Interview with Guobin Yang: the role of the social media amid the Wuhan coronavirus lockdown

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Guobin Yang’s study focuses on online activism, social movements, digital culture, cultural sociology, historical sociology, critical theory, global communication, environmental communication, media and politics in China.

He is the Grace Lee Boggs Professor of Communication and Sociology at the Annenberg School for Communication and Department of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is the Associate Dean for Graduate Studies at the Annenberg School for Communication, Director of the Center on Digital Culture and Society, and Deputy Director of the Center for the Study of Contemporary China and the author of the award-winning The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online (2009) and The Red Guard Generation and Political Activism in China (2016). 

What is the mission of the Center on Digital Culture and Society?

The Center on Digital Culture and Society (CDCS) at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication supports critical, interdisciplinary scholarship and dialogue on digital culture, technology, and society. CDCS aims to create collaborative spaces for discussion and debate among academics, citizens, and activists; develop critical approaches to the study of digital culture and technology; help train new generations of digital researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and beyond; build global networks of researchers; advocate for socially just design, production, and use of digital technologies; and explore and foster new visions of digital futures through scholarship and public communication.

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Sanitation workers still working on the streets of Wuhan (Image courtesy of Guo Jing)

 What is the role of social media in the Wuhan health crisis?

Social media have different roles at different periods of the crisis. In the early period – December 2019, several people posted information about the occurrence of a SARS-like pneumonia in their WeChat groups to warn friends about health risks. These people were soon reprimanded by the police for spreading rumors. News of these people being disciplined “for spreading rumors” was broadcast on TV and on social media, in effect silencing other potential voices. The initial lack of public information may have contributed to the spread of the disease. Hence the abrupt lockdown of the city of Wuhan on January 23. After Wuhan was shut down, social media become a main channel for the public to obtain and share information about the spread of the illness. People also use social media to raise donations for residents in Wuhan and to organize volunteer support. Some residents in Wuhan use social media to post their diaries about lives in Wuhan, which helps other people to understand life on the ground.

In Chinese traditional cultural repertoires, there is a type of individual who is daring enough to speak truth to power even at the risk of their own lives.

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Wuhan (Image courtesy of Guo Jing)

Who are the digital radicals?

Everyone can be a digital radical. We at the Center on Digital Culture and Society want to explore new forms of human relationships with digital technologies. Last summer, we issued a call for submissions of stories of digital radicals from around the world. We think of a digital radical as a person with a radical relationship to digital technologies, but we leave it to our readers to decide whether they have a radical relationship with their technology and what is radical about it. 

In the middle of the coronavirus crisis, various forms of digital radicalism have appeared. I discussed two types in my story here, and called them “digital whistleblowers” and “social media diarists” respectively. Obviously, there are other types as well, such as people who use social media to mobilize support for residents in Wuhan.

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People lined up in the supermarket (Image: Guo Jing)

What role can whistleblowers play in Chinese society?

In Chinese traditional cultural repertoires, there is a type of individual who is daring enough to speak truth to power even at the risk of their own lives. In the past, the Confucian literati may play such a role. In modern history, students and intellectuals often played such a role. These individuals are considered as the conscience of the people. In some sense, whistleblowers are somewhat like such daring individuals, although in the recent case of the coronavirus crisis, the eight individuals who are called “whistleblowers” by the media do not necessarily consider themselves as such. At least two of those who have talked to the media about their experiences said explicitly that they posted information about the illness merely to warn their families and friends to take precautions.

 

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 Are there forms of boycotting social media in China?

Not that I know of.

 What are the stories told by social media diarists in Wuhan?

A great variety. Most of them are matter-of-fact reports of their daily lives after the city was shut down, such as what they ate for their daily meals, where they shopped, what they saw in the streets. They are very personal stories. Some of the diaries contain ruminations about these situations and about the various problems that are exposed by the virus crisis, such as internet censorship, the shortage of medical supplies, the ineptness of the bureaucracies. They usually come with many photographs, and some post videos as well. These are valuable records of an extraordinary period of urban history.

 What does the clumsy management of the crisis by the Wuhan authorities show?

It shows how unprepared China’s bureaucracies and social service institutions are for such crisis situations. It also shows that freedom and transparency of information are critical for managing social crisis, but are lacking, to say the least.

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(Image: Guo Jing)

 Across the west, since the news of the coronavirus spread, countless acts of racism have occurred against Asian citizens. At the time of Sars, these discriminatory acts had not occurred with so much force. What has changed?

Was there less discrimination during SARS? I don’t know. But it’s abominating to see all forms of racism against Chinese-looking people around the world after the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak. What has caused this racism? I suspect it has always been there, and the virus just gives it a convenient new channel. But it’s also heart-warming to see as many gestures of hospitality, such as the # #abbracciauncinese hashtag initiative in Italy. I hope someday we do not have to offer such special gestures to anyone in the world – that will be the moment of true equality. 

 How do social media and new technologies shape modern Chinese society?

 By bringing out both its best and its worst.

Featured image courtesy of Guobin Yang
Other images: Guo Jing

 


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1 thought on “Interview with Guobin Yang: the role of the social media amid the Wuhan coronavirus lockdown”

  1. Been in China from Mid-December until January 31st, I would disagree with the statement that the Chinese Government was unprepared. All Governments face the dilemma of, “when do you advise the citizens of a situation that would be alarming to them.” Living in Christchurch when they had series of earthquakes from Sept 2010 to mid-2011. I am aware that it was known after the Sept 2010 earthquake that the pressure on a fault line that run near the city had changed considerable. It was therefore expected that this fault line would rupture sooner than later. The decision was made not to publicise this fact though some people knew that this was very likely to happen. It did, in February 2011. It is an argument that could never be resolved as to was it the right decision to withhold this information as was done, or not.
    Coming from the west I was surprised how quickly things went from every day, to medical emergency overnight. People, cars disappeared off the streets as people stayed home. You could not get on the sub-way without your temperature been taken. I was in Xi’an when the Government closed the hostels, I do not know about hotels, on/about 26th/27th. My plans were to go to Shenzhen in my travels so I just went to the railway station and changed my tickets for the night train on that day. Note: when the Chinese Government closed China down on the 23rd, New Years Eve. They said that there was to be, “no restrictions or penalty’s charged for people wanting to cancel travel bookings etc.” I knew that few people would be traveling, as a photo I have of the waiting room and was interested to see if they reduced the size of the trains in respect to the number of carriages. This did not happen, what happened instead was that the cubicles with six berths in them, one person was allocated a cubical, their own space, families and friends shared a cubical. To me, clearly China had a Plan B and people in public service had been trained, it all just happened. If they thought so, you could have your temperature checked on the train. Also with the trains, it is normal practise on them for the guard to take your ticket off you and put it in a folder and return your ticket just before the station that you exiting at. That did not happen, clearly because there would be an exchange, the ticket, and the possibility of contamination passing from one person to another.
    While in China I was watching events to do with the spread of the virus. Shanghai been down stream from Wuhan and with a growing number of cases, I expected to be closed off as well. I guess that too do so would be a real brake on the Chinese economy. What people were required to do was to register on a website that you were in Shanghai, where you came from, where you can be contacted etc. Beijing stopped all transport from outside the province entering, I am unsure how they handled food in.

    Brian

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