity in a rapidly expanding market. Data creators, collectors, traders, regulators, consumers, governments, bureaucracies, activist, and thieves, shape and challenge the terms and conditions for data accumulation and use and thereby contribute to shifting power-relations.

The purpose of this research project is to analyse how data capitalism is altering state-society relations in China. How is data accumulation and data use negotiated and regulated? How do technologies and advances in big data analysis change the relationship between rulers and ruled? The core assumption of this study is that access to and use of data represent emerging means for consolidating and challenging power next to financial capital and personal ties.

Much of the theoretical foundations in this research project are inspired by the field of Science and Technology Studies and in particular the idea of the co-production of technology and society through interaction between actors and artefacts. Since data capitalism does not only impact existing relationships but also propels the emergence of new actors I deploy a systemic approach. The points of departure are three abstract systems; the national system of employment relations, the national system of innovation, and the national system of Internet governance. During the course of this project I aim to localize and conceptualise digital capitalism within these systems and consecutively disaggregate their role and meaning at the regional level as well as exemplify them in case studies.


Karl Gustafsson: China's Digital Memory-scape

Karl’s project builds on his previous research on collective memory. He has previously conducted in-depth analysis of how war history is remembered in Chinese and Japanese peace and war museums. The current project moves beyond the realm of traditional museums in order to explore the dynamics of China’s cyber memory-scape.

It is often stated that memory is closely connected to forgetting. Memory, it might be argued, is constantly threatened by oblivion. This makes it necessary to take precautions by recording memories in order not to forget them. Various technologies of memory make it possible to record memories and increase our capacity to remember. Within collective memory studies traditional technologies of memory such as physical museums and archives are often the focus of research. However, the very concept technologies of memory points to other possibilities—virtual possibilities.

Traditional technologies of memory such as physical museums are costly and therefore difficult to establish for non-state actors. This is especially true in China where the government decided that patriotic and other education sites, to which many modern history museums belong, were to become free of charge for all in 2009. This makes it difficult for private history museums to operate. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), then, largely controls China’s physical memory-scape. By making patriotic education bases part of the comprehensive patriotic education campaign launched in the 1990s and the Red Tourism campaign launched in 2004 the CCP has made sure it has a firm grip on interpretations of China’s turbulent modern history presented in museums and memorial halls around China. However, while the CCP has largely been able to control these traditional (and essentially modern), expensive technologies of memory the Internet is a potentially more challenging arena to control, which offers private citizens and civil society greater possibilities to present competing narratives and interpretations. The Internet has made non-traditional technologies of memory in the form of virtual museums and archives possible. Establishing virtual museums is not only less costly than constructing a physical museum, they are also more easily accessible. At the same time, technologies for monitoring the Internet have become increasingly sophisticated.

Research on the politics of memory in China (and elsewhere) has so far paid little attention to the virtual memory-scape and focused mainly on traditional technologies of memory. The project has the potential to contribute valuable insights into the potential effects of non-traditional technologies of memory for collective remembering (and forgetting). The following questions are central to the research project: How is China’s 20th century history depicted in virtual museums? To what extent do online narratives of China’s modern history challenge the official line? To what extent are events not treated in the physical memory-scape dealt with? Are events that are dealt with in the physical, government-controlled memory-scape depicted differently and interpreted in potentially subversive ways? Does the introduction of non-traditional technologies of memory alter the ways that societies remember?


Christian Göbel: Policy innovation and e-government in China

ICT are often regarded as “liberation technologies” (Larry Diamond), because mobile phones and the Internet enable citizens to organise and coordinate resistance against autocratic rule. However, all political systems – democracies and autocracies alike – depend fundamentally on information feedbacks to maintain their equilibrium, and digital technologies greatly facilitate the gathering and processing of such information. Hence, improved information flows can both strengthen and undermine autocratic rule, and the puzzle is how autocratic regime elites deal with this dilemma.

To shed some light on this issue, I visit a number of local governments in China to examine when, how and why they have decided to use of ICT, how they use ICT to gather information about the preferences and grievances of the local population, how this information is processed, and how – or if – it motivates government action. Ultimately, the question is how these actors adapt to the opportunities and risks that ICT offer, how they use ICT to handle the growing complexities in China’s politics, economics and society, and how all this influences regime stability.

This research adds to our understanding of how governance in today’s China develops, and how ICT facilitate innovations in local governance.


Annika Pissin: Children´s use of ICT in China

Adults from rural areas who migrate for labour to other areas in China or abroad and who are away for more than six months often are parents of children. They either take their children with them (rendering them into “migrant children”) or leave them in the care of other family members in their home village, rendering their offspring into “left behind children”. The latter group of children is in contact with their parents by mobile phone. In other cultural contexts such as the Philippines, Mexico and Ecuador this kind of contact is called “sms parenting” among other denominations, and this kind of contact is studied within the framework of change in family relations. Telephone relations with biological parents are interpreted as to be of great emotional importance by researchers and social workers. Furthermore, rural “left behind” children apparently express their experience and opinion about their status in letters that are disseminated throughout the Internet. However, it is not yet clear what kind of impact mobile phones and other ICT have on the daily lives of children from the children´s point of view. This project investigates rural children´s interaction with ICT, and attempts to discover children´s understanding of ICT, their hopes that are entangled with ICT as desired material objects and the emotional weight ICT is loaded with in relation to communication with absent parents. It does so by analysing Internet- information spread in the name of “left behind” children and by participant observation and interviews during several fieldwork periods in China.


Barbara Schulte: ICT and education in China

In this subproject I will investigate how Chinese citizens (e.g. children and youth, adults, teachers, cadres) are socialized into the information and digital age, and how schools and other educational platforms serve as means of the state's embrace of the digital society. Education has always been an instrument of both nation-building and 'thought work' (ideological education and propaganda), in China and elsewhere. Against the backdrop of the Chinese Ministry of Education's Ten Year Development Plan (2011-2020) for the informatization of education, I am interested in how the use of ICT in education is envisioned (e.g. in official guidelines, pamphlets, academic articles etc.); and how the use of ICT is actually put into practice by students and educators (e.g. in the classroom, campus blogs etc.).
'Students' are, very broadly, understood as those objects who are meant (and taught) to make use of ICT in a pre-defined way, whereas 'educators' (or 'multipliers') are given certain leeway to control and frame uses of ICT. While with regard to the former ('students'), ICT are believed to provide more immediate access to individuals and effectively exploit their potentials, the latter ('educators') are to be streamlined and synchronized through ICT in their efforts to implement 'thought work' and mediate nation-wide narratives. At the same time, this optimistic take on ICT is often accompanied by worries about the unforeseeable dangers of ICT (such as loss of control, undesired political or social activism, pornography etc.).
The subproject seeks to find out whether (and how) these new uses of ICT open up new spaces of empowerment (and perhaps resistance) among different actors in the educational arena, or whether (and how) these uses lead to a more refined (and perhaps more subtle) control and greater ideological leverage.


Tommy Shih: Managing use of new technologies in changing institutional and network contexts: The case of ICT firms in China

Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) have become an indispensable part of the life of people throughout the globe. China is no exception and today there are more internet and mobile phone subscribers in China than in any other country in the world. ICTs are however far from offering a ubiquitous solution to manage continued economic prosperity, social integration and environmental sustainability in China. While ICTs on the one hand allow for more efficient communication and knowledge transfer, such technologies are on the other hand viewed by the ruling regime as a danger to the stability of the nation state. As such, there is strict state control and censorship of the space through which information is spread and disseminated. The conflict between freedom and control naturally also transcends into the commercial space where ICTs are developed and used.

The Chinese ICT sector is a battlefield of various institutional logics represented by a number of different business and non-business actors. The Chinese business landscape traditionally characterizes as heavily guided by government regulations, hence many domestic industries are dominated by state owned enterprises. But the increased focus on indigenous innovation and the integration of China into global markets have also created opportunities for actors outside of the state sphere to assume leadership on domestic markets. These developments have led to a business landscape in flux, where a number of different norms and business practices shape new business structures. This project aims to explore the interplay between institutional structures and firms in the Chinese ICT sector.


Marina Svensson: Voice and Power in Digital Spaces of Communication in China

New information and communication technologies (ICTs) are radically changing the way we communicate, seek information, document and reflect upon our daily lives, engage in politics, and how we work. China is no exception to this worldwide trend. Chinese citizens are using smart phones and personal computers to text, blog, film and edit, download and upload texts, images and film, search for information, and communicate with each other, different organizations, and governments bodies. New ICTs are thus affecting their private, professional, and public lives. The use of smart phones and personal computers also enables them to be connected at any time and wherever they are, and thus helps create digital spaces that transcend physical space and time. Furthermore, ICTs also encourage, and demand, higher levels of interactivity and real time connectivity, at the same time as they open up for communication and networking beyond the immediate community. The emergence of the interactive and participatory Web 2.0 has often been hailed as a democratic and transformative digital revolution. However, there exist obvious socio-economic, political, and technological constraints and inequalities, particularly in China.

Since global Social Networking Sites (SNS), such as Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube, are all blocked in China, Chinese IT companies have developed their own products and today operate on a market that is highly competitive but subject to censorship and state control. Chinese citizens have enthusiastically adopted a range of new SNS, including Twitter-like services such as Sina weibo, Facebook-like products such as Renren and Kaixin, and video sharing sites such as Youku and Tudou, and incorporated them into their social and professional lives. Sina weibo, one of the most popular microblogging sites, in late 2012 reported more than 400 million registered users.

This sub-project studies the ideology and formation of Chinese SNS, how different types of SNS are used by different groups of people and institutions, whether and how SNS are reshaping Chinese citizens’ abilities to make their voices heard and protect their rights, and the negotiations and new power relations that they give rise to. It pays particular attention to the contingent and negotiated use of SNS and ICTs among different groups of individuals and professionals, including migrant workers, activists, lawyers, NGOs, and journalists, and their interactions with each other in the digital society, as well as the Chinese state’s own use of new digital technologies for governance and surveillance.

It also addresses the development and contested spaces for image-making, including digital photography and digital filming technologies, and the use of smartphones, digital video, digital editing, and the possibilities to screen DVDs in small venues and also upload images and film on video sharing sites for wider circulation. Today, thanks to more accessible digital technologies, a diverse group of individuals, ranging from artists, activists, and documentary filmmakers, to ordinary citizens, are able to document their own lives and struggles in the form of digital storytelling, documentary film, and video activism, and circulate these alternative and marginalised stories both off-line and on-line. The official media (including print media) is also increasingly adopting multi-media technologies, including video, while different government organisations are disseminating films on-line as well as using digital recording technologies for surveillance purposes. There thus exist competing and divergent digital narratives and divided communities on China’s digital spaces.