Publication of China and the New Maoists

Yesterday, my first book, China and the New Maoists was published by UK-based Zed Books.

The book was co-authored with Professor Kerry Brown, Director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College, London. book cover

The book explores Mao Zedong’s enduring symbolic and political importance, and the impact of Maoist ideas in popular online and social media. It also examines the state’s efforts to draw on Mao’s image as a source of legitimacy, even as it attempts to control and sanitise his influence.

Stanford University’s Andrew G. Walder described China and the New Maoists as

… a lucid and absorbing account of the Party’s fumbling attempts, in the authors’ words, to ‘extricate itself from the quagmire of neo-Maoism.’

Julia Lovell, literary translator and lecturer at Birkbeck College, London, called the book

[a]n extraordinarily concise, informative and insightful account of the legacies of Mao Zedong for contemporary China… They have written an essential guide to one of the key political, cultural, social and economic conundrums of China today.

China and the New Maoists is available for purchase online and in bookstores.

China’s Contested Internet by Guobin Yang (ed.)

The title of China’s Contested Internet evokes images of a battle between the Chinese government (or Chinese Communist Party) and the popularly-termed Chinese “netizens”, the 642 million users of the Internet in China. On the contrary, the contributors to China’s Contested Internet demonstrate throughout the book’s 10 chapters that most scholars’ narrow focus on government vs netizen seriously limits the scope and depth of scholarship of online interactions in China. In fact, there are multiple contestants in and contests over China’s Internet, and they all have important parts to play in the story of its evolution.

The term “netizen” itself is challenged; in her chapter ‘Hackerspaces and the Internet of things in China’, Silvia Lindtner argues that rather than being considered passive users of the Internet, netizens should be actually viewed as empowered individuals who contribute to knowledge production by developing new technologies. With the Chinese government largely perceived as a monolithic entity, it is sometimes easy to forget the agency that individuals have in changing, adapting, or even creating the systems in place.

China’s Contested Internet, Guobin Yang (ed) (NIAS Press, August 2015)
China’s Contested Internet, Guobin Yang (ed) (NIAS Press, August 2015)

Similarly, official microblogging accounts of government departments are usually viewed as being under the direct command of China’s central government. This is perhaps a byproduct of a general lack of awareness, on a more basic level, of divergent interest groups within the central and local governments. However, as Jesper Schlaeger and Min Jiang explain in their chapter ‘Official microblogging and social management by local governments in China’, far from simply being pawns of an all-powerful body, local governments are afforded a certain degree of freedom and flexibility in their approach to managing official microblogs and responding to citizen feedback, and may be described as “fragmented” in their approaches.

Of course, fragmented interest groups also exist among China’s “netizens”. In examining the case study of the so-called Southern Weekly incident of 2013, Sally Xiaojin Chen demonstrates that the online and offline action taken by those protesting the Guangdong propaganda department censorship of Southern Weekly’s New Year editorial reflected distinct motivations and expressions, all facilitated by the medium of the Internet. Therefore, in this case, the contest was not only between citizens and the government, but also citizens and media outlets, between different media outlets, former journalists and media outlets, and citizens with conflicting goals, as each party sought to shape the outcome of the ensuing protests.

In general, China’s Internet is either studied through the lens of total control, or as a component of “liberation technologies” enabling ordinary people to create freedom and democracy in an otherwise oppressed society. In her chapter ‘Voice, power and connectivity in China’s microblogosphere’, Marina Svensson highlights analyses of the 2011 Wukan protests, which resulted in the overthrow of the local government and election of a new village leader, as well as responses to the Wenzhou train crash in the same year, as popular examples of this trend. Svensson challenges this narrow view of liberation technologies, noting that while there are more Weibo users in China than Twitter users in the West, only a very small fraction of these users are what are described as “amplifiers” or “transmitters” with any voice or influence over online debates. Online and offline, those occupying influential and public positions, rather than ordinary citizens or marginalized groups, are those whom many netizens consider “opinion leaders”, and therefore of whom the government is most afraid.

On the other side of the coin, Jian Xu argues there is an online weiguan or “spectator” culture, rooted in historical and political traditions, that is reflected in participation in such online forums as Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) and Weibo. His chapter ‘Online weiguan in web 2.0 China’ posits that the

 … virtual, leaderless and networked weiguan action has become one of the most important collective actions in present-day China to express disagreement, grievance and dissent, and form public opinion…

and that “active spectators” have the potential to influence both government and citizen campaigns.

China’s Contested Internet is based on the notion that, in editor Guobin Yang’s words,

[t]he Internet in China has taken on such distinctly Chinese characteristics that it may now be called the Chinese Internet in the same way… we call China’s literature ‘Chinese literature’ or China’s politics ‘Chinese politics’.

In other words, scholars should not simply conceptualise the Internet in China, but consider it a unique world known as as the Chinese Internet.

However, after reading the 10 chapters of this volume, which explore topics as diverse as hackerspaces, online novels, government consultation, community groups, and ethnic identity and racial contestation, readers will discover that, while the linguistic and political features of China’s Internet may be distinctive, it shares characteristics with the Internet elsewhere. It is multifaceted and complex, and its use varies depending on which section of society, institution or individual is examined and what issues are at stake.The contestants and contests are not necessarily unique to China. After all, the Internet is about connections, not isolation.

This book review was originally published in the Asian Review of Books on 15 March 2016.

Let One Hundred Voices Speak: How the Internet is Transforming China and Changing Everything by Liz Carter

During his Hundred Flowers campaign of 1956-7, Mao Zedong encouraged intellectuals to mobilize and publicly criticize the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in order to improve it.

Today, the Internet, with its myriad communication platforms, has become another vehicle for mobilization, as online communities emerge to fight for common causes. While the Party obviously does not encourage public criticism, most of the causes championed by netizens are indeed aimed against CCP policy and practice. Liz Carter’s Let 100 Voices Speak examines these hundred voices (or more accurately, 632 million voices) of the World Wide Web and their impact on Chinese society and politics.

In this book, Carter maps the diverse Internet cultures and countercultures that have emerged in recent years, especially via Sina Weibo, which is often described as China’s Twitter. Causes championed by netizens range from feminism, social mobility, and sexuality to pollution, patriotism, education, and anti-corruption. Carter successfully explores the spectrum of internet-based “parties” or dang, all of which have one thing in common: dissatisfaction with how the all-powerful Party is running China.

Let One Hundred Voices Speak: How the Internet is Transforming China and Changing Everything, Liz Carter (IB Tauris, June 2015)
Let One Hundred Voices Speak: How the Internet is Transforming China and Changing Everything, Liz Carter (IB Tauris, June 2015)

Carter demonstrates the power of social media in China through such case studies as the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which revealed the tragic lack of adequate infrastructure planning; the 2011 Wenzhou train crash, which created a critical conversation about the pace of China’s economic development; “Brother Watch”, a Shaanxi official whose designer timepieces attracted public attention to his corruption, and Tang Hui, whose battle for justice for her kidnapped daughter who was forced into prostitution stimulated popular debate about China’s judicial system.

Let 100 Voices Speak also captures the debate within China and among scholars about the relationship between the people, Government, and Internet. Does censorship encourage creativity? Is Weibo a force for positive change, even democracy? Who is actually in control: the people or the Government? These questions have no simple answers, but Carter provides a starting point from which to consider the influence of social media on the non-virtual lives and experiences of China’s 1.3 billion people.

Carter argues that the “collective experience of censorship” has drawn Chinese netizens together in ways that would be impossible in real life, and describes the unique ways they circumvent censors, including developing their own subversive online language. The book includes a helpful glossary to explain some of this language. At the same time, Let 100 Voices Speak does not ignore the CCP’s vast resources and power, which have allowed it to successfully stem the flow of online subversion before it gets close to toppling the Party. Carter aptly describes this process as “adaptive authoritarianism”.

Nevertheless, Carter is optimistic that online platforms, especially Weibo, will ultimately lead to change at the highest levels of the Chinese Government. The book’s subtitle, “How the internet is transforming China and changing everything”, reflects this. This optimistic assessment might however be viewed in the experience of the so-called Arab Spring: during the protests and their aftermath, many scholars and commentators claimed the Internet played a decisive role in the downfall of repressive regimes. However, looking at the current situation in Egypt, Syria, and Libya, it is evident that idealism is often short-lived. China itself has a long legacy of stifling dissent and activism: the recently adopted national security law will give the Government even greater legal powers to continue doing so.

We shall have to wait and see whether the hundred voices of China’s Internet will be permitted to speak loudly enough to effect long-lasting, positive change, or suffer the same fate as Mao’s hundred flowers, which were brutally purged and forced to remain silent under the CCP’s censorship machine. In the meantime, Let 100 Voices Speak is an excellent introduction for those who are not well-acquainted with the world of Weibo. It is a highly readable addition to previous research on China’s social media, and accessible enough for the general reader with an interest in Chinese society.

This review was originally published by the Asian Review of Books on 7 July 2015.

How I got into Harvard

For the vast majority of students, attending Harvard is simply an unrealistic, unattainable dream, available only to over-privileged over-achievers. Most successful applicants attend elite schools, and spend years being coached and preparing for admission.

I have never travelled to the United States. I have therefore never had the opportunity to set foot on Harvard’s prestigious campus.

But I am a graduate of Harvard.

harvard blog 3
Harvard Hall, 1878.

For the past seven weeks, I took part in the course Central Challenges of American National Security, Strategy, and the Press, offered by the John F. Kennedy School of Government. The course was taught by the renowned Professor Graham Allison, and the New York Times‘ chief Washington correspondent, David Sanger. As you would expect from any university course, there were weekly lectures, quizzes and assignments.

But there were many things that made this course unique.

It was run by edX; there were no exorbitant fees. It was open to anyone anywhere around the world armed with an internet connection and the interest and will to learn.

I was fortunate enough to be accepted into the limited enrolment version of the course, which gave me the additional opportunities of participating in weekly tutorials and receiving written feedback on my assignments. The course remained free.

Many people lament increasing anti-social behaviour that has resulted from ubiquitous portable devices and social media. Some studies have even argued that the internet is making us stupid. In many cases, this is true. However, I believe the internet also offers unprecedented potential for the future of education. I have always been a strong supporter of scholarship beyond the classroom: our learning never stops, and our instruments of learning should reflect the advances in technology that we have achieved. It is up to us to use this technology to become smarter and better-informed.

Every year, edX and Coursera offer hundreds of Massive Open Online Courses (more commonly known as MOOCs) in subjects as varied as Software Engineering, Music Theory, Astronomy, Economics, and Neuroscience. They have partnered with Ivy League universities including Harvard, MIT and Berkeley, as well as some lesser-known schools such as the Hong Kong Institute of Science and Technology, Eindhoven University of Technology (Netherlands), and Koç University (Turkey). Furthermore, not all courses are offered exclusively in English, so speakers of Chinese, Spanish, Russian, Arabic and other languages also have access to MOOCs.

With these initiatives, it is possible to pursue knowledge and interests while undertaking full-time employment or study. If you have ever wanted to learn about something new, extend your existing knowledge, or simply qualify your opinions, but have not been in the position to relocate, or have not had the time or money, you really no longer have an excuse.

You, too, can get into Harvard.