Examining Contemporary China

29 January 2016

David Johnson is a Research Member of Common Room and a Senior Research Associate in the Oxford e-Research Centre, here he talks about the Kellogg Colloquium and interviews two speakers from last term’s event, which was entitled Contemporary China.

At Kellogg, we often celebrate being one of the largest of the Oxford colleges, and also one of the most diverse in terms of nationalities, backgrounds, and areas of study and research. The Kellogg Colloquium was originally set up as an informal seminar series that gives College researchers at all levels (students, postdocs, fellows, and alumni) the opportunity to promote our work among the College community, as well as as a way to showcase our work to friends of the College.

The first Colloquium for 2015/16 was held in the middle of Michaelmas Term, with two talks themed around Contemporary China. The first speaker was Pu Yan a DPhil student with the Oxford Internet Institute and Kellogg alumni from her MPhil studies. She gave us a talk about her linguistic analysis, using a dataset harvested from Twitter, on how Chinese guanxi culture varies between mainland China and other Chinese communities such as Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau. Our second talk came from Dr Jenny Chan, a recently inaugurated Junior Research Fellow at Kellogg, and a Departmental Lecturer in Sociology at the School of Interdisciplinary Area Studies.

Having organized and chaired the event, I caught up with both Jenny and Pu afterwards to ask them to share a little more about what they talked about.

Jenny Chan – Kellogg JRF and Departmental Lecturer in Social Science

Jenny Chan – Kellogg JRF and Departmental Lecturer in Social Science

DJ: Briefly, what did you talk to us about at the Colloquium?

JC: I talked about student internship in China. While my research generally focuses on Chinese labour, the idea of internship is a widespread practice around the world. Unpaid or under-paid work by young people referred to as ‘interns’ has arguably become normal in many economies.

In China, the government has prioritized vocational training, of which student internships have become a core component. By 2020, 23.5 million full-time students will be channelled to secondary-level vocational schools. At a time of slowing growth and ageing population, these millions of young, vocationally trained workers will play a central role in China’s economic transformation and far beyond.

DJ: The culture around labour employment, particularly as you highlighted with student labour internships in mainland China, differs between China and other Chinese communities such as in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macau, and also overseas Chinese communities such as in the rest of South East Asia. Why do you think there exists these differences?

JC: I recently published a journal article with my collaborators at Hong Kong Polytechnic University (Ngai Pun) and Cornell/NYU (Mark Seldon) that shows that the student internships with shockingly poor working conditions in China are organized by the local state working with enterprises and schools, frequently in violation of the rights of student interns and in violation of Chinese law. The goals and timing of internships are set not by the students’ educational or training priorities but by the demand for products dictated by companies, such as Apple and its largest supplier of manufactured items, the Foxconn Technology Group. If the interns failed to meet the production requirements by Foxconn and Apple, they would not be allowed to graduate on time. Clearly this is a deeply unfair and unjust working practice.

In other societies, internships among university and college students are largely voluntary. Well-established programs are more likely to provide student interns with valuable and positive learning experiences, and skills training in banks, service industry, or other sectors. The implementation of law in safeguarding student interns’ pay, benefits, and working hours is vitally important for China, as it should be anywhere. However, in China there is much catching up to do.

DJ: What you have observed in your fieldwork on the emergence of student labor in state capitalist China?

JC: In our research, we use stronger and more negative terms such as ‘collusion’ and ‘subversion’ to highlight the oppressive nature of ‘development’ in our Chinese labour research. Many student interns were sold-out as cheap workers by their teachers in charge of so-called internships, who were in turn subject to control by their school headmasters and the local government units. These ties are characterised by corruption, where, sadly, student interns have their educational and labour rights traded away for the profits of transnational corporations.

DJ: What is your upcoming book about, and when can we expect to be able to see it published so we can read it!?

JC: Along with my co-authors (Ngai Pun and Mark Selden), we are still completing a book provisionally entitled Dying for an iPhone: The Lives of Chinese Workers to be published in 2016. The book is about the spate of suicides during 2010 by young Foxconn workers aged between 17 and 25 threw a spotlight on the appalling working conditions endured by those creating the material devices on which the globalized digital world depends.  With a team of researchers, we investigated the lives of rural migrant workers and teenaged student interns producing iPhones for Apple. Within the tight delivery deadlines, some workers leveraged their power to disrupt production to demand higher pay and better conditions. While all of these labour struggles were short-lived and limited in scope to a single factory, protestors exposed the injustice of ‘iSlavery’, garnering wide media attention and civil society support.

Pu Yan – Kellogg alumni, MSc Social Science, 2015

Pu Yan – Kellogg alumni, MSc Social Science, 2015

DJ: What was the research you talked to us about the the Colloquium?

PY: My research was on the comparison of Chinese guanxi culture (a central idea in Chinese society that roughly translates to social connections) between mainland China and Taiwan-Hong Kong-Macau. I employed a linguistic approach to explore popular discourses on guanxi. Although sharing a common root in Confucianism, Chinese communities around the world have experienced differing histories

Using a big data approach on a collection of tweets containing guanxi written in simplified Chinese characters (关系) and in traditional Chinese characters (關係), the analysis suggested that guanxi in interpersonal relationships has adapted to the new family structure in both types of Chinese societies. I also observed that the practice of guanxi in business practices varies from mainland China and in Taiwan-Hong Kong-Macau.

DJ: In your talk, you described how you took a big data approach to the study of a cultural artifact. What do you think about the potential of such a quantitative approach in social science?

PY: Large-scale content data on guanxi discourses (in this case, what people are saying about guanxi on Twitter) enabled reification of the concept and shed lights on the understanding of a traditional social concept from an everyday life perspective. Chinese contemporary interpersonal relationships, and political and economic power are explored within its own popular discourses, which connects the analysis more closely with everyday interpretation of guanxi culture. Compared to surveys and interviews, text data from popular discourses provide more direct evidence for understanding culture. Being able to explore culture in everyday life and in popular discourses are real advantages of the big data approach in social science research.

DJ: In her talk, Jenny also talked described subtle contrast in cultures between mainland China and other Chinese communities. Can we learn much about how Chinese communities, both in mainland China and elsewhere, are evolving culturally?

PY: We can see the differences in guanxi culture among Chinese communities.

In terms of interpersonal relationships, both kinds of Chinese communities have demonstrated an emphasized focus on nuclear family. While mainland online conversations emphasize intimate relations and marriages, interpersonal guanxi discourses in other Chinese communities have shifted to a form that is similar to social networks in Westernized societies.

Transformation of the family structure can yield great influence on Chinese society. Family lineage connects the nuclear family and the wider society in traditional Chinese society. Lacking adaptability to rapidly changing social realities such as increasing geographical mobility and shrinking of family sizes, the extended family has been gradually replaced by new family structures and social norms that are more functional in modern Chinese society.

DJ: You’ve recently started your DPhil studies, also in the OII where you did your MSc. What will your doctoral research be about?

PY: Seeking out information in everyday life constitutes one of the major daily activities for modern citizens. I will now focus on investigating the value of everyday information to people living in urban and rural China, as well as the ways in which information from diverse sources (human sources and online sources in particular) are received and accepted. Topics in my DPhil research will cover information-seeking in contemporary romance, environment, and civic engagement.

It was really interesting to hear some insights into contemporary China, and especially the differences in how Chinese community cultures have diverged somewhat, yet still share some core cultural values, and the methodologies used (fieldwork vs. quantitative/data driven). It was also extremely uplifting to have had a full-capacity audience attend!

We are planning on having several Colloquia each term, and I look forward to hopefully seeing you there. If you’re interested in future Kellogg Colloquium events, or even want to get involved by putting yourself forward as a potential speaker, please feel free to email me at david.johnson@oerc.ox.ac.uk or find me on Twitter at @NuDataScientist.

Details of upcoming Colloquium events are here.