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China’s social credit system: The Chinese citizens perspective

XinyuanWang9 December 2019

Please note: this is the full version of an article that is set to appear in the Conversation this week. This longer version is aimed at those interested in reading more about the topic.

The Social Credit System: Current Context

There has recently been a considerable amount of media coverage of the Chinese social credit system. This tends to be heated and unequivocally negative, as a kind of manifestation of China as 1984.

My recent 16-month on-the-ground anthropological research explains the reasons why some ordinary Chinese members of the public welcome the system*.

Although critics often see the system as an intrusive state surveillance apparatus, there is a perception among the Chinese population that this is a national project to boost public morality, fight fraud and other crimes and generally fix the nationwide crisis of trust gripping the country.

Chances are that before reading this, you will have heard of the social credit system and may even know one or several things about it. Originally proposed in 2014 and set to be rolled out nationwide against a self-imposed deadline of 2020, the system has been described by the South China Morning Post as China’s “most ambitious project in social engineering since the Cultural Revolution”. The aim is for the national system, once fully functional, to allocate a social credit score to members of the public based on their social, economic or other activities and deeds. With the so-called ‘red-list’ and ‘blacklist’, the aim is to effectively regulate both the behaviour of private citizens as well as that of businesses. The social credit system (Shehui xinyong tixi in Mandarin) will leverage ‘Big Data’ including geolocation, purchasing history, social media content, and footage from CCTVs equipped with facial recognition technology (already in use in several first-tier Chinese cities including Beijing and Shanghai). Given China’s poor record of data security, it is understandable that commentary around the issue is largely negative, with the system having been called an ‘Orwellian system controlling virtually every facet of human life’ or likening it to a dystopian episode of the series Black Mirror.

Given this context, I want to shed some light on some of the concerns and myths surrounding the issue of shehui xinyong (social credit) system. I recently came back from doing ethnographic research for the UCL’s ‘Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing’ project, which involved 16 months of living in in Shanghai (from late 2017 to 2019). During my time there, I found that positive perceptions of the social credit system among ordinary Chinese people were more prevalent than negative ones. Some welcomed the introduction of the shehui xinyong system while others were indifferent, and a significant number could see its benefits. How can we explain this extreme discrepancy in perception and attitude?

To take a step back, there is of course the factor of how big issues such as this are discussed in China versus how they are discussed outside of China, which can differ significantly due to factors like censorship. It is not unusual for issues about China to develop into a more heated discussion outside of China. As the old Chinese saying goes: ‘The flower tree planted inside the wall, has its blossom seen outside the wall’. Nowadays, ‘the wall’ in question has certainly been upgraded to version 2.0 in the form of the ‘Great Firewall’. The case of the social credit system is different however – we are not just talking about groups of dissidents wanting to bypass things, but something that may soon concern every single citizen’s everyday life.

Chinese citizens are not unaware of the massive amounts of personal data being collected ‘smartly’ (in real time and connecting many different elements such as buying history and geolocation) and the consequences of poor data security have not gone unaddressed either – see the recent public outcry with regards to the ‘deepfake’ app ‘Zao’ (a convincing face-swapping app that can insert anyone’s face into videos, TV shows and other media after uploading a single photograph). In the context of China being a country where ‘Smile to Pay’ facial recognition systems are used for payment (Alipay), it is understandable that this would deepen fraud concerns.

To sum up, although factors like censorship might have been the reason for the conversation not being as heated inside China, it does not seem to account for the way ordinary Chinese people praise the social credit system even in private and informal talks among friends.

Flyover in Shanghai. Photo by Xinyuan Wang (CC BY)

China’s crisis of trust

Living in China is tiring…you have to be vigilant and always on-guard against others, so you don’t fall into pits which are everywhere.”

Mr. Zhu, in his 40s, explains his reluctance to let his mother use a smartphone – she may fall prey to online scammers. He is not alone in worrying about what is seen as an intensifying crisis of public morality and a crisis of trust crisis that manifests through  everything from rising numbers of fraud cases, to widely publicised scandals in the country’s food safety and pharmaceutical industries.

The question of who to trust, and social trust more broadly is one that is pertinent to every modern society, not just China. Although the idea of someone being ‘trustworthy’ (chengxin) has long existed in the Chinese traditional moral system, it is widely believed this was fundamentally damaged in the past 50 years, starting with Mao’s Cultural Revolution (1966-76), now seen as a period characterised by the ‘breakdown of public morality’.  A turbulent period characterised by families turning on each other and being forced to denounce any friends or family members deemed counter-revolutionary, the Cultural Revolution has also had the effect of eroding the concept of chengxin and therefore also mutual trust over time. Erosion of social trust during and following periods of political turmoil is of course also not unique to China.

In addition, back when China was an agricultural society, a person’s social role was relatively fixed, meaning those who came in contact with them were more certain about whether they could trust them, given that the interaction happened within a clear network of social relations. The Chinese concept of guanxi (loosely translated as social relation) doesn’t only refer to social connections but is a more sophisticated concept that refers to a trusted social relation in which endorses an individual’s value. Risk management based on guanxi was confronted with unprecedented challenges as a result of fast-paced urbanisation, market-orientated economic reforms as well as massive domestic migration over the past thirty years. The fact that these enormous social and economic changes followed political upheavals political upheavals has massively contributed to the current trust crisis in China, where a large part of the population feels that they are ‘uncertain’ about whether to trust people, with a significant number also seeing themselves as victims of fraud. So severe is this nationwide crisis of trust that even President Xi reportedly believes China is “losing its moral compass”.

Let us take another example: 35-year-old Mrs. Liu was one of my research participants, and the mother of a new-born. While searching for a full-time, live-in nanny to take care of her baby due to her mother being unable to take care of him because of ill health, she found herself deeply troubled by the stories she was hearing about live-in nannies:

I have been told so many bad stories about those live-in nannies, from stealing to abuse… nowadays very few locals are willing to do the job. Rural migrant workers are not trustworthy, many of them have low suzhi (human quality) without any credit. They are here in a big city, nobody can tell where they come from and where they have been or what they have done. Everything can be faked, fake ID, fake personal stories, I have even heard of domestic agencies helping workers fake a whole ‘package’ of information. If something wrong happens, they can just move to a different place, and nobody will know.

In the end, following her friends’ suggestions, Mrs. Liu installed secret monitors at home to test different nannies and ended up hiring the one whose behaviour was most trustworthy when she thought nobody was looking.

As Mrs. Liu says, there are many cases of fraud and scams where the victim does not get compensated for the crime perpetrated, and the offender can simply move to another province or start a business in a different industry, with little trace of who they were in the past, and having faced no consequences. The national blacklist, one of the central elements of the proposed social credit system, is supposed to remedy this. People also believe that a quantified credit score can help mediate or settle legal settlement of economic disputes. In China, it is not unusual for lawbreakers to fail to pay debts or fines, or in some cases even to issue an apology to an injured party. In cases where the set fines are not seen as punitive enough, and the crime is too minor to lead to imprisonment, there seems to be no other form of redress, leading to a vacuum which some think can be filled by the credit system. Blacklisted citizens are penalised by being prevented from buying plane or high-speed train tickets, staying in luxury hotels or getting personal loans. They are also not allowed to join the civil service, take senior jobs in state-owned firms or start companies in the food or drugs industries. It is reported that already today, more than 12 million people are on this blacklist and they have been denied more than 17 million plane tickets and 5 million high-speed train tickets.

Furthermore, there is a widespread belief that the social credit system can deter not only ‘unethical’ deeds such as scams or fraud, but also what are referred to as ‘uncivilised’ (anti-social) deeds.

Mr. Zhu says:

I can’t wait for the implementation of the social credit system, there will be less fraud for sure. Also, I think about those who play videos out aloud on public transport, those who jump queues, those who just dump shared bikes irresponsibly in the middle of the road… I bet they will behave themselves if they know their ‘bu wenming’ (uncivilized) actions will actually be recorded by high technology. Things in the west are better because they have a mature credit system, right?

Both Mr. Zhu and Mrs. Liu regard themselves as good citizens and believe only bad citizens should be worried about the credit system. As a popular Chinese aphorism goes, “The only way to prevent people from knowing what you did is not to do it at all in the first place”. In Mrs. Liu’s case, there is support for a social credit system that is pervasive and based on (sometimes secret) surveillance. The average person is clearly less concerned about giving up some privacy if this means a significantly higher degree of security and certainty.

The end justifies the means,” says Mr. Zhu.

The ‘imported’ modern credit system

A widespread belief in China which Mr. Zhu and many others uphold is that western society is ‘civilised’ (wenming) precisely due to its very own long-existing credit system. This is perpetuated by different myths and some invented stories which have tended to circulate in Chinese society. A typical such story would be:

An intelligent Chinese young woman is studying in a European country and while travelling, notices that there are no ticket barriers in place and tickets are rarely checked. Because transport is expensive, she decides to take advantage of this ‘loopholes’ and rides the train for free every time she needs to travel.  Although she gets caught a few times, most of the time she gets away with it and even feels smug about it. She finally graduates with great marks and starts jobhunting. Although she gets to the final interview stage on multiple occasions and the interviews go well, she seems to be unable to secure a job. When she asks an HR Manager for feedback on why she was not successful, she is told: “Both your CV and your performance in the interview have recommended you as the ideal candidate for the role. However, when we checked your individual credit record, we found that you have caught dodging train fares three times. Unfortunately, we have no confidence that you can be a good fit for our company, which values honesty above than anything else”.

There are many different versions of this story, from shorter versions appearing in print magazines to online articles. These differ only in the details – sometimes the protagonist is a man rather than a woman, and the setting of the story can either be a European country or the United States. Regardless of these minute details, the main message of the allegorical story remains the same – a capable person without credit has no chance of being successful in a Western or indeed any modern society where individual citizens carry their own verifiable credit history with them throughout their lives. These stories were becoming popular well before the announcement of the social credit system and during my field work in Shanghai, more than half of the research participants I spoke to confirmed their familiarity with these stories.

Mrs. Cai, a retired middle-school physics teacher in her 70s, is one of the citizens who has strong faith in the so-called credit system used in the West. Assuming that I, as a university staff member in London, must have a good score in the UK’s credit system, she even asked me to share some of my experience with her grandson who is planning to study in the UK. Although many people don’t have a clear picture of how exactly credit histories or scores are calculated or used in the West in general, there is a belief that there is a pervasive and all-encompassing credit system in place in developed countries, something that makes it easy to trust even strangers. The myth is not unrelated to the fact that financial credit scores were introduced to China in the 1980s, during a period of economic liberalisation, as a Western import, which makes the current social credit system a sort of  extended version of these in the imagination of some members of the public.

However, the deeper and underlying reason for the popularity of such myths lies in the fact that Chinese society has been seeking a model of moral guidance during a time of painful transition from an agricultural and collective society to a modern individualistic one (and therefore one where the previous methods of risk management and checking trustworthiness have disappeared). While the stories mentioned above may be false, they are simply the reflection of a commonly held imagination of the problem created by individualism and modernity in China as well as the emerging social expectation that individuals take full responsibility for and be judged by their deeds.

Life as credit

Having set the context and talked about why some citizens welcome the security promised by the credit system, it is important to mention that notions of responsibility and judgement are actually nothing new, being rooted in traditional Chinese culture. Although the structure and tech-facilitated implementation used by the social credit system may look very modern in the eyes of most ordinary Chinese citizens, the underlying logic of the system is actually in line with the deep-rooted cosmology of Chinese folk religion, itself influenced by Buddhism as well as Daoism.

Talking about issues of ethics and morality, people in China often refer to an old saying: ren zai zuo, tian zai kan (“people are doing things, the sky is watching”).This reflects a common belief shared by the Chinese that whatever you do on the earth, there is always a record of your good and bad deeds in the ‘sky’ (tian). Unlike the Christian God, the concept of tian is much ‘nebulous’ and less humanised and somewhat resembles the laws of nature (especially in the discourse of Daoism). Tian resembles the sky in that it is distant to the point that it has given up on the task of reconciling the human world with itself, but nevertheless knows about everyone’s deeds and thoughts. Tian therefore doesn’t judge ‘randomly’ – one can potentially create a good fate through good deeds.

As the anthropologist Rudolf Wagner[1] argues, traditionally, Chinese people view life itself as credit. In this case, the system of ‘karma points’ is simply the standardisation of the relationship between human beings and supernatural powers. One can earn points by doing good deeds, but these can also be easily squandered through bad ones.

The social credit system as it exists today, which is more like a patchy network of regional pilots and experimental projects, still has a long way to go before becoming a comprehensive system at a national scale which determines every aspect of a citizen’s life within a single score. One can obviously debate whether it is appropriate for the state to play this role of Tian, but the very acknowledgement of the fact that the social credit system neatly matches a fundamental understanding of the relationship between human beings, society and the universe helps us to understand why the popular response has so far not been what might have been expected.

 

* This article is based on a 16-month traditional ethnography on the use of digital devices such as smartphones in Shanghai. Ethnography tries to minimise artificial encounters, such as surveys and interviews, in favour of being present with people in their everyday lives. I estimate that I talked with around 500 people and there are 146 people I would have spent at least 15 hours with. Conversations about the social credit system came up naturally rather than through direct elicitation.

 

 

[1] Rudolf Wagner. 2014. Fate’s gift money: the Chinese case of coping with the asymmetry between man and fate. In Hagen, J. & Welker, M. Money as God. Cambridge University Press. Pp. 184-218.

 

 

The Full Moon on WeChat — by Xinyuan Wang

XinyuanWang10 October 2019

fig. 1

11 am, UK time, 13th September, in China it’s already early evening. Mrs. Tong (59), one of my research participants in Shanghai, sent me a WeChat animated sticker of a bright full moon surrounded by three joyful bouncing bunnies, saying ‘Happy Mid-autumn day!’ (fig. 1) This is just one of hundreds of stickers, emoji, short videos, or animated albums to do with the full moon or moon cakes that circulated among friends and family members on WeChat, the dominant social media platform in China (fig. 2) on the day of Chinese mid-autumn festival.

Falling on the 15th of the 8th month of the Chinese lunar calendar, the mid-autumn festival, or the ‘moon festival’, happened to be 13th September this year. Untouched by ‘western’ superstition surrounding Friday 13th, my WeChat profile ushered in the warmest greetings and festival wishes from a wide range of WeChat contacts from China many from my Shanghai field site which I left this June.

Mid-autumn festival is said to be second important national festival next to the Chinese New Year. Traditionally, on the festival day, family members gather to offer sacrifice (e.g. moon cakes) to the moon, appreciate the bright full moon at night, eat moon cakes, and express affection and sentiment of missing toward family members and friends who live afar.

Well, ‘live afar’ probably will be redefined as Mr. Huang (75), another research participant in Shanghai, said as a goodbye wish: “Even living in the same city, friends meet on WeChat. Live near or afar, it matters much less once you are on WeChat. So see you on WeChat.” Mr. Huang is indeed right. Three months after leaving the field work, I still feel deeply involved in the loop of neighbours’ gossips or the troublesome relationship of mother and daughter-in-law. I constantly get updates about the daily quarrels between the cat living on the 15th floor and the dog on the 20th floor, the routine exercises and activities in the old people’s home 5,700 miles away from London, all thanks to WeChat.

Back in London, my colleague Marilia asked me whether it was difficult to leave the field site. I shook my head: it is not difficult, it is simply IMPOSSIBLE. It may very well be the same case for other anthropologists in the age of smartphone: we meet people on social media, be it WeChat, WhatsApp, Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook, so that even if there is an end to the field work, there will be no full stop to the constant connection with people from the field site online.

How long will the full moon appear? Wine cup in hand, I ask the sky… Why then when people part, is the moon often full and bright? People have sorrow and joy; they part and meet again. The moon is bright or dim; it waxes and wanes. Nothing in history has ever been perfect.” Those melancholy words written on a mid-autumn festival 900 years ago by the great poet Su Shi, still influence nowadays Chinese people’s interpretation and aesthetic appreciation of the moon.

Every year, on this particular night, the bright full moon conjures the collective hallucination of ‘togetherness’ among Chinese people: no matter where you are, we are looking at the same moon, and we are bathing in the same moonlight together. Almost millennium ago, clever ancient Chinese have created the ‘mega-symbol’ moon to visualize and mediate the affections in long distance. Problem solved.

fig. 2

Alas, the perfect solution doesn’t work in the face of ‘time difference’ caused by really long distance in the ‘global village’. When my Chinese friends admired the full moon at night, I hadn’t even finished the first coffee during the day. However, before I saw the full moon on the sky, I had been bathing in the moonlight on WeChat during the day. One tends to think the full moon in the sky is more ‘real’ than the full moon on WeChat, but, is it? Would the moon in the sky be the same moon had it not been wrapped with the poetic imagination of ‘togetherness’ from generation to generation in China? If it is all about the shared imagination within the specific group of population, then the moon on WeChat shared among Chinese people is definitely more ‘real’ than the moon in the sky of the unlucky Friday the 13th.

Sometimes I am wondering, had poet Su Shi lived in today’s world, on the grand mid-autumn festival, whether he would still ask the sky for the full moon, holding the wine cup high, or, would he be equally satisfied by sending the full moon on WeChat, holding the smartphone tight.

 

Smartphone and the ‘sense of ritual’ in daily life — by Xinyuan Wang

XinyuanWang31 May 2019

Mr. Shou taking photos for elderly residents (photo by Xinyuan Wang)

I have not been photographed by a proper camera for ages! It feels so special…nowadays most people only take photos by mobile phone.

79-year-old Mengyun claimed with a big smile after posing for the portrait photographing. Mengyun is one of my neighbors who joined an oral historical project which I co-operate with the local residential compound in Shanghai. As part of the project, I invited Mr. Shou, a professional photographer, to take portrait photos for a few families.

Mr. Shou taking photos for elderly residents (photo by Xinyuan Wang)

Mr. Shou is an experienced photographer who has done a lot of work especially among the elderly. He sees this none-profit photography project as something he has to do with great respect:

Many people passed away without a proper photograph. Every person deserves a proper portrait photo in his or her life. What I want to do is not just take photos, but keep the great memory of the person. I take it with great respect and people can also feel the sense of ritual. Life needs sense of ritual, don’t you think so?”

Mr. Shou always mentioned the phrase ‘sense of ritual’ (yi shi gan) to highlight the significance of the photography session. After seeing how the three-generational family finally arranged a photo slot which can suit every member’s schedule after four-day back-and-forth coordination on the family WeChat group; how the bedridden lady struggled to get up and put on lipstick for the photo-taking, which she had not applied since she was ill; how people moved the heavy furniture around several times to find a best backdrop for the family group photo, I have to admit Mr. Shou is right in many ways – probably the mere fact that this photo is not taken by a smartphone but a ‘proper camera’, as Mengyun put it, has given people the sense of the ritual, so that they are more willing to make an effort to make it better.

Mr. Shou taking photos for elderly residents (photo by Xinyuan Wang)

The cost of photography was definitely one of the main reasons that photo-taking was such as special thing in the past old days. As Guancheng, 70s, recalls: “About forty years ago when I grew interested in photography, it was such a luxury hobby. I remember clearly at the farm camp[1] (nong chang) my monthly salary was about 22 rmb, and at that time a roll of film cost almost 10 rmb, plus the cost of developing the film etc. the cost of taking 30 ish photos was about half of my monthly salary!

On top of it, 50 years ago a camera was so expensive to the degree that almost no individual or household could afford one. People had to borrow cameras from the work unit (dan wei) or rent cameras from camera shops. Given the opportunity of having a photo taken was so rare, the process of arranging photo-taking was also an important part of the ritual.

In many cases, people can remember in great detail about things which were not captured by the photo – such as who took the photo, and in what situations they had the chance to get a photo taken. However sometimes people couldn’t even remember other persons on the photo. The mere fact that the invisible things could get memorized while the visible things could get lost of a photograph seems to lead to an understanding that the very event of photo-taking can be as important as the photograph itself, if not more important.

It seems that the rise the smartphone has killed the ‘sense of ritual’ of daily life as taking photos by smartphones nowadays has become such a mundane activity. However, along with the decline of one kind of ritual, the proliferation of smartphone has created new ‘rituals’ in daily life.

‘New rituals’ being taking photos of the food before a meal – you have to take photos first otherwise you are not fully appreciating the food and the hospitality.

“I don’t think she likes the meal tonight as she didn’t even take any photo of the dishes.” Ms. Huang (58) said showing evident disappointment, after an important dinner to which she treated her son and his fiancée.

‘New rituals’ – i.e.  the taking of many photos and selecting a small portion of them to post on WeChat – the social life of photographs online has become a significance aspect of photo-taking as well as the way people perceive their daily life.

Alice, 35, described her mother’s ‘ritual’ of taking and posting photos: “When she visits somewhere, she really doesn’t have a lot to do, excepting taking loads of photos, and after the visit, she spends a lot of time polishing these photos, adding filters, and after that she carefully selects nine of them[2] to post on her WeChat, editing the text meticulously and then she checks her smartphone almost every two second to see who has liked her photos and what kind of comments she received. And then, the next day you can overhear her WeChat video call with her close friends, complaining who has not liked her posts for a long time.”

Actually, what Alice observed about her mother’s photo-taking ritual is not rare among people of all ages I know in Shanghai. Given the ‘cost’ of taking a photo as well as taking a short video is nothing in the age of smartphone, the ‘willing’ of taking a photo or video speaks directly to people’s attitude and evaluation of things – ‘Is it worthwhile being recorded?’ or ‘Is it worthwhile being posted on my WeChat?’

In the field work, I have observed various situations where people created new rituals out of the daily use of smartphone. The discussion of the relationship between smartphone use and ‘sense of ritual’ will continue in my further study.

[1] Where he was sent to receive re-education from peasants in 1960s.

[2] on WeChat, one post only allows nine images

Thoughts inspired by exhibitions in Shanghai

XinyuanWang1 February 2019

As one of China’s major cultural centers, Shanghai boasts a wealth of cultural events. Many locals, especially the younger generation, often go to theatres, galleries and museums. During my stay in Shanghai, beside curating the exhibition for my research participants, I also go to exhibitions on a regular basis in order to keep pace with the ever-changing cultural landscape of the metropolis. Different exhibitions attract different groups of people in Shanghai, therefore going to exhibitions also allows me to observe my fellow exhibition goers in an organic way. Every single exhibition which I went to was very interesting as I could always enjoy watching people even if the exhibition per se may by any chance fail me.

For example, the 2018 Shanghai book fair attracted a quite wide range of audience. Through the lens of my research concern upon the use of smartphones, it was also curious to see that in the sea of books some were quite happy to sit on the steps checking their smartphones and a grandfather using two smartphones to take photos of his grandchildren.

2018 Shanghai book fair

Checking smartphones in the sea of books

Taking photos with two smartphones

On the West bund art expo, I met probably the most international dwellers in shanghai who also attribute to the unique temperament of Shanghai.

West bund art Expo

Whilst an amateur painting exhibition at a community library attracted many retired people from the neighborhood. I happen to spot a lady in her 60s showing the exhibition via the WeChat video call to her family with the help of her friend.

Recently, to my surprise, I happened to walk into a pop-up exhibition about the social changes in the past 40 years (1978-2018) of ‘Chinese economic reform and opening up’ (gai ke kai fang) in the middle of an underground station. With a variety of daily life materials as well as typical scenarios of social interactions, this exhibition vividly represents what has happened in ordinary people’s daily lives and what people are longing for. (Check the short video of this exhibition)

A pop-up exhibition about the social changes in China in the past 40 years

A pop-up exhibition in the middle of an underground station in Shanghai tells you about the social changes in the past 40 years of ‘Chinese economic reform and opening up’, where the techonology plays a significant role. Filmed by researcher Xinyuan Wang

Posted by Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing on Friday, 1 February 2019

In the first section, an old-school bike represents the most advanced household transportation in the first decade of the reform era. Two semi-transparent figures, being father and son, imply a scenery associated with the old bike – the father is giving a lesson of how to ride a bike, the boy is wobbling about on the bike, asking: “Daddy, can you buy me a bike once I can ride it? Oh no please don’t let me go, I will lose the balance anytime!”

Beside the parent-child interaction, there were household items including an old sewing machine, a radio, a fridge and a TV set. The caption of this section read “My understanding of happiness started from the moment of our whole family watching TV together”. For long, the TV set has had great significance in Chinese households and the place where the TV set is located is where the family spends quality time together.

As shown in the neighboring showcase, more technology entered into people’s daily life, among them the landline telephone was the most important one. To have a household landline installed was regarded as a great honor in the late 1980s as only the public institutes had such privilege before. The caption of this section reads “For years the landline telephone had been my pride, and since then I always used the landline number as my password for my bank cards.”

Many of my research participants share the similar memories displayed at the exhibition that one has to queue at public telephone booths or visit friends who were privileged to have household landlines to make a phone call. In front of the showcase, a little boy asked his grandpa what is the landline telephone, the grandpa answered, “it is called landline telephone (zuo ji), kind of mobile phone before you were born!” Here the future is used to define the past.

Little Boy: what’s that? Grandfather: It is called landline, kind of mobile phone before you were born

The next highlighted landmark of daily technology is OICQ in 1990s along with PC. OICQ soon changed its name to QQ, and even nowadays QQ is still one of the most widely used social media platforms in China. The conversation between a school boy and a girl in the showcase is – boy: “I have got 50 friends on OICQ, and one of them even come from HuHeHaoTe (a city in northern China” Girl:” Please help me to register a QQ account!”

For years, QQ has occupied the PC screen of millions of Chinese people. The use of QQ also gradually spread from Chinese cities to rural China. Six years ago, when I conducted my PhD field work in a small factory town in southeast China, QQ was still the most widely used social media among rural migrant workers.

In terms of the digital device, as one of my research participants put it “In the past decade, the screen has become smaller, while the function has become stronger”. After a series of mobile phone ‘evolutions’, by the beginning the fourth decade of the reform era, China has entered the age of the smartphone. With proliferation of the use of smartphones, more and more older people in China have adopted a new way of interpersonal communication with their family members.

As shown in the last section of the exhibition, in a well-equipped modern kitchen, a young person is cooking while having a video call with his parents, saying: “Mum, look, I can take care of myself. Those are what I just got from the food market. Daddy has high blood pressure, don’t let him drink too much! ” His mum said: “What worry us most is that you don’t eat properly when you live outside alone, having take-away for every meal.”

A passer-by in his 30s commented: “it is so true, my mum would nag so at least ten times a day!” and his friend remarked: “in my case, it’s my mum who will hold her smartphone while she was cooking, showing me all the nice food at home via video call.”

From the old-school bike to landline telephone, from the offline family time in front of the TV set to the online family time facilitated by the digital technology, a small pop-up exhibition captures those subtle but significant material and moments of the daily lives of ordinary Chinese in the past forty years.

On top of it, located in the middle of one of the busiest underground junctions in Shanghai, this exhibition manages to reach the widest audience as possible – I have never seen so many older people and young kids in other exhibitions. Furthermore, I was most impressed by the way this exhibition gets all kinds of people involved, and such willingness and skill to disseminate knowledge is also something our project can learn from.

Scan the QR code to connect with the deities

XinyuanWang12 November 2018

Recently, Danny came to visit my field site in Shanghai. As he remarked on his on-the-spot tweet, one of the biggest ‘shocks’ he could feel immediately was that: “Curious that in this age of supposed global homogeneity, here in China you really don’t seem to be able to do anything without a QR code, while in Europe you can’t do anything with a QR code.” We ordered food, rented bikes, hailed taxis, booked a hotel…all by scanning QR code here – actually since I came to Shanghai in February 2018, I only used cash twice.

Having said so, I felt Danny was a bit exaggerating about the ubiquity of the QR code in Shanghai until more recently I visited Jing’an temple.

On the last day of the seven-day shui lu fa hui (the water and land rite) of Jing’an temple, I visited this famous temple with more than 780 years history in the very center of the most flourishing and buzzing downtown area of Shanghai. Besieged by a proliferation of high-rise shopping malls, Jing’an temple is the only place where people burn ‘money’ not in luxury consumption, but for the benefit of their ancestors.

Jing’an temple. photo by Xinyuan Wang

One woman who was busy burning ‘ghost money’ (ming bi) explained that the money made by tin foil paper is for the ghosts and deities so that the souls of the deceased persons will find some peace during purgatory, so called chao du, she added earnestly: “Today is the last chance of this year that ghosts would receive money!”  According to her, basically, in the after-world ghosts have to be bribed to treat the passing ancestors without too much torture and hardship.

The air was full of choking smell of the dense smoke of the burning ‘ghost money’ and burning incense. The smoke which indicates  immaterialization symbolizes the transformation from the tangible material world to the intangible spirit world.

On the other side of the raging flames one could sees a big standing electronic screen called ‘Prayer merit and credit list’ (qi fu gong de bang).  Standing in front of the big screen, people is were busy reaching the deities in a more ‘environment friendly’ way: holding their smartphones against the screen to scan the QR code on the top so that they could make a prayer online. The prayers they made would pop up in the form of vertical red scroll on the big screen immediately after submitting, and many take a photo of the screen for the record.

Scan the QR code and make a prayer online. photo by Xinyuan Wang

Last time I saw such a fancy way of interaction was during the exhibition ‘from selfie to self-expression’ of Saatchi Gallery in London which was supposed to be the pioneering art experiment in the digital age.

In that exhibition, visitors could post selfies on their personal twitter accounts with given hashtag and the selfies would be projected immediately against the wall of the exhibition hall. As I recall, a young lady who just saw her selfie popped up on the wall, exclaimed thrillingly “Oh my god… isn’t it amazing?!”

I guess she was not really asking god’s opinion about it, but I really wonder which way ghosts and deities in China prefer to be reached… smoke or QR code?

 

(check the short video here)

The QR code in JingAn Temple, Shanghai

In Shanghai, people scan QR code for almost everything, including to get connected with deities during religious ceremony. Video by our researcher Xinyuan Wang.

Posted by Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing on Sunday, 11 November 2018


							
				
						

The dilemma of life-saving medicines in China

XinyuanWang20 September 2018

Last summer, a film about illness and medicine achieved phenomenal success among Chinese audiences. Some friends of mine who had watched the film suggested that I take some tissues or even towels along to the cinema, assuming, , half-jokingly, that many would cry during the film. But they were quite right, in the cinema there were people sitting all around me wiping tears during the film, and talking highly of it with tears in their eyes after the cinema was over.

The film, Dying to Survive,  tells the tale of a health supplements peddler Yong who smuggles illegal medicine from India to sell to leukaemia patients in China at more affordable prices. Why are Chinese people all so touched by a film about an illegal medicine smuggler?

In the film, even though the protagonist Yong initially goes into the trade by chance and was purely motivated by making money – “I don’t want to become a saver, I just want to make money” as he claimed, Yong started to become more altruistic as he gradually realizes how many lives he could save by the cheaper medicine. The film was inspired by a real-life incident in China: in 2015, a man called Lu Yong was charged for importing and selling a cheaper, knockoff version of Gleevec, a leukaemia medication. Lu himself suffered from leukaemia and began purchasing Gleevec tablets produced by an Indian pharmaceutical company for other patients who couldn’t afford the “real” drug. The indictment was later quashed after the patients that had benefited from Lu’s actions petitioned the court to lessen the sentence and release him. In recent years, the Chinese government had realized this problem and had make some effort to reduce the price of ‘life-saving’ medicines. So, the film is also in line with the state policy.

As shown in the film, an old lady said: “one bottle of genuine medicine cost me 40,000 CNY (around 4,500 pound), I have been sick for 3 years, and I have been eating these pills for 3 years. In order to buy this medicine, my family had to sell the house, my family has been totally dragged down. Which family does not have a patient? Can you guarantee that you will not get sick for a lifetime? I don’t want to die, I want to live.”

A 45-year-old woman whose mum died two years ago because of cancer, told me: “I just can’t stop crying, when the old lady in the film said ‘Can you guarantee that you will not get sick for a lifetime? I don’t want to die, I want to live’,” she adds, “everybody who has experienced a major illness themselves, or of their family member or good friends can feel for the film. You would never imagine the desperate feelings about losing somebody you love dearly just because you can’t afford the saving-life medicine.”  Indeed, even though there is life-saving medicine, there is no life-saving money. In the film, the only sincere line a deceitful drug dealer uttered was “there is one illness in the world which you can never cure – poverty.”

Satirical films such as this unveil and spotlight the social concern that no Chinese would not bear to ignore – that for normal people, a major disease can potentially tear a family down both mentally and financially. Dying to survive has sparked and leveraged tremendous discussion over many topics nationwide, which is unprecedentedly in China’s film history. Without a doubt, the film has touched a few sour points of Chinese medical care from the high price of imported medicine to major illness insurance policy (da bing yi bao). Each aspect requires thorough investigation in order to understand the situation.  If you are interested in the film, here is the trailer with English subtitles. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=on82VId28l4

Curating an exhibition in an old residential compound

XinyuanWang13 July 2018

Residents who participated the exhibition launch

residents are introducing old family photos to visitors

In field work, in order to get to know people in the way people feel comfortable or familiar with, ethnographers always take many different roles. Three years ago, in my PhD field work I used to help in a mobile phone shop in order to get first-hand information of the local mobile phone market. This time, in order to know the personal history of the older generation who live in an old-style residential compound in the city center of Shanghai, I took the role of exhibition curator of the community exhibition.
It was in an interview with the officials of the living compound early this year, I first heard the news that the local ‘street office’ (jie dao) is thinking of holding an exhibition about the residents in the compound. One month later I started to interview households, compile the oral history of residents as volunteer curator. The curation of the exhibition is a perfect opportunity to justify myself to enter into many households in this residential compound – the majority of them are in their 60s, 70s, and 80s, some of them have been living here for more than 70 years.

In-depth interviews usually took 3-4 hours, with the longest one being 7 hours – the old gentleman in his 80s was so generous to tell me his whole life with abundant old photos in that interview. After the interview, I became friends with my interviewees and all of them were willing to talk to me again and urged me to visit them more. The older generation who went through the fall of the Qing dynasty (the oldest cohort in their 90s), the chaos of the warlord era, the Sino-Japan war, civil war, the Cultural revolution, the economic reform has kept their mouths shut for ages. Now, finally, they feel the need to tell their stories, which, in many respects, has been full of suffering and trauma, as otherwise they would take these experiences with them to the grave. And they know I am an unbiased listener.

The exhibition was launched on 19th May 2018. It was very well received: in the past one month, the exhibition was reported by the local TV and newspapers. People shared articles about the exhibition among neighbors, friends and families via social media. Many representatives from various parts of the Shanghai government and the party visited, including the deputy Communist Party Secretary of Shanghai, Mr. Yin and his colleagues.

92-year-old Ms. Cai was very happy about the photo I took for her. (She was holding the old photo of her family)

Old photo and new photo of the same individuals or households taken at the same place in the residential compound

The most delightful aspect was that some residents have come to the exhibition hall to meet old friends – finally they feel this exhibition hall has become a space they can connect to. As the preface of the exhibition says: The exhibition hall is not only the place to display, but also the space where the oral history project of this living compound is carried out. Residents are welcomed to use the exhibition hall as a communal living room where old neighbors and new friends can sit down and chat.
The exhibition will last for a few months. There will be regular updates with more stories. Now I am working on the updates of the exhibition as more residents have come forward to share their family stories.

The marriage bazaar in Shanghai – when ‘match.com’ meets farmer’s market

XinyuanWang18 May 2018

Early last month, I asked a group of young professionals a question: where can I get to know retired people in Shanghai? “You must visit the People’s Park!” one claimed. “Yes, in the People’s park you will meet the typical Chinese parents who force their children to get married!” one added. “My mum kept arranging blind dates for me, I feel like crying” another one complained. My curiosity got the better of me when I was told the People’s Park is the place where retired Chinese parents would gather and arrange blind dates for their adult children.

I visited the People’s Park the following Sunday. It is a sanctuary with trees, ponds and winding brick paths in the very heart of the city center. In a corner of the park there is a crowded and bustling ‘marriage bazaar’ taking place. Parents in their 50s, 60s, and even 70s gather there to find life partners for their children (fig. 1).

Figure 1: one of the entrances to the marriage bazaar at people’s park
Photo (CC BY) Xinyuan Wang

Personal profiles of singles dangle from strings, lie on floor, are held aloft by parents, and most of them are clipped atop open umbrellas (fig. 2). Lining the brick pathways are more than six-hundred open umbrellas.

Figure 2. Photo (CC BY) Xinyuan Wang

The personal profiles displayed here are extraordinarily plain  – essentially non-visual – pictures and colours are scarce. On a plain A4 size sheet of white paper, a list of personal details, including age, height, household registration area, job, annual income, property ownership, situation of parents (job, health status) are stated outright. The real name and contact details of the person in question are absent, only the mobile number of the person’s parent is provided – to ensure that the parents are the ‘gatekeepers’.

I wondered why these parents don’t go for online dating websites. As far as I observed, it is not because they are unfamiliar with the digital – quite the opposite, all of them have a smartphone in their hands. It is probably because such non-digital meeting is actually more efficient than the online dating. “Here is more reliable, dating websites are for young kids for fun.” one lady in her late 50s said. In the park, parents can immediately arrange a quick face-to-face meeting with the parent(s) of candidates.  The parents chat with each other and if they get along with each other and believe their children match, they’ll then arrange a blind date for their children. It’s a way for parents to put their stamp of approval on a relationship before the couple has even met.

Furthermore, the marriage bazaar developed organically over more than a decade in Shanghai. Retired people were meeting at the park to practice dancing, play chess and cards. As a social hub for retired people, the matchmaking arose naturally as one of the most important and popular topics at this corner. The social function of the marriage bazaar cannot be underestimated: to arrange blind dates in a way is an excuse for a massive congregation of middle-aged people who share similar values.

Chinese young professionals may dislike the way their parents are getting involved in their personal issues, but as a researcher, I am obliged to empathetically engage with both sides, and to understand why this new phenomenon has arisen.

A Bottle of Vitamins Would be Just Fine

XinyuanWang21 March 2018

Screenshot of Chinese online shops of various VDS products

You see, health is really the ‘1’.” Mrs. Cao concludes after the story of how she has been helping her best friend to take care of the friend’s husband who suffered from dementia. Mrs. Cao in her early 60s believes that if one’s life is valued as a string of figures, then health is the beginning ‘1’ before all the ‘0’.  Wealth, social status, knowledge, beauty, and etc. are all the following ‘0’s, without the ‘1’, the rest in life means nothing and values nothing. In order to keep the ‘1’, Mrs. Cao takes multi-vitamin products on a daily basis. In the middle of our conversation, Mrs. Cao answered a phone call from her sister who is going to take a holiday in Australia. In that call Mrs. Cao said to her sister: “Don’t buy anything else for me, a bottle of vitamins would be just fine!

Mrs. Cao’s passion for vitamins is very commonplace among her peers. So far, more than 90% of the people above 60 I met in Shanghai reported that they took vitamins and dietary supplements (VDS) in the past one month. Foreign VDS products are given preference as people believe that the quality of an international brand is more reliable.

It is reported that Chinese spent over 109 billion RMB (US$17.3 billion) of VDS in 2015.  By 2020, the market of VDS in China is expected to reach 149 billion RMB (US$23.6 billion). With over 350 million middle class consumers, mainland China represents the largest VDS market in the world thanks to the increasing disposable incomes and increasing health awareness especially among urban ageing middle-class.[1]

In the sub-district in central Shanghai where I conduct fieldwork, more than half of the population is 60-year-old and older. A 2017 survey[2] conducted by ‘Shanghai Consumer Protection Committee’ shows that in 2017, more than 70% of elderly citizens purchased bao jian pin (health protection product) in the past year, and more than 13.8% of elderly citizens (60+) consumed more than 10,000 RMB (US$1,587) on bao jian pin in the past one year. Given the average disposable income among Shanghai residents in 2017 was 58,988 RMB, and the elderly citizen is the relatively low-income population in China, it is not exaggerating to say the consumption on bao jian pin almost accounts for one fifth of annul disposable income of the aging population in Shanghai.

Such a phenomenon is important for me to further understand people’s daily practice of self-care (yang shen).  As the field work moves along, I will continue to observe and analyse systematically the reasons why people have such a passion for bao jian pin. And what the consumption of bao jian pin can tell us about the people and society.

[1] https://www.marketingtochina.com/market-vitamins-health-supplements-china/

[2] http://news.163.com/17/1103/00/D29DLGDF00018AOQ.html

The Age of Migration

XinyuanWang13 February 2018

A rural migrant checking his smartphone while peddling steamed buns for the Spring Festival meals in Shanghai (photo by Xinyuan Wang)

One week ago, when I finally arrived in Shanghai and started flat hunting, the estate agent urged me to make a decision within a few hours as “the Spring Festival (chun jie) is coming and everything will be closed very soon”. Chances were that he exaggerated things so that he could close the deal more quickly, but he did have a point.

With the approaching Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival, every day I notice more businesses closing – from restaurants to express delivery services.  The 24/7 super convenient metropolis has become less efficient and fast-paced as more migrant workers embarked upon their journeys back to their home villages for the Spring Festival reunion. Many people in Shanghai only start to notice the massive contribution of migrant workers when a whole range of services fails – just as when they appreciate their dependence upon their smartphone the moment they realise they have left it behind.

The departing migrant workers are part of the largest annual human migration in the world – the number of passenger-journeys during the Spring Festival travel season, so called chun yun,  hit 2.9 billion in 2017. Shanghai, as the major destination of migrant workers in China, all of a sudden has become “an empty city” as one of my new neighbors Mr. Zhu put it. Mr. Zhu is in his late 60s, and was also packing, flying to the USA to celebrate New Year with his son’s family. A common traveling pattern here seems to be migrant workers moving inland to their home towns while local well-off Shanghainese flying overseas to have a New Year holiday.

Compared to physical migration, the ‘digital migration’ in China, taking place from offline to online, may cause much less tension in terms of domestic transportation pressure, however it is equally massive and significant. You may ask what is digital migration and in what ways it is possible? Hopefully, today’s (13/02/2018 London time 1:32pm) BBC world service radio documentary ‘Digital Migration’ will provide one of the answers. In this documentary, I re-visit factory workers who were my key contacts in my previous project, exploring how the use of social media has allowed Chinese migrant workers to live in a modern China.

It was because of my own observations of Chinese migrant workers, with whom I lived for 15 months in a small factory town, who saw Shanghai as the symbol of modern China, that I decided to pick Shanghai as my new field site to explore the impact of smartphones. As far as the new project is concerned it is definitely too early to draw any conclusions, but the first week’s exploration has shown me the ‘digital migration’ among urban Chinese is taking a different form.