Digitally networked media boosting public awareness of shared fates
John Keane: Professor of Political Science at the University of Sydney, Australia and the Social Science Research Center in Berlin, Germany
Daya Thussu: Professor of International Communication at Hong Kong Baptist University and former Professor of International Communication at the University of Westminster, UK
Jiang Fei: Dean and Professor of the School of International Journalism and Communication, Beijing Foreign Studies University, Chairman of the Foreign Journalism and Communication Committee of the Chinese Society of Journalism
Xiao Lianbing: Secretary General of Guangming Daily International Exchange, Cooperation and Communication Center
Xiao: As experts in the field of international communication, how do you see the impacts of the COVID-19 on humanity?
Keane：The great pestilence that has gripped our planet since the early months of 2020 is proving once again that all crises are moments of opportunity and innovation. The large-scale death and suffering and social disruption triggered by the contagion are both terrible and troubling omens of possible future environmental catastrophes. But this pestilence is more than a tragedy: it is demonstrating that breakthroughs can be the child of breakdowns. During the past year, people have been reminded that seasons of disease are life-pounding moments when normality flounders, anxieties flourish and thoughts turn darkly inwards. Pandemics tear apart old habits. They break hearts. Certainties are tossed to the wind. People grow fearful. Whole societies grow fragile. Death looms. Yet for the first time on a global scale, this pestilence has shown that digital tools and digitally guided institutions can be used to reduce collective anxieties, combat disruption and death, and promote social solidarity. The effective deployment of ICTs marks off our period of pestilence from, say, the Russian and Spanish influenzas, which a century ago were reported and handled globally for the first time by using the slow-motion and clumsy tools of telegraph messages, steamboats, newspapers, word-of-mouth reports and printed instructions to isolate and don masks. Our pandemic is by contrast a thoroughly digital phenomenon. With the help of bullet-speed, night-and-day reporting, the virus has not only become a global media event that arouses public awareness, fears of sickness and death and social disruption on a scale and at a depth never before witnessed. Helped by new digital methods, the public scrutiny and management of a killer virus is also happening, with an intensity that has no historical precedent.
Thussu：Despite its extremely adverse impact on the global health and international economy, the Covid-19 pandemic has also offered new opportunities to rethink the role of communication and information technologies in our digitally networked globe. The rapid globalization of ICTs in the past decade has significantly helped the world to manage the worst global public health emergency in living memory – with more than 61 million confirmed cases and 1.4 million deaths by the end of November 2020, according to the data from the World Health Organization. ICTs have played a crucial role in the way the Chinese authorities have fought and controlled the virus - in striking contrast to the rather ham-handed approach adopted by the world’s most powerful country – the United States. China has advocated multilateralism, supporting the WHO in its efforts to provide the anti-Covid-19 virus as a public good. It has also suggested creating an internationally recognized digital mechanism for health codes, so that the world could get back to pre-Covid levels of travel, trade and tourism.
Jiang：The pandemic COVID-19 has brought about enormous challenges to the public life globally. People’s home quarantine has deterred the physical contact, but not communication. The emerging communication technologies could take on the role of connecting individuals and the world in a timely and effective manner. On the one hand, the requirements of the prevention and control of the pandemic have facilitated the worldwide applications of a variety of social media platforms, soft wares and digital technologies. On the other hand, the pandemic has profoundly changed the world’s communication ecology while changing the normality of social groups and communities. In China, the national big data system and the regional health code management have exerted effective disease prevention and control. As against information explosion and chaos, regular press conferences[routine and timely press briefings] contribute[have contributed] a lot to the stabilizing of the whole social stability. We have witnessed China’s resilience, great sense of responsibility and determined goal[determination] as a big nation given how this country combats with the pandemic. Although COVID-19 has not been eradicated yet worldwide, the ecological gaming of global communication system has already grown [been] increasingly complicated and fierce in the post-pandemic era. From a global perspective, while China has effectively controlled the spread of the disease and provided public goods such as medical supplies and vaccine materials[vaccines] to other countries, the pandemic is still rampant in the United States. Competing public opinions under the pandemic theme have emerged in the field of global communication.
Xiao: How to view the impacts of ICT on the post-epidemic era?
Keane：The socially enabling effects of ICTs aren’t confined to domestic settings. Equally important, though much less obvious, is the way the application of ICTs is currently accelerating the growth of cross-border arrangements designed to foster coordinated government, sustainable growth and social solidarity. It isn’t true that the great pestilence is ruining ‘multilateralism’, or destroying regional and global governing institutions. Things are actually heading in the opposite direction. Digitally networked media aren’t just boosting public awareness of the global entanglement and shared fates of peoples and countries. As the case of China powerfully shows, new ICTS are also consolidating the growth of multi-lateral rules and arrangements. We could say that China is the first global big power to form within the ICT era, and it is thus not surprising that it displays an unusual degree of openness to the world. Supported by innovations such as the Beidou (‘Big Dipper’) global satellite navigation system, designed as a worldwide alternative to the US GPS network, China is becoming an information power propelled by commercial interests and multi-polar governing mechanisms. China’s state corporations and governing institutions, even its tourist wanderers, the highest number in the world before this period of pestilence, prefer unbounded flows, long-distance openings, logistics hubs and corridor opportunities. China expands the social use of networked information technologies - think of Tencent’s all-purpose messaging service WeChat used by 1.2 billion people worldwide – and connects cities and hinterlands by high-speed railways, airports and shipping lanes. Liquid mobility is the currency of its growing power and influence.
Thussu：Home to the world’s largest number of Internet users – more than 900 million in 2019 - China’s voice on issues relating to cyberworld have become increasingly influential in terms of electronic commerce, Internet infrastructure and governance. In the past decade the country has emerged as a major cyber-power. China is ahead of almost every other nation in terms of infrastructure for 5G technology, giving it mastery of its own industrial future and that of countries using its mobile services for the ‘Internet of Things’(IoT). With the world’s largest smartphone market and Internet population, 5G mobile network investments in China are projected to reach $405 billion by 2030. Such Chinese firms as ZTE and Huawei have been at the forefront of the 5G race, being key partners to major telecom operators globally and deploying 5G and related technologies that are core to the Internet of Things. China is also racing ahead in the field of Artificial Intelligence. AI: A Next Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan released in 2017, envisages China becoming ‘world-leading’ in certain AI fields by 2025 and evolving into the ‘primary’ centre for AI innovation by 2030. Accordingly, the Chinese government and corporations are heavily investing in future-oriented communication technologies including AI, 5G networks, IPv6 protocols, virtual reality and the IoT.
Jiang：In the 21st century, new communication technologies and innovations such as 5G, cloud computing, and big data have achieved an enormous breakthrough by breaking down physical barriers and connecting the audience effortlessly. Meantime, the Western country’s power and control over information technologies and dissemination terminals have been diluted to some extent during the continuous information revolution in such developing countries as China and India. The power of communication has indicated a trend of moving towards the East and the South states. The world communication order built upon colonialism and technological hegemony is being re-oriented and re-organized in a slow and steady way. In this regard, China's construction of communication infrastructure has made a great contribution to the world by not only technically reconstructing the infrastructure of the global communication system established since World War II, but also cultivating a new pattern and vital force of information flow. This trend provides possibilities and assistance for the public service of global communication, and to some extent sets the starting point for the public nature of information dissemination. From a practical point of view, with the help of new communication technologies, China's building of global communication platforms has increasingly facilitated the production of public goods, and played an active role in building a balanced global information market and a sound communication order. A new communication ecology has emerged during the pandemic in which the global media is more aware of the public service and global coverage (or at least coverage of the member countries of the United Nations). From this point, we could see that the growing public nature of international communication is increasingly being positioned as a “necessity” for governments. Compared to the communication practice and cognitive framework employed before the pandemic, this trend demonstrates a tremendous historical progress.
Xiao: What should people learn from the responses to this outbreak from the perspective of governance?
Keane：Take the under-reported case of Uruguay. Its government has successfully bucked trends in Latin America, a continent that has already suffered over seven million recorded infections, with nearly half of all daily deaths in the world. Size alone doesn’t explain Uruguay’s success: with a population of 3.5 million, Uruguay has recorded 5,500 cases and 75 deaths, whereas similarly-sized Panama has suffered nearly 165,000 cases and over 3,000 deaths. The success has other sources, above all in good government that harnesses digital technologies to win the social confidence and trust of its citizens. Remarkable is the way the Uruguayan government combined new ICTS with old methods - pioneered during World War Two to combat outbreaks of syphilis - to avoid mandatory stay-at-home orders. In just several weeks, a new national network of laboratories and public hospitals was built. Backed by clear, no-nonsense social media messaging, the government moved swiftly to close schools, bars, shopping malls and other public institutions. The thousand-kilometre border with pestilence-devastated Brazil was sealed. Locally produced digital testing systems were quickly used to target local transmission chains to block the spread of the virus. Large-scale testing, sophisticated tracing and community isolation of patients became the new norm. Once the spread of infection was brought under control, sophisticated PCR pool and matrix testing - digitally monitoring and testing multiple samples together combined with fast-track identification of infected individuals within any given group sample - enabled the elderly, teachers, football teams, medical staff and other groups of citizens to return quickly to their normal social lives, and at reduced cost to the government. Similar methods have been pioneered in most provinces of China and in countries such as South Korea, New Zealand and Australia. What’s interesting about the digital early warning detector and public scrutiny methods used by their governments is the way they demonstrate that transparency matters and that blindfolded institutions make contagions much worse, for instance by Westminster-style shoddy planning that spreads public confusion, multiplies inequalities of access to testing and protective equipment and fails to put a stop to male violence against quarantined women and children. They manage outbreaks and flatten curves not just by closing borders and shutting down institutions. The secret of their success is open engagement and empowerment of citizens - inviting them to take matters into their own hands, for instance with the help of neighbourhood watches and drive-through testing sites, offering them freely available stockpiled masks and disinfectants, harnessing big data and mobile telephony to distribute information to citizens, to enable their self-assessment and symptom reporting, to arrange for telephone consultations and mobile testing, all in support of nurturing social confidence and solidarity during a difficult time of crisis.
Jiang：The Chinese government has applied new information technologies into the disease control and social governance, and has successfully realized downward or upward information flow across hierarchical boundaries. China is promoting the transformation of social governance in the new media era. Communication modernization is becoming an important connotation of governance modernization, which effectively supports the process of national modernization. At the micro level, short videos facilitated high-speed and efficient communication of information about disease prevention and control. For example, Vlog (video blog) incorporates UGC (user-generated content) into the vision of news production profession; The integration model of “big data + cloud service + App” has also contributed to instant communication and interactions. At the meso level, China has made the transition from passive supervision to early warning, from single management to system management, and from government control to social governance. At the macro level, China has reshaped the new focus of governance capabilities, and is committed to building the country’s credit communication and enhancing its communication credibility. With the help of big data, China analyzed the underlying relationships between events, achieved the coordinated mobilization of information resources nationwide and promotes the reorganization of the authoritative value allocation and relationship chains by its international media on a global scale. The pandemic has let the world witness the new contributions made by the Chinese government in the field of communication infrastructure industry. China has also displayed its ability to break through limitations, willingness to offer the world effective public goods, accountability and sense of responsibility in the communication field.
Xiao: Mr. Thussu, what is your comment on the development of the Internet in the world?
Thussu：Like other characteristics of China – whether in politics or economics – the Chinese Internet too has distinctive features. China’s state supported e-commerce mega-corporations – notably Alibaba and Tencent – are approaching the size, in terms of market value, of global giants such as Alphabet and Facebook. By 2020, China’s e-commerce sales were the largest in the world, double those of the United States, the country where the Internet was invented, and which continues to dominate its commerce and governance. In mobile payments too China leads the world. By 2020, according to the China Internet Development Report, released at the World Internet Conference on November 24, China had 480,000 5G base stations – more than the rest of the world combined. Creating information and communication networks are an integral part of China’s major infrastructure initiatives, notably the highly ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, outlined in 2015. When completed, it will have 900 projects, valued at about $1.3 trillion and will form an economic ‘belt’ across the Eurasian continent and a maritime ‘silk road’ through south east and south Asia to the Middle East ‘to deepen economic integration and connectivity’. While international debates about the Chinese Internet have focused on censorship-related issues, the Chinese government and its increasingly globalizing cyber corporations have been strengthening their digital imprints across the world. Beyond the discourses about Party-State control, censorship and surveillance and the ideological narratives that such a system promotes, it could be argued that China has its own version of the Internet: China is the only country with its own version of Google, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, WhatsApp and many other essentially US-based digital properties. And yet, the US is still the leading nation in digital infrastructure and software, as the corporations based there continue to shape global digital life. The exponential increase in fibre-optic submarine cables, through which 99 percent of international data is transmitted, has a strong US imprint on it. Global digital corporations – notably Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Amazon – have invested heavily in undersea cables: in 2018 they owned or leased more than 50 per cent of the undersea bandwidth. As the volume and value of global data surges, the storage and processing of digital data becomes a crucial component of infrastructure. According to a 2019 UN report, out of 4,422 co-location data centres, the US alone accounted for about 40 per cent of the total.
Xiao: What is your view on order-building for international communication in the post-epidemic era?
Keane：During the past four years, the Trump administration proved that declining powers talk big but look inwards, retreat to sheltered spaces and build walls. Rising powers like China do the opposite: they look towards horizons, engage with the world, even reach for the stars. Through bodies such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the Chiang Mai Initiative (CMI), China actively partners with its 14 neighbouring states. It plays a high-profile role in broader regional bodies such as APEC and the recently-agreed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), soon to be the world’s largest free trade zone. Institutional restructuring and soliciting leadership roles within many global bodies is equally high on the PRC’s governing agenda. China already heads four of the 15 United Nations special agencies, more than the other individual permanent members of the UN Security Council. And in recent years, China has also helped build, and now leads, new multilateral institutions, such as the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum, founded on pragmatic consent, not formal treaty alliances. The historic significance of these experiments with cross-border institution building isn’t to be underestimated. The great pestilence reminds us that governments have a duty to serve and win the trust of their citizens. Governments that fail to do so deserve nothing less than trial and lock-up for prioritising business as usual, for instance by telling voters they can expect to ‘lose loved ones’ (Boris Johnson), insisting workers ‘return to normality’ (Jair Bolsonaro) and peddling the doctrine of ‘herd immunity’, the death-dealing belief that long-term economic growth and budget cuts to state health care systems are best promoted by letting the virus spread and boosting short-term death rates. The contagion confirms something else. It shows that growing numbers of local problems and regional and global challenges cannot be handled bilaterally, or by states acting alone. Our planet is shrinking. Environmental and social problems and governing challenges are mounting. Hence the growing need for global cooperation aided by intelligent ICT applications that reduce operational time-space differences to near zero, help solve tame and wicked problems fairly and effectively, so winning the trust and support of many millions of citizens wishing and hoping to live in a world no longer crippled by pestilence.
Thussu：China’s expanding global digital footprints has had its share of problems: the banning of the world’s most downloaded short-video app, TikTok, by India in June 2020 (following the border clash between Chinese and Indian forces), shortly followed by the US – the ByteDance-owned company’s biggest and most lucrative global markets respectively - is a prominent case of a tech-war born out of ‘techno-nationalism’. It has become part of a broader geopolitical contestation and global political realignment, following the US-China trade war, that is even being called a ‘Cold War 2.0’. The US wants other major democracies such as India to be part of a so-called ‘Clean Network’ - a ‘clean and safe’ Internet network that excludes apps which are considered harmful to democratic institutions and structures as the data they harvest is stored in authoritarian states. Data has been transformed into a valuable global commodity and a transnational currency of the digital age and the growth in mining, trading and manipulation of data in the data-driven economy has provided extraordinary power to largely US-based digital giants, who deal with an enormous amount of private data and public information. The US government and corporations have been aggressively promoting data liberalization and strongly resisting attempts at data localization, which is seen by the US as a threat to ‘a free and open global Internet’. Given that China already leads the world in such areas as AI and digital mobile payments, and is exporting its model globally through the BRI, it will also resist attempts at data localization. In a post-Covid world, data localization – especially related to health and hygiene - is likely to emerge as a major issue. Addressing questions about privacy, security and surveillance will require a transparent and informed debate in which community of global communication scholars should be a significant stakeholder.
Jiang: In the field of international communication, China will enhance the public quality of media platforms through 5G and other new communication technologies, provide more public goods to the world through Chinese media, and make its due contributions to an international communication structure that is conducive to building a community with a shared future for mankind. China’s communication practices are committed to that goal and have made tangible contributions to the poverty reduction program of the United Nations. During the “Thirteenth Five-Year Plan” period, China built the world’s largest information and communication network, reducing the broadband and data rates by 95%. At the same time, China made great efforts to bridge the digital gap between the urban and rural areas in the fight against poverty. From the level of technical practice, among the three characteristics that define new media, update of basic media is the starting point, innovation of communication terminals will become the norm, and innovation of communication concept and ideals will be the key. In the post-pandemic era, China will achieve its transition to playing a balanced role in the global communication infrastructure through its participation in information communication and international media order negotiation. Based on the global experiences of communication practice for more than a century, it is urgent to introduce Chinese technology and Chinese strength in the new round of transformation of communication patterns. The integration of 5G and the industrial Internet will accelerate the building of a digital world and a smart society. More people in the world will get to know the development path, stories, and the community with a shared future for mankind with a China vision, and jointly work for a brighter future.[ Editor: WPY ]