How to Write about China as a Network Nation

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Yu Hong

In the past seven years, I lived an arduous life of being a researcher and a scholar, working diligently on my book project Networking China. In this intellectual journey, books have been the best companions. A couple of works stood out for helping me identify a dynamic phenomenon that I intend to describe and explain. They are books that created light-bulb moments, shaping my ideas about China as a so-called network nation. Particularly inspiring are media critic Herbert Schiller’s Information and the Crisis Economy and political scientist Edward Steinfeld’s Playing Our Game: Why China’s Rise Doesn’t Threat the West.

Coming of age in the 1990s in China, I was always intrigued by the drastic transformation that the country and millions of people there have gone through. My training in Communication then sensitized me towards seeing China as a fascinating case where network-enabled digitization processes play a central role in the country’s internal reform and global rise. Blending the two sentiments, my work ultimately grappled with a complex and even elusive issue, that is, the nature and direction of China’s information age, digital economy, and network society.

To my dismay, most works that had been written in the West see China’s communication through the lens of control, censorship, or activism but rarely in conjunction with Chinese-style capitalism. For me, a conundrum remains: If the Chinese state is simply an authoritarian state, why on earth has the state embraced communication with undeniable enthusiasm? And if communication is indeed a vehicle for economic globalization—as acknowledged by some business-oriented writings, doesn’t it follow that the state would have been pressed to make policy and political concessions in and around the realm of communication—despite the apparently audacious statist impulse to interfere with market-led communication development?

Above all, if analytical attention is disproportionately focused on the ostensible immunity of the state and its communication system from the influences of both transnational and domestic capitalist dynamics, aren’t we at the risk of misinterpreting the nature and direction of China’s communication development?

What I perceived as an uncomfortable mismatch between texts and contexts persuaded me that I should write about China’s communication from a new perspective, with the focus on a neglected line of causation triggered by China’s ambition to develop a globally competitive capitalist economy, which is increasingly and deliberately predicated on communication development.

802850This new perspective requires first and foremost a non-essentialist, relational, and historical reading of communication development and of the Chinese state—Schiller’s and Steinfeld’s books just helped me with that.

Herbert Schiller’s Information and the Crisis Economy, a small book published in 1986 and an exemplary work in the subfield of critical political economy of communication, presents a vista of the relationships between communication and US hegemony, setting up a comparative-historical reference point for my project.

Writing about the Western economic crisis in the 1970s, Herbert Schiller sees information and communications as critical resources subjected to systematic efforts of institutionalization, commercialization, and mobilization in the United States at the time. The purpose: to recharge the lackluster capitalist economy and to support the US propaganda wars at home and abroad.

The Western capitalist economy, as this book illustrates, entails a persistent yet contested process of redrawing the public-private divide for the purpose of ever expanding the market sphere. A recent such incursion into the realm of culture, information, and media took up full speed in the 1970s.

This thesis persuaded me that the same structural imperative is likely to be playing out—in a Chinese context—understandingly accompanied by altered domestic and international dynamics.

Just as important, state-business relationship is key. The fusion between state actions and corporate interests, although inflected by tension, contradiction, and even antagonism between the two, has proven to be the central mechanism in forging Western digital capitalism.

9780195390650While Schiller’s work demonstrates how to make sense of communication as part and parcel of the political economy of capitalism, Steinfeld’s Playing Our Game illustrates that China’s convergence or divergence with the post-WII Western-dominated global system is an important topic in the fields of political science and international relations.

In keeping up with the persistent elitist ambition in China to become modern, the country has participated in global production networks, which, according to Steinfeld, has helped bring about profound changes in China’s socio-political life. While a lot of people in the West view the rise of China with a certain level of suspicion, Steinfeld’s rather optimistic prediction of China’s global convergence, an expectantly bumpy and contentious convergence though, is inspiring for two reasons.

First, it illustrates that because the Chinese state has betted big on being part of the global economy, it is subsequently subjected to change caused by global and domestic capitalist dynamics. In other words, a self-contained nation-state framework would have obscured global elements in the ostensibly state-led causation of change. This line of reasoning reminded me that the popular analogy of China’s communication system with a giant cage could likely be a result of such a limiting nation-state-centric analytical framework.

Second, the so-called new industrial revolution in Steinfeld’s account refers to the global diffusion of networked production, which is facilitated by liberal economic policies as well as by modern transport-and-communication systems. What this concept alludes to is a principle feature of the modern capitalist age. This resonates with Schiller’s thesis in that similar labels, such as digital capitalism, the Internet age, network nation, and so forth, are all intended to evoke and summarize hopes, opportunities, conflicts, and contradictions that arise from the global techno-economic shift to information technologies and communication systems.

It is always satisfying to recount what have been learned from great books. Suffice it to say, after having been inspired to learn about the state and its communication system as embedded with and constitutive of a historicized political economy of global capitalism, I hope my book Networking China will enable readers to see China’s communications in a new light, not simply as a fortress intended to resist and contain a social cacophony, but as a pivotal site of great change and conflicted dynamics, as driven by variegated state-business relations, as producing lasting implications at home and abroad.

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Yu Hong taught at the Annenberg School for Communication at University of Southern California and will join Zhejiang University as a “100-Talents Program” Professor (Level A) in Fall 2017. She is the author of Networking China: The Digital Transformation of the Chinese Economy published by University of Illinois Press (2017).

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