X Close

Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing Blog

Home

Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing

Menu

Chinese people living overseas: dilemmas during COVID-19

Xin Yuan Wang30 March 2020

In the third week of March this year, the majority of my research participants in Shanghai were finally allowed to freely step out of their home after they had self-isolated under stringent quarantine rules for more than 50 days since the Chinese New Year. However, there is still no further official notice about when schools will reopen, and wearing face masks is still meticulously followed by the majority. Nevertheless, many believe the dark winter has gone, and things are gradually coming to life in mainland China.

The screengrab above shows an infographic circulated among older people on WeChat, illustrating the five significant signs which will indicate whether the crisis has passed:

1) There is an abundant supply of face masks;

2) All the nurseries have re-opened;

3) Medical professionals no longer wear protection suits;

4) “Liang hui” (The National People’s Congress and The Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference) takes place once again;

5) The ban on international flights has ended

However, for millions of Chinese people living overseas*, there is still a long way to go, given that the pandemic is now raging outside of China with unexpected speed. In many societies, the Chinese diaspora were the first who started to wear face masks and avoid public transport at a time when most others saw no point in doing so. At UCL Anthropology, Chinese students showed great concern about the situation in London, most of them showing signs of anxiety at least two weeks before most other students. Before UCL decided to cease all face-to-face teaching on the 15th of March, I had received a collective request for ‘digital lectures’ from all the Chinese students on my course. Before this, it was these students who had been subject to racial and social discrimination.

Screenshot of news item about Chinese students who had suffered discrimination. This has been circulated widely among the overseas Chinese community. Source here.

Maggie, one of the students, puts it this way:

“Should I simply follow the Chinese government’s guild line as well as all my family and friends’ urge to wear masks and do self-isolating, which means I will be treated like an idiot in the UK, or try to follow the local mainstream that lives life as usual but feels so overwhelmed in the crowd?”

For these students, the sense that in the UK a lot of things were left to ordinary people’s discretion while in China there were rigorous regulations in place was itself a cause of anxiety.

Since the beginning of March, the overwhelming sentiment has been that ‘China is the safest place in the world’. Students, desperate to go home, were finding that the price of flights had gone up between three to five times what it normally was. At the same time, they were receiving endless WeChat messages to come home. There followed all sorts of stories about how they wore masks for the entire 20-hour trip and refused all food and drink until they got home.

An example comes from Ms. Chen, who managed to fly back to Shanghai on the 12th of March. When she landed, there were at least ten ambulance and police cars waiting on the tarmac. Passengers were then examined and those with a high temperature were taken to collective quarantine facilities or hospitals straight off the aircraft. The rest were not allowed to leave or take any public transport – even the use of the toilet was regulated, with passengers only being allowed to go if accompanied by airport staff in protective suits and masks. Ms. Chen needed to travel to a neighbouring city from Pudong airport. Along with a few passengers going in a similar direction, Ms. Chen was picked up by specific coaches and subsequently ‘handed over’ with extreme caution between different officials of varying levels, from city representatives (who were on standby at the airport 24/7) to district officers and finally, subdistrict officers. This continued until she finally arrived home.

The photo provided by Ms Chen of the flight she took. It is unknown who the author of the photo is,  although the photo itself has been circulating online quite widely.

At 2 am, the officer responsible for the living compound (the party officer at the grassroots level) was already expecting her in front of her door. Upon entering her flat, Ms. Chen’s door was immediately sealed using paper strips. Every day, food would be sent to her door and she would be required to report her temperature twice a day via WeChat as well as receiving a regular check from a community doctor and getting her rubbish taken away. After this, her door would be re-sealed. On day two, a policeman came to install CCTV in front of her door. After 14 days of home quarantine, she would receive a nucleic acid test (one of the types of test that can detect the virus), and only upon receiving a negative result would her home quarantine end.

Ms. Chen thinks she is fortunate in that she was allowed to be home quarantined in the first place. More recently, Jing, 65, a previous research participant in Shanghai who is planning on travelling back to Shanghai from Australia, expressed concerns about her journey home. By that time, China had implemented an event stricter policy aimed at handling an increasing number of ‘internationally imported cases’, and anyone arriving from abroad would be transferred to collective city quarantine facilities for 14 days.

Photo taken by Jing: a subdistrict officer wearing a protection suit receiving passengers from the airport

Official photos of the Shanghai Pudong airport. Source here.

At the time of writing, China has reduced flights even further: The Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) has requested Chinese airlines to only maintain one route into each country and is limiting the number of flights to one per week, effective March 29. China has also suspended practically all foreigners’ entries into the country.

An additional factor when considering the dilemma of those living overseas is that most of them still take their news mainly from China, staying connected to their home country through their smartphones – the same phones that allow them to maintain a close connection to relatives and friends. All of the above contributes to the feeling of still ‘being at home’, which in turn implies a feeling of ‘not at home’ in these foreign countries.

“When you open WeChat, you only read good news about China and sensational, negative news about the rest of the world, and then there are all your Chinese contacts sending their urgent concerns to you as if you were living in hell.” – observes Yong, a UK-based Chinese professional.

Yong’s observation is not unfair. Recently, even the articles reflecting upon the death of the ‘whistle-blower’ Dr Li Wenliang had been censored on Chinese social media. Dr Li tried to issue the first warning about the virus outbreak in December last year but was accused of ‘spreading rumours’ by local authorities. He was subsequently exonerated after his death.

More fundamentally, between the UK and China, there are different attitudes in the state’s response to the virus.  Things that would be taken as a gross invasion of individual freedom in countries like the UK are commonly appreciated as ‘care’ among the Chinese. It is this ubiquitous extreme forced ‘care,’ that results in Chinese people feeling much safer in China.

In colloquial Chinese, most commonly, people use the word ‘guan‘ to refer to all kinds of care. Still, another primary meaning of ‘guan‘ is ‘discipline’ and ‘control,’ and one can find the same character in ‘management’ (guan li).  To say ‘adult children fail to take care of their older parents’ in Chinese would be ‘the children no longer guan their older parents’. Also, if one wanted to say ‘the Party clamps down on corrupted officials’, one would say ‘the party guan the corrupted officials’. “Guan is all about love“, as one of my research participants in Shanghai said.

Throughout China’s long history, emperors were always viewed as the head of a big family who takes care of the family members by guarding things closely and keeping them under control. On a related note, I recently wrote an article about why ordinary Chinese citizens generally welcome the Chinese social credit system. This ‘surveillance’ is perceived as a kind and responsible measure to take great care of good Chinese citizens.

The current crises are likely to become a further justification of the Party’s all-encompassing control of personal data. Once again, the smartphone is a key player here, since it provides the underlying capacity for tracking down close contacts of infected persons with the help of Big Data, something quite astonishing given that China is the world’s most populous country and yet has managed to control the spread of the virus.

During the crisis, the majority of the population has adopted the smartphone-based ‘Health QR’ code, which is a real-time, big-data-fed personal health credit system which determines whether citizens have to be quarantined or can move around freely (see the photo on the left below). For many, the Health Code has become essential, serving as a personal health ID which allows one to enter office buildings and community facilities. It is not difficult to jump from ‘health credit’ to a more general social credit when members of the public already accept the concept of ‘individual credit’.

Health QR code provided by Alibaba, data provided by the General Office of the State Council, P.R.C.

Health QR Code for Shanghai residents

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are two key lessons here which also reinforce the commitment to anthropology. The first is to take note of the very different responses between countries and the way restrictions are implemented. To a large degree, these do seem to follow longstanding cultural differences. The second is to delve beneath this to ensure we provide an empathetic appreciation of ordinary people’s choices and dilemmas in such chaotic times.

 

* This blog post refers to people from mainland China.

How to use your smartphone: Insights from a pilot course in Dar al-Hawa

Maya De Vries Kedem6 March 2020

Blog post written by Maya de Vries and Laila Abed Rabho

Please note that the participant names used in this blog post, as well as the neighbourhood name ‘Dar al-Hawa’, have been pseudonymised for reasons of anonymity and confidentiality. Dar al-Hawa is the pseudonym for a neighbourhood of 10,000 people in al-Quds (East Jerusalem).

One of the very first observations we had in the field site of Dar al-Hawa was that most people, young and old, own a smartphone. However, when delving deeper into the ways in which they used their phones, we discovered that their digital skills were very limited, and the use of different apps other than WhatsApp, is almost non-existent. Following the goals of the ASSA project, it was clear to us that part of our fieldwork should be to enable individuals to learn and improve their digital skills – an aim also aligned with what Kurt Lewin (1964) called research action in the fieldsite.

It took us more than a year to bring everything together, including finding the right organisation, the right space, getting the timing right, and finding future participants willing to join the course. When it finally happened, we were able to create a pilot course consisting of 12 meetings running for 3.5 hours each. Each of these sessions focused on one thing only, and that is teaching students how to use a smartphone. We partnered with a local organisation called “Good Thought”, a non-profit organisation established in 2003 which aims to reduce social gaps in Israel by providing teaching technical and digital skills to underprivileged groups. Good Thought already teaches similar courses, but they are usually aimed at helping students learn how to use a computer. When we approached them, it was after having spent a long time in the fieldsite, visiting people’s homes and seeing and hearing from different individuals who told us that they don’t have computers or laptops, just smartphones. Hence, we insisted that the course should be focused only on the smartphone. Because of this, the project was effectively a pilot one for the staff of Good Thought as well.

The first meeting took place on the 25th of November at the community centre in Dar al-Hawa, where 17 people arrived to receive information about the course. Eventually, only 15 people registered to attend the course – 4 women and one man. Since the state of Israel has previously declared that it aims to encourage its population and institutes to become more ‘digital’ and thus increase ‘digital equality’[1], we were lucky to receive significant subsidies for the course, meaning each participant only paid 20 NIS for the 12 meetings (NIS = Israeli New Shekel, this is the equivalent of about £4.41).

The leading instructor was N’, a Palestinian woman from al-Quds (East Jerusalem) who is a teacher by profession. Maya de Vries was her assistant throughout the course. In terms of participation and attendance rates, the course was a big success, as more than half of the participants attended 100% of the meetings, and the second half attended around 80-90% of the meetings. This indicates that participants were pleased with the content of the meetings and found it meaningful and helpful. Throughout the course, participants shared these feelings with us and told us how happy they are to be part of it. They also shared with us the fact that this course gives them a reason to get out of the house, and reduces some of the loneliness and boredom they experience on other days of the week when they don’t have other activities planned. One of the participants,  Malak (aged 78) said the course “was something to wake up in the morning and feel happy for”. Here, the act of learning and developing digital skills as part of a group with a mutual goal provided sociality as well, which is something that can be lost in older age.

N’ and de Vries also came to learn difficult it is for individuals who do not speak Hebrew or English to control their smartphones, even if the language of the device itself was set to Arabic. During a lesson about how to use the MyVisit app (a government app assisting users in booking appointments with various formal institutes like electricity companies or the National Insurance Institute etc.), we did not manage to find an Arabic version of it. Hence, those who did not learn Hebrew or English at school were excluded from this particular lesson and completely depended on their group mates as well as N’ and De Vries, to help them.

Figure 1: The MyVisit App (in Hebrew). The smartphone is held by one of the participants. Photo by Maya de Vries (CC BY)

We also came across several government-provided apps and websites which either did not have any Arabic content or had little Arabic content. Furthermore, only 3 out of 15 participants had an email account, and many government-provided apps require email registration to use. Although now each participant has an email account, which they created as part of the course’s assignments, they still found it more difficult to use these. Thus, if the government wants to increase digital participation among different groups, they should think about Whatsapp as an easier-to-use, more functional tool.[2]

In addition to the matter of digital inequality, we also considered the sociopolitical gaps related to the geopolitical conditions of Dar al-Hawa and al-Quds in general[3]. For example, we discovered how difficult it is for this age group to both click on the touch screen as well as wait for their ‘request’ to be uploaded. Many times, we had to explain to our students that they need to be more patient and wait for the app to upload their request, or for the website to appear. We repeated this instruction until our very last meeting – we do not think there is a clear solution to it other than continuing to practice using these tools.

Figure 2: Learning how to turn on the flashlight/torch on their smartphone (Photo by Maya de Vries CC BY)

WhatsApp is the most used app on participants’ phones – they all have it and they all know how to use its basic features such as sending messages and forwarding messages and photos. Nevertheless, we dedicated two lessons to WhatsApp use, including taking photos and selfies, which were not practicalities most of the participants were familiar with. We also taught them how to create a new group and how to record messages. Following WhatsApp, the second most popular apps were Facebook Messenger and Youtube. No one had any health apps on their phone, not even apps related to their health clinic, which has an Arabic language app.

One of the ASSA project’s findings across various field sites, including Japan and Ireland, was that ‘step counter’ apps are in widespread use among the populations studied. These step counters were not used by our participants, not even the versions that are free and built into their phone, although some had heard of step counting and the fact that there was an app on their phone that did just that. No one had actually opened the app, however.

Unfortunately, 12 meetings are simply not enough to teach participants all that smartphones can offer their users. This was something our participants felt during the course as well, and during the final session, they asked to have a second round of the course so they can learn more and develop their skills by learning how to use things like digital banking as well as other features we did not have the time to teach.

Going beyond the skills taught to the participants, as we quoted Malak before, we also heard, in the final session, how happy the students were when coming to the course and learning new things that can assist them in becoming less dependent on their children and grandchildren. Such feelings around the practicalities of independence should be more present among the older population in Dar al-Hawa. Thus, by creating more similar future courses, we are also hoping to make local older people’s lives easier and happier by increasing their knowledge in the digital arena.

Figure 3: The last session’s feast: participants brought home-cooked food to celebrate their achievements during the course. Photo by Maya de Vries (CC BY)

 

 

[1] See more here (in Hebrew): https://www.gov.il/he/departments/digital_israel
[2] We hope to create a greater change and solve this problem.  At the end of March, we are meeting with a representative from the E-Government office (Mimshal Zamin in Hebrew), thus hoping to work with them on both the language gaps, specific the Arabic one, but also on other accessibility issues for older people.
[3] The asymmetry in the education system has a long history, mainly starting after the 1967 annexation of East Jerusalem. For more, see the following Ir Amim report at http://www.ir-amim.org.il/sites/default/files/Education_Report_2017-Fifty_Years_of_Neglect.pdf