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Choosing a Chinese Internet Text

Choosing a Chinese Internet Text

Jonathan Sullivan03 Feb 2015Leave a comment


Written by Jonathan Sullivan.

My Chinese media and internet class (30+ students) is very mixed in terms of the students’ Chinese language skills and their level of prior exposure. This is quite usual, and in these circumstances I’ve found that building the syllabus out from a couple of major texts (with a large selection of supplementary materials of varying complexity) is the most effective way of staying on track and making sure no one gets lost. For the broadcast/print media component of the module I whittled down the choice of core texts to Zhao Yuezhi’s classic scholarly study (which is still fairly accessible for undergrads) Media, Market, and Democracy in China: Between the Party Line and the Bottom Line. In fact the number of suitable books for teaching on Chinese media is quite limited—Gary and Ming-Yeh Rawnsley’s Handbook of Chinese Media is imminent and there are a number of good edited volumes, but these types of publication aren’t suited to a class text (wonderful as it looks, for instance, the Handbook is £125). In terms of supplementary material, we’re lucky to have a lot of journal based work and the bite-size and up-to-the-minute online commentary and analysis provided by the China Media Project, China Digital Times and others.

The situation is much less clear when it comes to looking for a text for teaching on the Chinese internet. That’s because there is an abundance of really good books. The sub-field of Chinese internet studies has grown spectacularly in recent years. When I wrote this article on online social networks in China in 2007, I cited a mere 15 books and articles on the Chinese internet. A comprehensive bibliography, including journal articles, would today run to hundreds of references. And that’s before even considering the massive number of general theoretical works, studies in non-Chinese contexts, and the numerous fields that comprise “internet studies” (a good example from political communication here). Despite this abundance, choosing a major text focusing specifically on China was relatively straightforward using a process of elimination.

There are a number of overview books that from a distance appear to fit the bill. For instance Zheng Yongnian’s Technological Empowerment, Johan Lagerkvist’s After the Internet, Before Democracy and Tai Zixue’s The Internet in China: Cyberspace and Civil Society. These are all excellent books. Zheng’s is a really sophisticated theoretical study, but it is preoccupied with political implications and lacking in the substantive detail and colour to engage the students. And published in 2008, before the weibo/weixin revolutions, it is somewhat dated. Lagerkvist’s book is another dense study, but pitched a bit high for my class (and in these austere times, it isn’t available as a cheap paperback). Tai’s book is really good, but although a partially updated softback edition came out in 2012, much of the content dates to the early 2000s—in internet terms, a long time ago.

Herold and Marolt’s (2011) edited volume Online Society in China: Creating, Celebrating and Instrumentalising the Online Carnival, is one of my favourite books. The same editors have another volume just out, and it is along the same lines, conceptually dense with some really interesting theorizing and empirical cases. Other volumes include Damm and Thomas’ (in paperback 2009) Chinese Cyberspaces: Technological Changes and Political Effects and Hughes and Wacker’s fine but outdated China and the Internet: Politics of the Digital Leap Forward (2003). Fine though these books are, edited volumes lack the cohesion I want in a class text.

There are a number of superb academic studies that are too narrow for my purposes. Kalathil and Boas’ Open Networks, Closed Regimes: The Impact of the Internet on Authoritarian Rule and Chase and Mulvenon’s You’ve Got Dissent!: Chinese Dissident Use of the Internet and Beijing’s Counter Strategies are classics from the early internet era in China when the focus was very much on censorship and dissidence. A substantial section of Rebecca Mackinnon’s Consent of the Networked focuses on China. Jack Qiu’s Working-Class Network Society: Communication Technology and the Information Have-Less in Urban China, Helen Sun’s Internet Policy in China: A Field Study of Internet Cafes and Liu Fengshu’s Urban youth in China: Modernity, the Internet and the self are brilliant scholarly investigations in their respective areas. Greg Austin’s (2014) Cyber Policy in China is an excellent overview of the development of the internet focusing mainly on the government angle. I have Michel Hockx’s (2015) Internet Literature in China on order, and anticipate using it as a supplementary text next year.

Ultimately, however, I went with Yang Guobin’s The Power of the Internet in China (my review here). This wasn’t much of a revelation given that I have chosen this book in all the previous iterations of the module. It’s a pioneering study that takes students right up close to the action but also gives them a theoretical lens so they can step back to get some perspective and avoid getting lost in the squall. Although originally published pre-Weibo (2009), it has aged remarkably well and there is an updated 2011 paperback edition. The cherry on top is that the softback and Kindle are under £15, which is an issue when you’re asking students to make a purchase.

As with the media, let me know if there is a book I’ve missed that would make a good teaching text.

Jonathan Sullivan is Associate Professor and Deputy Director of the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham. He Tweets @jonlsullivan. Image Credit: CC by Tom Thai/Flickr

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