Four years ago, the British anthropologist Tom McDonald set-up home in Anshan, a small rural town between Beijing and Shanghai. His aim was to study the way local people used social media – but even they were perplexed at his decision.
“They wanted to know why on Earth someone would choose to live in a place like this,” says McDonald. To them, the town was a backwater that many hoped to escape – hardly the thriving hub of technological change. But Anshan’s relative isolation was the precise reason McDonald had come.
Most writing about China’s internet had explored metropolitan elites living in the country’s huge cities – and had tended to focus on the issues of censorship and government control, painting a joyless place straight out of George Orwell’s 1984. Yet here in Anshan, McDonald was surprised to find a vibrant and innovative online world. “It is easy for us to assume that ‘the Chinese Internet’ ought to be a very drab and boring and constraining place, whereas actually, Chinese internet users are incredibly creative and the internet is incredibly lively,” he tells me. “It was more like an online carnival.”
I’m visiting McDonald in his office at the University of Hong Kong, for a wide-ranging conversation about China’s digital world and the ways that everyday people have integrated these developments into their own traditions.
'The Chinese Internet is like an online carnival' – Tom McDonald
Even the connectivity in somewhere like Anshan beats many places in the West. “Before I left the field site, they had 4G,” he says. “I mean, the village where I’m from in Yorkshire still doesn’t have 4G! So there are these interesting contrasts – people have modern lifestyles and lots of exposure to modernity in rural China now.”
And that progress is only accelerating. Both in the services available – including the widespread use of virtual money – and the ways people are using them, the Chinese are now a long way ahead of the West. And we would do well to watch places like Anshan as well as Beijing, if we want a glimpse of our own future.
Based on raw statistics, China has been at the forefront of internet access for almost a decade. Having overtaken the US in 2008, there are now nearly 700 million Chinese users online today – many with high-speed connections. And although a majority of those users come from the country’s big metropolises, around 178 million of those users can be found in rural towns like Anshan, whose population numbers just 6,000.
Notwithstanding a few crossed-wires – some of the locals believed that he was an IT expert, and would often ask him for help with their technical issues – McDonald found that Anshan’s residents were more than happy to help with his research on their internet use.
At the time, two social networks proved to be the most popular – QQ and WeChat – while the microblogging platform Sina Weibo, arguably the more famous network outside of the country, had far fewer users.
One of the primary attractions was the apps’ instant messaging, used in place of regular email at work and at home. “There’s still very much a sentiment that the people you work with should be your friends, which makes working in China exhausting, because you are more committed to your colleagues,” McDonald says. “But it also means that people value a form of interaction, where you can continually message people in an informal way.”
If QQ is a supercharged Facebook, WeChat is something like WhatsApp on steroids
Both QQ and WeChat are far more than an email replacement, however. QQ, for instance, offers a profile page (in the Qzone), complete with a personalised animated introduction sequence, along with a timeline and diary to share your ta de dongtai (‘happenings’). It can also be used to access an extensive gaming network to access international games like World of Warcraft as well as home-grown games like Dream of Three Kingdoms.
If QQ is a supercharged Facebook, WeChat is something like WhatsApp on steroids. McDonald demonstrates the Drift Bottle function, for instance, which lets you record a short message and throw it into a virtual ocean, where it will be retrieved by a random user at a later point. WeChat will also let you view and chat to people nearby – “So it is more like Grindr or Tinder or whatever” – and if you are feeling lonely, you can also vigorously shake your phone – which again, makes you visible to strangers across the whole network who may also feel like a chat. It proved to be popular for university students, for instance, who used the ‘Shake’ function to make friends. (Currently, WeChat has more than 700 million users worldwide, most of whom are in China.)
One of the core differences, from British social media use, was the fact that the people of Anshan tended to shy away from political pronouncements on their profile pages – “not because of censorship, but just because all the people around them would ask why are you posting that on here,” says McDonald. Instead, their updates tended to be centred on the family and relationships with somewhat saccharine images and messages – perhaps as a way of upholding some of the values at the heart of their rural community.
And McDonald found that the users were always experimenting with the ways they could adapt and apply the technology: one local business owner, for instance, tried to use his Tinder-style feature to attract customers to his barbecue restaurant. “So when they were looking for people nearby, they would see his restaurant.”
He was also struck by the colourful memes shooting around the Qzone, and the lively emojis – including, for instance, hundreds of ways of expressing Happy New Year. “There’s this kind of vernacular creativity that is really astounding.” All of which helped to show that Chinese internet use is far more varied and colourful than many had appreciated – a thesis that McDonald recently presented in his book (which is free to downoad).
Chinese technology moves fast, however. And since McDonald left Anshan for Hong Kong in 2014, many new features have emerged – including the networks’ own digital money. “You can book a taxi, get food deliveries, use it for savings, use it to pay your electricity bill, use it to book train tickets,” he says.
'The penny hasn’t dropped that this is a really important change in people’s relationship with the state'
He recently explored the phenomenon among relatively poor, migrant workers in Shenzhen, who had travelled across the country to work in phone factories. “We were walking down the street and almost every shop takes the stuff – so you can pay for a bottle of water or can of Coke with it,” he says. In this way, it has already proven to be far more popular than credit cards – which tended to be harder to obtain for people without permanent jobs.
Clearly, these companies are gathering a huge amount data from their users, yet it doesn’t seem to be a primary concern for many of these workers. “A lot of Westerners would think, ‘why am I giving all my data to just one company?’” says Guo Yanan, one of McDonald’s students who also worked on the project in Shenzhen. Instead, she says that many Chinese people are just pleased to have so much of their life consolidated in one app. “Maybe it’s because of the government having taken care of people’s life, but they think it’s just convenient.”
It’s an interesting comparison. In the past, Chinese workers would have had to invest their money in a bank backed by the government. “And so it’s a very important moment in China, where money’s leaving these state-owned enterprises and it’s going into a private company,” McDonald explains. This comes with a risk, of course – a state-owned bank is far more protected against bankruptcy. Yet very few people had thought about that possibility. “The penny hasn’t dropped that this is a really important change in people’s relationship with the state.”
Whatever the risks it brings, McDonald thinks that we have only just witnessed the beginning of this revolution – and we could learn a lot from that creativity. “We used to think that Chinese people just copied the West, but when you go onto WeChat and TaoBao and AliBaba, it’s just astounding because it’s so much more than what we have in the UK – you can get anything, do anything, and it’s linked together in a very logical and easy to use way. We’ll be looking at them a lot in the future.”
David Robson is BBC Future’s feature writer. He is @d_a_robson on twitter.
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