China, it is often said, is a country of great contrasts. While our project has placed researchers in eight different countries around the world to research the impacts of social media, for China we deliberately chose to have two separate researchers and fieldsites: one in the north of China, and another in the south. It made sense to have two fieldsites in China because the country is such a unique case: Facebook and Twitter are inaccessible from the mainland, and the country has instead developed it’s own social media networks to fill the gap: QQ, WeChat and Weibo.
I have been astounded by the difference between our two Chinese fieldsites. My China North fieldsite is a very small rural town which is characterised by a relatively fixed local population with little inward migration, a strong emphasis on education, adherence to family planning laws, powerful ideals of family and the institution of marriage.
By contrast, the China South fieldsite where my colleague Xinyuan works is a relatively large urban town, with factories that employ rural migrants from faraway in China’s poorer western provinces. Xinyuan has shown how her participants often avoid family planning laws and show far less concern for the formal education of their children. Their decisions also seem led by more short-term ideals relating to the new pleasures and experiences that migration to urban areas can offer them.
To all intents and purposes, it seemed as though our fieldsites were two different worlds. At least that was the case until last month, when we moved our attention from day-to-day fieldwork to analysing the content of our participants’ QQ profiles. The results of the exercise was startling: despite all the differences between the north and south China fieldsites, most people create and share very similar types of posts. In China the most popular genres of these posts centring on ideals of either romantic relationships (see above example), or childbirth and child-raising.
Our task as anthropologists is to try to make sense of whether there is a link between these similar behaviours in our very different fieldsites, and what these phenomena mean for our understanding of society.
It is very early speculation at this stage, but I have a feeling that these similar postings might be one of the ways in which people across China are able to feel that they share values with each other, despite all the other differences that separate them. It does not matter that the participants from the China North fieldsite do not know our participants in the China South fieldsite, or vice versa. The fact that our informants are mostly writing and sharing the same kinds of posts might mean that they already have more in common than we had previously thought.
If we are to follow this line of reasoning, then it may be possible to speculate that social media in China is playing an important role in nationalism. But the nationalism I am suggesting here is not the obvious kind (and the one that attracts the most media and academic coverage), which operate on the level of patriotic postings, censorship, or protectionism of the Chinese internet. Rather, the nationalism I am proposing operates at a deeper (and far more subtle and widespread) level. Could it be that these posts play an active role in making Chinese people who are so obviously different in terms of status, background and wealth, feel a little more like each other?
If this is the case, then we need to also acknowledge that this affinity, rather than being ‘top down’, is expressed and furthered by users themselves every time they write, like or share one of these apparently innocuous posts. However ridiculous it may sound, the idea that a sense of Chinese nationalism might be partly constructed by shared baby photos and romantic memes could take us a step closer to understanding China as it is imagined and experienced by the normal population.