Some thoughts on Community Informatics in China

Posted on December 13, 2010


I had the opportunity over a period of some 5 weeks to travel quite extensively in China including into Central and Southwestern regions. China, as everyone knows is huge but coming from a similarly huge country one needs the shock of population intensity to realize that the difference between China and say Canada is that the land mass is for the most part arable and livable, that it has been cultivated for thousands of years and that the population is broadly dispersed through the area.

As well, it is startling and humbling to experience the fact that the Chinese spoken and written language has effectively nothing in common with Latin based languages and that the penetration of foreign languages and cultures (as for example has taken place in much of the rest of the world first through colonization and then through mass media) has more or less completely by-passed China or had only minimal and very superficial effect.

What all of that means is that any attempt to give a comprehensive discussion about China without knowing the language and spending long periods of time exploring the huge variety of sometimes nuanced but sometimes glaring differences as between regions, cultures, levels of population agglomeration (the more or less formal tiering of cities and administrative structures by population size and governance structures) is truly impossible.

What is possible (and even I believe useful) on the other hand are observations and comments on broad themes of development and circumstances within China.  China as compared to most similarly large countries in the world (both geographic and by population) is singularly monolithic in its capacity to propagate messages, activities, “memes”, mobilizations, even values from a central decision-making core and see these reproduced and replicated even at the farthest extremes of the Middle Kingdom. Even now with the rise of a wealthy and self-confident middle class possessing the accoutrements of information access, developed country consumption opportunities, the means for widespread low-cost internal and increasingly international travel and tourism, this phenomena of mass content and activity propagation appears to be of great power and significance.

Thus identifying and commenting on those messages, activities, memes, values is a potentially useful exercise although one that is, for the outsider, fraught with perils of misunderstandings, cultural blindnesses, and linguistic blunders.

So venturing forth let me try to make some comments about the possible role of a community based technology approach (community informatics) in China.

First the negative… When I was first thinking of undertaking this research in China I circulated a note to the Community Informatics Research e-list and received a note back from a Chinese academic concerning this area.  We went back and forth for some time until I realized that we were operating on two quite different assumptions—for him “community informatics” (CI) was a form of civic information providing; that is, a CI website would in fact, be a civic portal of some sort providing access to government organized and formally provided information with little or more probably no opportunity for interaction or feedback and certainly no opportunity for local i.e. non-official information development and communication.

As I attempted to dig further in this area it became quite clear that there was a marked divide between “official”, locally based information and informally developed and circulated information which was “non-sanctioned” and even legally suspect. It should be noted that much of the non-formal web-based information in China has a similar status i.e. not officially sanctioned and thus having an ambiguous position legal position. (Among other contacts I was introduced to an NGO group working with ethnic minorities in Southwestern China whose website had just been arbitrarily and without explanation shut down but on which they were negotiating for its resumption.)

This doesn’t mean that community-directed ICT activities and messages are not occurring programmatically in China but only that community based/controlled activities are not being supported or implemented from central sources. As well these are acting without a formal government authorization or permission (NGO’s evidently require some form of formal authorization which is difficult, expensive and complicated to get and thus many of the local NGO’s simply operate without this, leaving themselves open to official action at any time and without formal legal recourse) .

Clearly this is consistent with overall Chinese government policy which is to support market based solutions, practices and behaviours through the use of centralized policy and regulatory processes.  What that means in practice is that the official activities are concerned with facilitating market-oriented development and responses at the local village and rural levels i.e. not favouring local “sustainability”-oriented practices but rather those that shift production to market participation and where such is not possible, towards rural-urban migration in pursuit of wage labour employment.

In this context, an interesting experiment in ICT for Development is currently being conducted in Ningxia Province one of China’s poorest where broadband connectivity is being made available to rural areas and a range of information and training is being provided along with email and entertainment access. The clear intent of the project which is just now being completed and which will likely be replicated elsewhere in China is to provide a range of activity specific training programs; marketing, crop and health information among other services and to provide overall service support for crop commercialization and agricultural mechanization as well as to increase farm income and farmer quality of life through the provision of online opportunities for entertainment and intra-family and community to community electronic communication. Evidently the farmers are quite enthusiastic about the program. (Final Technical Report, ICT for Rural Livelihoods, Agricultural Information Institute, Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences Sept. 2010).

China differs in this approach from much of the rural-directed ICT activity in India for example, which is directed towards enhancing local/rural economic sustainability and thus (whether explicitly or implicitly having the effect of) slowing, where possible, rural-urban migration.  A major factor underlying these differences and one which has at least so far, supported the overall success of the Chinese approach is the very broad base of literacy (90%) which can be found in China which means that a rural migrant to a more or less vibrant urban economy will to an extent be “job-ready” at least from a literacy perspective—something that is not the case in India where the prospects for a rural migrant are much less optimistic. (Leonhardt makes a similar point in his excellent recent overview commentary on the Chinese economy.)

As well, the astonishingly rapid and widespread economic development in urban China would appear to be the other side of this process, that is the pace of economic development in urban (and to this point, largely Eastern coastal) China has been sufficient to provide employment opportunities and some degree of infrastructure and housing support for this unprecedented rural-urban migration of hundreds of millions of people (China has gone from 17% urban to just on 50% urban in approximately 20 years) although not without a considerable degree of individual cost.  Thus not only has there been both a push from the land with a shift to increasing mechanization and cash crop farming but there has been a parallel and at least to date matching pull from the rapidly expanding urban industrial economy.

As well, this has all taken place without the evident social/normative dislocations which are so brutally present in places with similar degrees of urban migration such as Bangladesh, India or urban Sub-Saharan Africa with the extension of urban destitution and poverty, homelessness, and the growth of vast urban slums without a modern municipal infrastructure.  None of this was visible in any of the urban environments which I had an opportunity to visit in Eastern, Central or Southern China.

It should also be noted in this context that those making the initial migration from rural to urban areas are almost exclusively young adults—trainable, available for employment, flexible, and not particularly requiring of services or other kinds of supports.  As these young people are able to get a foothold in the city—steady employment, a place to live, begin to form families—only then are they followed by the older generation who in turn may seek employment or more likely, provide family support services in the households of their children.

This to some extent provides a rationale and explanation for the incommensurable visions of “community informatics” that I noted earlier… My Chinese research interlocutor was presenting both the official perspective on what types of community-oriented information services were being provided but also the kinds of services which were seemingly enabling a successful adaptation of rural areas to the overall trends which provided the context for their development.

So what this all means is that China seems to have little or no interest or support and even potentially some official opposition to a community based/community informatics perspective since local enablement/empowerment through ICT might act as an impediment to the continuing flow of malleable labour into the urban areas (and the reduction of the population pressure in the rural areas).

However, there are some other issues and initiatives that suggest this may change in the quite near future along with several emerging issues which the Chinese government seems concerned to find policy/programmatic responses to or which may begin to loom large in the midst of China’s very very rapid economic expansion:

1. the growing wealth gap between the rich and the poor, the urban and the rural, and the East and the rest of the country is beginning to loom large in Chinese policy

2. the inequality in the provision and availability of social, education and health services to low income and rural populations—many services in China have now been privatized. This has meant that low income individuals and families have limited access to services (along with an increasing gap in the quality of services) particularly as between rural and urban areas.

3. the increasing difficulty in managing urban-rural migration. With more and more areas of urban China beginning to (at least apparently) share in the economic and consumer boom of the East Coast cities, there is an increasing gap between the urban focal points with their rapidly expanding municipal infrastructure and the surrounding rural areas in many cases being traversed by high speed rail, over-flown by multiple new domestic air services and criss-crossed by newly built multi-lane toll highways. The gap between what is available locally in rural and semi-rural China and what is available in urban China is becoming ever more evident and the urban areas are increasingly serving as almost uncontrollable attractors for rural migration.

4. the One Child policy combined with extending life spans is leading towards what is being called “6 to 1” society i.e. one where there is six adults (one set of parents and two sets of grandparents) relying for ultimate support on one child. There is increasing concern that this may not be tenable particularly given an overall absence of pensions, limited social services, and increasing joblessness among young people with some but relatively low quality higher education

5. the rise of the “ant tribe”  of young urban migrants with higher education but from generally inferior schools and who are unsuccessfully looking for professional employment in highly competitive areas but without connections or status.

6. the possibility of a significant slow-down in the export led manufacturing sector and thus less capacity to absorb or maintain existing urban population levels.

It has been one of the primary successes of the China miracle that it has managed to absorb the phenomenal rural-urban shift to date (the integration of hundreds of millions of rural peasants into the multitude of urban growth poles).  What happens with this if/when the contraction in the global economy overtakes the increases in Chinese domestic demand and there is an overall economic slowdown.  The attractions of the city or perhaps better the lack of attractiveness of rural life won’t change nearly as quickly as an economic slowdown might have the effect of less urban employment and difficulties of absorption of rural and small city young people into the mega-cities may become very very quickly an acute and unresolveable problem.

The Chinese government appears to be recognizing these issues and developing limited policy responses in its characteristically cautious and pragmatic way.  As an example, there would appear to be a significant move afoot to develop a consciousness and a framework for “voluntarism” in China where such has not been evident previously.  The stated intention is to continue the evidently successful experiment with “volunteers” as supports for international and domestic visitors to the Shanghai Expo into a post-expo period (and the replication of the process for the Guangdong Asia Games). As well there are anecdotal comments from a variety of contexts and interviews which suggest that a significant initiative is underway towards establishing a voluntary and not-for-profit sector in China (perhaps to match the very significant not-for-profit element in Hong Kong which provides much of Hong Kong’s social services).

Not incidentally, the development of a voluntary sector would likely act to relieve another looming issue in China which is the absence of public values and normative directions particularly among the young. The virtual disappearance of Communism as motivator or a framework for youthful energies or idealism and the absence of (at this time) of any viable alternatives (apart from shopping/materialism) along with the very rapid uptake of the Internet including Chinese specific social networking is likely a cause for some concern among the Chinese leadership.  The opening up of the opportunity of participation in the voluntary sector would be one way of responding to some of those concerns and channeling some of the Internet energy into socially productive activities in the context of virtual communities and services.

This is also very likely linked into an overall assessment of the need for strategies for local social support systems and service delivery apart from those provided by the State (which are subject to bureaucratic inefficiencies and corruption) or by the private sector which are necessarily primarily oriented towards the well to do.  Developing a voluntary sector operating at least in part on an ICT platform would likely be able to provide social support services in urban areas for the rapidly aging population and as well facilitate the extension of urban services into rural areas to make the rural areas more attractive as places for young and middle aged people to live if urban areas are no longer able to absorb further population increase.

Although this does not as yet appear to have been discussed, the recruitment of the ICT and Internet savvy “ant tribe” into this movement would be a possible way of solving multiple problems with relatively limited resources.  The development of locally based strategies for service delivery by means of locally managed but regionally and nationally coordinated NGO’s operationalized employing the “ant tribe” for this service delivery (and using the access to the Internet and employment as inducements to have them move back from the urban areas) would use the “ant tribe’s” ICT/Internet knowledge and focus their energies into a socially productive direction and even potentially provide career paths from local areas back to the metropoles by means of NGO and service delivery structures.

Thus there is likely of necessity to be a longer term process of enabling and empowering grass roots organizations (however, given overall political concerns by the Chinese leadership, constrained to service delivery rather than advocacy or broader political or social engagement) if only as a response to the emerging issues identified above.  This process is very likely to be built on an ICT platform given the degree to which ICTs can contribute to the overall efficiency of these processes and as well reflecting an extension of the current highly developed ICT capacity (and skill base) in urban and wealthier areas to uses in rural areas and less economically advantaged sectors.

An even more intriguing possibility would be the fusing of existing rural (political) organizational structures with ICTs and envigorated with new blood from the “ant tribe” and other young people with Internet and ICT skills leading to a rural renewal, extended service delivery and both more efficient and sustainable agricultural and SMME and SME developments. Perhaps once the attention of the Chinese leadership shifts back from the explosive developments in urban areas similar structural developments might begin to be seen in rural areas and among lower income populations as well.