Wang Huiyao: China can embrace the global internet for its narrative

CCG | December 27 , 2022

From SCMP, 2022-12-27


■ With a lack of Chinese voices to balance the narrative, anti-China rhetoric has gradually permeated Western-dominated digital spaces.

■ China must venture out of its own digital ecosystem and into the global online sphere to offer a fresh perspective.

By Wang Huiyao | Founder of the Center for China and Globalization(CCG)

People look at their smartphones in Wangfujing shopping district in Beijing, on November 19. Photo: AP

In the early 1960s, Canadian media theorist Marshal McLuhan coined the term “global village” to describe how advances in communications technology bring people around the world closer together, enabling them to interact with each other more easily and experience the same events in real-time.

Six decades later, the internet has helped to realise this vision to a degree that would have surprised even McLuhan. But today’s digital global village is not always a harmonious one.

The internet helps human beings transcend physical barriers, connect, and build communities that would have never been possible otherwise. However, as shown by renewed concerns about online polarisation and hate speech in the wake of Elon Musk’s tumultuous takeover of Twitter, the internet can also be a weapon to spread disinformation and division. That is especially true when it comes to contentious topics like China.

The lack of a healthy, balanced online discussion about China can be attributed to many factors. Geopolitical tensions, existing prejudice, and the dominance of Western media play a part, as does the phenomenon of “filter bubbles” that tend to expose people to information aligned with their existing beliefs and biases. However, the lack of Chinese voices on the global internet and the dearth of interaction between the Sinophone online sphere and the rest of the world also adds to the problem.

We are now entering an age when emerging technologies such as the metaverse, virtual and augmented reality, and the internet of things mean that the digital global village will become more immersive and pervasive with every passing year. As geopolitical tensions and transnational challenges continue to rise, it is more important than ever that Chinese organisations and individuals make their voices heard and interact online to promote dialogue and mutual understanding between China and other countries.

China has a thriving digital ecosystem and culture of its own, and while there are obvious regulatory and linguistic obstacles to deeper engagement with the rest of the online world, there are some practical ways this can be achieved.

First, Chinese organisations such as think tanks, universities, and social organisations can upgrade their international online presence and be more proactive in engaging foreign audiences. At present, even major institutions are often absent from key global platforms.

For example, a 2021 study of 40 leading Chinese think tanks found that 65 per cent do not have an account on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, or LinkedIn, while only 7 per cent used all five of these channels.

To deepen international engagement, Chinese institutions can develop user-friendly English websites, open accounts on key global platforms, and share content such as articles and short videos. Tools like machine translation and speech recognition have significantly reduced the cost of creating content accessible for foreign audiences. Partnering with overseas organisations or platforms is another way to reach more people.

The second way that China can play a more active role in the digital global village is to empower individuals from all walks of life to share their stories and interact with global audiences via social media networks.

One striking example is the success of a new generation of global internet celebrities from rural China. Food vlogger Dianxi Xiaoge has racked up nearly 10 million subscribers to her YouTube channel by sharing traditional recipes and images of bucolic life in her native Yunnan. Even her dog, Dawang, has over 450,000 subscribers.

Influencers like Dianxi Xiaoge present a slice of life far removed from the urban industrial China that foreign audiences are usually exposed to, helping to convey the diversity of the country and confound narratives that reduce the lives of 1.4 billion people to tropes or political issues. As the mainland reopens, there is now also a chance to encourage foreign influencers, experts, and young people to visit and share direct experiences of China with audiences back home.

My third suggestion is that individuals and organisations embrace the metaverse and explore ways to use this collective virtual space to promote exchange and mutual understanding between China and the rest of the world.

The metaverse will become an increasingly important realm for creativity, collaboration, and cultural exchange. The pandemic has offered a glimpse of this potential. Museums and art galleries created immersive experiences that gave people on the other side of the world a chance to browse their exhibits. Governments are also getting in on the act.

Seoul is working with local IT companies to develop spaces where virtual visitors can experience K-pop culture and last year, Barbados became the first country to announce it will open an embassy in the metaverse. China should be involved in these emerging worlds and the formation of the international conventions needed to guide their healthy development.

Rather than physical obstacles, in today’s world, what separates people are often cognitive barriers and prejudice towards different civilisations. Its reputation may be tarnished, but the internet still holds immense potential as a stage for dialogue, exchange and learning between different countries.

China’s future development and globalisation are closely linked to its participation in the evolving online sphere. Our civilisation has a long tradition of inclusiveness and openness, something that has often coincided with periods of great strength such as during the Tang and Song dynasties. As we enter a new era of national flourishing, China would do well to draw on these traditions and play an active role in building a more open and inclusive global village.


From SCMP, 2022-12-27