By Ashley Esarey, China Institute, University of Alberta
On 27-28 May 2015 the China Institute at the University of Alberta hosted the Chinese Internet Research Conference (CIRC) in Edmonton, marking the first time this annual meeting has been held in Canada. Forty participants from East Asia, Europe, and North America gathered to consider original research on the effects of the internet on Chinese politics and society, to review two decades of the internet’s development in China, to evaluate new fault lines of intra-societal contention, and to debate whether the internet’s effects and user patterns are driven by Chinese culture or global technological innovation.
The conference commenced with a keynote address by Guobin Yang, Associate Professor of Communication and Sociology at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Professor Yang’s talk placed information control in China—a subject of great interest among policy makers, communication scholars, and human rights activists—in a broader historical context. His address emphasized that the practice of controlling speech and political information in China has historical roots extending to the early Mao period and that it has increasingly been justified in terms of furthering the objective of creating a more “civil” public discourse online. As a strategy for control, the use of physical coercion has fallen out of favor among Chinese leaders relative to the use of legal rules governing web content and “participatory” censorship, with users policing state-approved norms for speech and action online.
Guobin Yang’s address dovetailed nicely with the principal theme of this year’s conference, “(Un)civil Society in Digital China,” the subject of the first panel of research presentations, chaired by CIRC co-organizer Min Jiang (University of North Carolina at Charlotte). Panelists considered such topics as contestation over the concept of public intellectuals, taboo breaking by the popular blogger Han Han, online exchanges between public figures in China and Taiwan, controversy involving mainland tourists and public hygiene in Hong Kong, and environmental activism in major Chinese cities.
A roundtable discussion, “The Internet in China at 20 Years,” commemorated the advent of the publicly accessible internet and reviewed the internet’s rapid popularization. With around 650 million people online, Chinese are by far the world’s largest user group. CIRC co-founder Jack Linquan Qiu of the Chinese University of Hong Kong argued that the Chinese internet users have evolved from a small community of techies in the mid-1990s to diverse and ostensibly “civil” users who have become voracious consumers of “incivility” in online discourse. Peking University Professor Hu Yong recounted the rise of social media from BBS fora associated with major universities to blogs, microblogs, and WeChat, highlighting the extent to which technology and political oversight have influenced the nature of user activities and online interaction. Politics has consistently affected patterns of internet use, while user expectations for rapid, interactive communication have deepened and broadened with the emergence of new social media platforms. The roundtable concluded as CIUA staff members surprised participants with a “happy twentieth” birthday cake, adding a moment of levity to a stimulating academic discussion.
Panels on the second day of the conference considered areas in which the Chinese internet is quite distinctive from the internet as experienced in democracies, featuring presentations on the censorship of the social media platform WeChat as well as the efforts by state and party organizations to push content intended to guide public opinion through patriotic bloggers, the establishment of government microblogs (including one maintained by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs), and the training of “public opinion management specialists.” The motivation for these actions is to cleanse the Web of incorrect, undesirable, or politically sensitive content, while providing a vetted alternative that helps the public to formulate political preferences.
These panels were followed by a roundtable discussion, led by CIRC co-organizer Ashley Esarey (University of Alberta), to evaluate the extent to which researchers of the internet in China should treat the People’s Republic as a culturally distinct case or as broadly reflective of global trends driven by developments in information and communications technology. Perspectives among the roundtable participants varied considerably, with Guobin Yang arguing for viewing China through the lens of its distinctive media culture and Weiyu Zhang (National University of Singapore) asserting the merits of a qualified view, with room for the influence of global technology and foreign culture on Chinese internet use.
As is traditional of CIRC meetings, researchers presented on a rich variety of topics that point the way toward promising areas of future scholarship. Among the subjects considered by participants, who included senior professors, junior scholars, and graduate students, were the government promotion of online consultation prior to policy formation, the enforcement of heteronormativity in multi-player online games, the Chinese reactions to the Netflix-produced program “House of Cards” as a window for studying Chinese politics, and the prospects for new Chinese telecommunications investments in Nigeria.
At the conclusion of the conference, CIUA Director Gordon Houlden presented graduate student researchers Lin Jiarui (York University) and Tony Zhiyang Lin (Hong Kong University) with awards for their papers entitled, “What Public and Whose Opinion? A Critical Analysis of Chinese Online Public Opinion Management Specialists” and “A Case of Microblog Debates: The Interactive Contexts, the Semiotic Strategies and the Polarized Dialogues,” respectively.
On May 29-30, select conference goers participated in a postconference retreat to Jasper National Park. Fourteen scholars and graduate students “unplugged” from the internet and plugged into Alberta’s world-famous natural scenery, hiking along the Icefields Parkway and outlining plans for future collaboration by the campfire.
CIRC co-organizers Ashley Esarey and Min Jiang plan to publish select conference papers in a special section of the International Journal of Communication on “(Un)civil Society in Digital China.” Interested scholars should see their call for proposals for a timeline and for article submission information.
Next year CIRC will return to China, with Shanghai's Fudan University as the host university. A call for conference proposals is expected in late 2015.