Digital Civilization in the Making (part 3)

The culture-technology imaginary in China

In the global imagination the idea of China is reflected in various ways. Outside the PRC, many see a rising economic superpower, a threat to western democracy. Others see a land of exquisite culture and art, traditional practices like kung fu, acupuncture and Tai Chi. Chinese products can be found in the world. One only needs to look around. Household goods, electronic devices, batteries, clothing, fashion accessories, and myriad components (“ten thousand things”). All these are ‘Made in China’.

How the western world saw China in the past is part of the historical record. But the world is less western now. In his book China Imagined, Gregory B. Lee writes that the “certain way” that outsiders knew China is no longer so clear-cut: “in the twenty-first century, ‘China’, whose shape and form and categories we in the West invented and maintained, is starting to escape us.”

Within China, the view is different. Even putting to one side a tide of nationalism that has risen in response to western criticism, most Chinese people subscribe to the conviction that the nation is an economic superpower. They no longer accept that China is weak and backward, the self-assessment that dogged China’s reformers over the past century, sometimes referred to as ‘national humiliation’.

China’s leaders gesture toward self-confidence and assertiveness, promoting ‘discourse power’ (huayu quan). International boundaries markers are redrawn. Foreigners are less welcome than they were a decade ago unless they are defenders of China’s development path who might be interviewed on China Global Television Network (CGTN). Among the Chinese Diaspora, perceptions of China’s ascendency range from patriotic pride to apprehension about so-called “wolf warrior” assertiveness. However, within the PRC itself, the government is seeking to consolidate a shared identity, to rule things in and out, to authorise boundaries of identity. Part of this revolves around an appeal to the core values of tradition, as well as reinforcing the core values of socialism.

A continued emphasis on “cultural security” persists in political propaganda. The state-owned Chinese media provide a partisan image of China in line with government directives. People’s lives are getting better; national minorities are happy to be rejuvenated; peasant and village populations are beneficiaries of technology and environmental policies. The view presented is consistent, even homogenized. My Twitter feed from the China Daily, when I choose to look at it, is a cheer squad for China Inc.

The government is carefully shaping the new Chinese imaginary. By imaginary, I refer to the changing identity of China, both within and without its borders. Most notably, a dual “culture-technology” imaginary has come into play, a future-oriented vision of China where people lead better lives because of the latest innovations, and where traditional values still hold society together. This culture-technology imaginary is embedded in the Chinese Dream, the government’s future oriented program for national rejuvenation. On the nightly Chinese TV news broadcast viewers were used to scenes of workers labouring in factories and farms; now the dominant images are robots, drones and labour-saving technologies. Virtual and augmented reality applications are found in businesses and in cultural exhibitions, for instance the 8 Minutes in Beijing closing ceremony of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in 2018 was a display of techno-culture, transcending the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. Incidentally both were choreographed by the film-maker Zhang Yimou, although the winter display failed to arouse the world’s media. 

In order to make use of the concept of the culture-technology imaginary it is necessary to briefly indicate where the term “imaginaries” comes from. Imaginaries is a different concept than image, and the much-discussed association of soft power. The political scientist Benedict Anderson coined “imagined community” to show the rising forces of nationalism in south-east Asia. The print media played a constructive role, filling in the gaps of imagination, allowing people to identify with a coherent entity, the nation.

The philosopher Charles Taylor’s has used the term “social imaginaries”, referring to how people collectively come to see themselves. Social imaginaries can lead to a shared sense of legitimacy, underpinning western democracy and its multiple modernities. Another linked concept is the “collective imaginary”, an idea developed by Cornelius Castoriadis, a Greek philosopher. He argued that when the collective imaginary, also called the “instituting” imaginary breaks down, it is necessary to create a new one. The capacity to control and refresh the collective imaginary is evident in Trump’s “make America Great Again”; and in Xi Jinping’s great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, also referred to as the Chinese Dream.

In China technology has suddenly appeared as the solution. And once more the west has provided it. That is, forced technology transfer in return for market entry. Gregory Lee says: “… almost everything constitutive of today’s China has come from the West, both the economic logic applied in China today and the accompanying technological/technical system.”

Culture too, has come from the west in the shape of Hollywood, but the door is now closing. The Great Firewall blocks most. Many now despair of China’s new isolationism and rely on VPNs to retain their connection to western values, especially returned scholars from the west.

The culture-technology imaginary provides us with a lens to examine how culture and technology have become instruments of statecraft, providing a link to the past and a promise of the future.