By Melba Newsome
During the last week of May, top communications researchers from around the world gathered at the University of Alberta in Edmonton for the 13th Annual Chinese Internet Research Conference. As conference co-organizer, Min Jiang, associate professor, Department of Communication Studies, oversaw the wide-ranging discussion of the social, political, cultural and economic effects the Internet is having in her native China.
|Min Jiang studies social media in China.|
This is a topic with which Jiang is intimately familiar, having researched and written on it since her days as a graduate student. Jiang wrote her thesis on Chinese e-government and her dissertation on what electronic government actually means for the people who want to participate in local politics. She discovered that, although the Internet is monitored and restricted, it also gave the people a sense that their government was more responsive and suggested the government’s ability to change.
Unlike the vast majority of graduate papers that are only read by people required to do so, Jiang’s work attracted attention far beyond the halls of academia. “A lot of people who read my work were in the United Nations and people inside China,” recalls Jiang.
A colleague’s research at the University of Pennsylvania on the involvement of Chinese citizens with the Internet prompted Jiang to broaden her focus to include China’s people and the Internet’s overall impact on the country.
Jiang’s long-standing passion and scholarly interests in China’s communications crossed paths with two of the most prominent stories of our time: the massive diffusion of the Internet and the rise of China as a world power with more than 640 million Internet users, 500 million micro bloggers and 1.2 billion mobile phone users. Her timing could not have been more auspicious.
Jiang fell in love with communications as a student at an International school in Beijing. As a 13 years-old learning English for the first time, she was introduced to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
At the time, Jiang knew little about American history or the civil rights struggle, so many of many of King’s metaphors and analogies were lost on her. “I only understood a fraction of it but I was able to understand the gist of what he was trying to express,” she recalls. She also grasped the power of effective communications to move, unite or divide people around a cause and to change the world around them.
China’s collective memory of the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre was still fresh and the country wanted to look, if not actually be, more open, providing the perfect launching pad to pursue communications as a vocation.
“At the time, it was a liberal environment where Chinese were eager to learn about the world and doing a lot of soul searching to find out what went wrong in terms of the economy.”
“I learned a lot about how news organizations work behind the scenes and quite a bit about how to get around the rules,” she says, before adding impishly, “People don’t censor everything.”
Access to some information created a craving for more information, so Jiang chose to continue her studies in the United States. After receiving her Ph.D. in Media, Technology and Society in from Purdue University, he arrived at UNC Charlotte in 2007.
|Jiang teaches Communication Studies at UNC Charlotte.|
Jiang briefly considered going back to China but felt that her writings on politics and open communications would be more restricted. While acknowledging that her work is critical of China, Jiang does not consider it unfair. For example, Jiang points out that the government is riding a wave of authoritarian legitimacy, having lifting 300 million people out of poverty in recent decades.
Since coming to UNC Charlotte, Jiang has been widely published in prominent communications journals, including the Journal of Communication and Policy & Internet. She is currently working on a book, China v. Information: Between Macro-control and Micro-power, which seeks to dispel many of the common myths surrounding China and the Internet.
“In Western news coverage and people’s imagination, the Chinese Internet holds an important place, oscillating between an Orwellian state of total surveillance with no freedom and a nation of great contestation with a vibrant protest culture and sanguine prospects for democratization,” she explains.
Jiang calls China’s Internet policies authoritarian informationalism, combining elements of capitalization, authoritarianism and Confucianism in an effort to balance government and commercial interests.
Although she doubts that the Internet alone will not democratize China, she believes could incrementally help liberalize Chinese politics through transparency, accountability and representation. “For the longest time, the Chinese people were taught to be this cookie-cutter person. The Internet has empowered them to be whoever they want. They have gone from being represented to self-representation.”
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