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QQ and education: children, parents, and schools and communication in China

TomMcDonald22 August 2013

'Summer Holiday Homework' textbook

Chinese textbook entitled ‘Summer Holiday Homework’ used by a middle school student in the North China fieldsite (Photo by Tom McDonald)

In the North China fieldsite, education makes a really neat contrast with Xinyuan’s case that she outlined in her earlier blog post, where she described how the migrant factory workers in her South China fieldsite often seemed to be having children specifically with the objective of sending them to factories at the earliest possible age.

The situation could not be more different here in North China, where education has presented itself as being an overwhelming priority for parents. Although people in the town and the surrounding villages are not in excruciating poverty, they are also by no means wealthy. Nonetheless, doing whatever they can to make sure that their child gets the best education seems to be at the front of parent’s minds. For example, here the summer holidays are not turned over the children’s play, as one may expect. Instead, many children attend tutoring classes (fudao ban). Most of the tutoring classes follow the normal school times of 8-11:30am and 2:30-5:30pm, except they take place an astonishing seven days a week.

Given the importance of educational achievement that parents place on their children, social media seems to play a role that would be best defined as somewhat antagonistic and contradictory to these educational aims. There is a discourse around QQ in the town that assumes it to be bad, and particularly threatening to children’s educational achievement of young people, and so it requires access to be restricted. This is then weighed against more practical benefits offered by the services that mean that they are in fact used by many student, parents and teachers alike.

One of the most common statements that emerged was that parents said their middle school children did not have QQ accounts or mobile phones. Almost every parent of children who did not have QQ or a phone would say ‘it affects study’ (yingxiang xuexi) as the reason for their children not having access to certain types of communication. For example, Mr Li bought a computer in the year 2003 when he was trying to make a go of his photography business. At this time Mr Li’s daughter was about 7 years old. Mr Li decided to setup a QQ account for his daughter. He saw that she was using it a lot and became worried she was playing too much, so he tried encourage his daughter to limit her own use, threatening to change the password if she did not comply. After two days Mr Li went to change the password, and realised it had already been changed. His daughter maintained that she hadn’t changed the password herself, saying to her father ‘hey, how can I not login?’. From this event Mr Li explained that he realised that young people caught on to new technologies very quickly.

Schools themselves also present a somewhat mixed set of messages regarding the use of social networking. Most obviously, the school rules prohibit the use of mobile phones. The reality is, of course, somewhat different. According to one middle school teacher, in a class of around 40 students, one might expect to find around 11 with telephones on their person. The most important reason for confiscating phones is the use of playing online games on phones or using it to send messages via QQ.

On the other hand, there were also examples of cases where schools had been incredibly pro-active in the creation of accounts. One parent explained their main reason for having a QQ account themselves was to hear from the school:

“I do not normally use QQ chat, I mainly use it for communicating with my child’s primary school teachers. My child has just started the second year of primary school, from the start of the first year, if teachers have some materials they just post it all on QQ, and you download it yourself.”

The final interesting twist to this story is that all this parental effort aimed at restricting young people’s access to QQ and mobiles is effectively then reversed when, at the relatively tender age of 15, most children leave home to read vocational college or high school in the nearby city district, about 20km away. This event changes a major part of parent’s views towards communication and it becomes more common for parents to condone the use of QQ or mobiles.

For example, Liu Ting has just finished her middle school examination, and has also managed to secure a place in the top high school in the nearby city. As a reward (jiangli) for her excellent results, her parents said they were going to give her 1000 RMB ($163 USD) cash. However her mother told us that Liu Ting said it was too much, so they came to a compromise of a 500 RMB ($81 USD) reward and a mobile phone for her to use when she started school in the city. Previously she had not been allowed the use of a phone.

These three quite contradictory examples all show different degrees of restriction or condoning of QQ and phone use, and reveal the nuances of shifting relationships between children parents and schools in China.

Strategies of scarcity and supply: water and bandwidth

TomMcDonald24 July 2013

The water tankered makes a delivery (Photo: Tom McDonald)

The water tankered makes a delivery (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Fieldwork normally involves bearing some hardships, however I never thought that at the start of my research in China that water would have been an issue of concern here. Nor did I consider that it might be able to tell us something about social networking use.

I was surprised, then, when I found out that the urban town area of the fieldsite has not had a piped water supply for the past year.

This situation is slightly ridiculous when one considers that there is a large, well-stocked reservoir two kilometres distance from the town.

reservoir-lake

According to some local residents, the problems started last year when workmen dug up the pipe in order to lay the new, wide asphalt road that runs north-south through the town.

For the past year, the town’s government have been paying for two water bowsers and four people to collect water from the neighbouring town and deliver it here once every two days. The only perk to the current situation is that because the service is so poor, the government provides the water free of charge.

Not having a regular water service makes life really tough. Limitations in water supply provoke people to clearly prioritise the things that they must do against the things that they would perhaps like to do. People’s houses are awash with buckets and tankards for storing water. Water for cooking or for dinking tends to come before, say, washing clothes or having a shower. Similar coping mechanisms and prioritizing seem to exist for internet use.

I think the case of the limited water supply is also useful for thinking about the way some people experience social media and the internet seen here in China. I was really drawn to the paper Blanchette gave at the UCL Department of Anthropology a couple of years ago where he outlined A Material History of Bits, making very clear the physical limitations of the digital, in contradiciton to how we sometimes assume it to be a potentially ‘unlimited’ object. I would say this is made almost even more clear in the China North fieldsite where the actual amount of bandwidth available becomes patently obvious for people in the same way as water does.

The internet does have it’s specificities though: one of the clear things that is coming out of our surveys is the significance of different modes of access and I think there are analogies to be made between the ways villagers cope with limitations imposed upon them in terms of various resources and their often incredibly lofty aspirations of what they wish to achieve.

The vast majority of our informants (over three-quarters) were China Mobile customers. While those who travelled regularly with work and business tended to have packages that afforded larger bandwidth allowances, and roaming outside of the province, the remaining half of these customers had packages that severely limited the mobile access that they had to the internet. These were normally packages that varied in cost between 10–20 RMB per month, offering between 30–70 megabyte bandwidth allowance respectively.

How was this experienced in people’s everyday lives? Just like with water, people developed clear and intelligent strategies in order to prioritise which things they believed to be essential. One lady in a village, explained that she had the 30 megabyte bandwidth package for 5 RMB a month said that she tended to only use QQ on her phone, because if she used both QQ and WeChat she would go over her limit, and all her friends were on QQ.

Others sometimes failed to understand the concept that there were distinct limits to the amount of bandwidth and resources available. A young man working in the town explained that he once watched a streamed movie with his girlfriend using his phone, without realizing that doing that would push him over the bandwidth limit. He had to pay 200RMB for the single month’s bill. He explained to me that he didn’t know about it, and wondered why he hadn’t just paid for his girlfriend to go to the cinema with him, at least that way he wouldn’t have strained his neck, he joked.

For others, they developed ways to get around such restrictions using their existing connections. One of the town’s young male hairdressers, joked to his friend that he willing to allow his assistant to pay his own phone bill in order to remove the block on his phone. The manager of a photocopying shop in the town used his connections in China Unicom (he was an authorized reseller/top-up point) to get a very low-cost 2G phone card (around 10RMB per month) that allowed him virtually free nationwide calls, and then relied on the broadband internet connection in his shop, which he spent most of every day in anyway.

While readers in the west are typically used to very generous bandwidth allowances offered by telecoms companies, it is important to remember that here in China, economic constraints such as bandwidth remain a very real barrier to social networking use for many. In this sense, we can see links with Shriram’s previous blog post where he mention’s electricity cuts as a major challenge facing people in his fieldsite. These regimes of shortages create economies where peoople may have to make difficult decisions about who they will communicate with, and how they will communicate with them.

The mystery of the young man without a QQ number: accounting for non-users

TomMcDonald24 May 2013

Photo: Tom McDonald

Photo: Tom McDonald

At 5:30am yesterday I was stood on the side of the road in my fieldsite, a small town in Shandong, waiting for the bus. Next to me was a grandmother sat on the side of the road selling cherries. A young man, probably in his early twenties, approached me and politely asked if it was alright to take a picture of us together, a common experience that most foreigners in China will be familiar with.

The man was dressed in cotton cloth trousers, black cotton shoes, and a white T-shirt. He had a slightly unkempt bowl-haircut. It was obvious that he was from the countryside. Indeed, he confirmed that he was from one of the nearby villages and worked in one of the local factories as a labourer.

He pulled out an old, white telephone. The telephone was an affordable Chinese-branded device with a basic colour screen and a cheap built-in camera.

The young man asked the cherry-seller if she would take the photo of us. The cherry-seller tried, but it was apparent that this elderly lady had very limited experience of either operating the phone or photography, so after three failed attempts, and fearing the bus would arrive at any moment I instead proposed “let’s use my phone to take the picture and I’ll send it to you”. I pulled out my iPhone, flipped the screen and took three picture of together. Then I asked him what his QQ number was. He said “I don’t have one”. I asked about Weixin. “None” he replied.

I was momentarily stunned.

I had previously thought that for young labourers such as this were perhaps the most avid users of QQ (in fact Jack Qiu suggests that Chinese social networking is particularly important for the working class in society). And yet, here, in front of me, was a living, breathing exception.

The story ended happily, as on the final attempt the sage grandmother got the hang of the young man’s phone and managed to take a satisfactory picture of the two of us standing next to each other. However, the young man left before I had a chance to ask him why he didn’t have a QQ number. A friend in Beijing offered an explanation when I showed them his photo “this man is very honest,” one proffered, “you can tell by the shape of his nose [referring to Chinese face-reading]. It could be that some people from the countryside think that QQ is a bad thing”.

Is my Beijing friend right? Is there really a moral discourse surrounding the Internet that is enough to keep some young people from using it? Are there more non-users like this young man? And if so, why haven’t Tencent or Sina’s offerings been able to penetrate this part of the market?

One of the benefits of long-term anthropological fieldwork in a normal small town like this is that it offers a chance to uncover groups of people, user experiences and human behaviours that might otherwise go undiscovered if we were to instead use other social science or market research methods. By the end of our fieldwork I hope to have more answers.

Chinese ‘WeChat’ social media app will make the world look around and shake!

TomMcDonald22 April 2013

A WeChat user gets ready to Shake (Photo: Tom McDonald)

A WeChat user gets ready to Shake (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Two years is a long time in the world of social media. This point has been reinforced to me multiple times in the last few weeks since my return to China. When I was in the country carrying out research for my PhD in 2011, no-one in my fieldsite was talking about WeChat (威信 weixin). Now it seems to be the primary social media app for many.

WeChat is a free smartphone app made by Tencent, the enormous Chinese company that also created QQ. However users do not have to have a QQ account to use it, it is also possible to sign up with a mobile phone number or email address. It is undoubtable that part of WeChat’s popularity has been made possible by the increasing availability of low cost smartphones. The other reason for it’s popularity is the free messaging and sharing of photos that is more akin to Facebook’s smartphone offerings, and is attractive to users because it allows them to circumvent the Chinese telecom company’s expensive text messaging rates.

However our research project aims to go beyond the normal economic or utilitarian explanations about why one platform replaces another that you might read on other technology blogs. Instead we want to use social media to glimpse something about what such changes can tell us about how human beings make social relations. Two features of WeChat are especially relevant in this case.

The first feature is called Look Around (附近的人 fujin de ren), and is actually quite similar in functionality to FourSquare or Grindr in that it potentially connects strangers who are close to each other. It uses a smartphone’s location-based services (GPS) to list all the people nearby also using the app.

Another notable function is Shake (摇一摇 yaoyiyao). Here the user shakes their mobile phone, and the built in motion-sensor in the device detects this movement, immediately displaying a list of users on the network who have shaken their phone at the same moment, regardless of the their location.

These features are notable in that many recent writings on Chinese social relationships emphasise the importance of guanxi, a network of relations that one builds and maintains throughout one’s life. Such accounts frequently emphasise personal connections, and as such being an ‘outsider’ in any society in China without any connections can make it particularly difficult to accomplish even the smallest task.

By contrast, both Look Around and Shake emphasise making friends with complete strangers. This model of social networking seems to also chime with Stafford’s (2000) description of a Chinese view of social relationships as something that is constantly in flux. The degree of uptake of these two features on the app, and by who in our fieldsites, remains to be seen.

The final thing of note with regard to WeChat is that, with this app, Tencent has set it’s sights on a more worldwide audience than ever before, with versions in multiple languages. It will be fascinating to see over the course of our research project whether WeChat will make the rest of the world look around and shake, and if it does, what this will mean for social relations.