just what is china studies anyway?

These past few days I have been reading essays on the social organization of power in the PRC. Most of these essays were written by political scientists and economists, but the odd anthropologist makes an appearance as does the occasional historian.

Here’s the rub: I can’t really tell the difference between this kind of scholarship and everyday gossip in Shenzhen.

Our gossip tends to be about people we know, but importantly also about people with power to make decisions that directly affect our well-being. We see someone do something and then speculate about how and why it happened. We try to anticipate what they will do and how we might get them on our side. But this data gathering and analysis is all tenuous and shaky, and often leaves me feeling both convinced I know what’s happening (vaguely), but also unwilling to make definitive statements because I don’t actually know. Instead, I have a residual belief that someone somewhere can explain what is happening; there is, we maintain, a position of knowing, just not with me, here.

Now it’s not as if this tendency to conflate gossipy analysis with research has gone unnoticed within scholarly circles. Consider, for example, the following 1995 quote from Frederick C Teiwes (Paradoxical Post-Mao Transition: From Obeying the Leader to Normal Politics):

Despite the unprecedented openness of the 1980s and a surfeit of purported inside information, in crucial respects we know less about politics at the top today than we do for the Maoist era. Given the secretive nature of the top leadership, it is hardly surprising that participants in the system often express the view that ‘nobody knows’ what goes on ‘up there’. … Even highly placed figures, including those with personal knowledge of the very top leaders, feel limited in what they know, and their assessments sometimes are at variance in significant ways with those of younger, more middle-level officials either in China or living in exile. Given these limitations, scholarship has unfortunately relied extensively and often indiscriminately on suspect Hong Kong sources to fill the gap. As Lyman Miller has observed, the Hong Kong press has recorded ‘a flood of reports, stories, rumors, and sometimes speculations and fantasies about political events in China’.

My speculative sense du jour is that 15 years after Teiwes cautioned us about how much could actually be known and methodologies for securing some kind of confidence in what we think we have learned about China’s highest ranking leaders, weibo may have allowed this unstable situation to perfect itself. The yearning to know, the speculation and furtive analysis. The 140 character limit, the anonymity, the instant forwarding of unconfirmed posts has blossomed in China not only because its fun, but also because it is parasitic upon and supplements the extant situation — what we know, we glean and extrapolate from conversations, incomplete news articles, and our experience of acting within and against everyday life, whether in China or abroad. Thus, I read caveats about how information and conclusions about China’s ruling elite might be and think, yup that tallies. Not just with my experience of unbridgeable distance between moi and the Center, but also with my experience trying to navigate office politics in Shenzhen unreliable and listening to my friends talk about their experiences trying to navigate even more complicated office politics.

So what?

I’m thinking that there’s a kind of cross-cultural overdetermination in the popularity of weibo and its increasing importance as a subject and source of academic knowledge about Chinese political culture. Chinese people use weibo to create public spaces and then scholars speculate on what it means about Chinese society because in large states, like China but also like the United States for that matter, none of us, even those of us in power actually know what’s happening. We live by creating networks of trust and when public trust falters, we turn elsewhere. Recently, Professor Zhao Dingxin (joint appointments at Chicago and Fudan) gave a talk on”Weibo, Political Public Space and Chinese Development” and Owen Lam has translated portions of the transcript and netizen responses to the talk. Zhao Dingxin asserted provocatively:

Weibo is an absolutely democratic but highly manipulative mode of communication. It is democratic in the sense that the user only need to write a few sentences. Once a person knows how to login, s/he can start writing regardless of the quality. It is manipulative in the sense that each voice does not register the character of an equal vote… If a person controls a lot of money or certain technology, s/he can hire an online army to magnify their voice and create fake public opinion. The space for manipulation is huge.

And my immediate response is, well, yes because within any human relationship the space for manipulation grows with levels of distrust and competing desires. But that space is within each of us and not simply the product of technology. Clearly, the kind of speculative practice that thrives on weibo pre-dated the invention of social technologies. Perhaps instead of an exclusive focus on technology, it might be helpful to ask what about human nature makes weibo so attractive? What fears and desires leave us open to manipulation by digital phrases? The Chinese government is trying to contain the effects of rampant rumors and gossip-mongering by instituting the real name registration system (实名制). I wonder if it wouldn’t be more useful to think creatively about how to rebuild public trust, knowing that this is itself the work of a lifetime.

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