„Open discussions missing from Chinese journalistic texts”

Getting information about the Chinese market is one thing. The real issue is knowing what to do with it. We interviewed Oliver Pöttgen, expert researcher with a focus on the Chinese media, entertainment, and Internet landscape, about how research on China compares to the analysis of other countries.

Could you describe the conditions under which research into Chinese news, trends, and debates is conducted? Are these factors different from institutional or technical aspects shaping research into, say, France or Britain?

They are actually very similar, at least technically speaking. Any researcher has to know “where and how to search for what”, and they have to access relevant data and text pools via the right type of search tool; social media and academic libraries play a vital part too. Using a combination of Chinese, English, and German as search languages will yield the best results. China-watching think tanks and blogs can play an important role as well. In my opinion, the big difference to research into France or Britain is not so much to do with access but with the quality of information you get, especially from official sources.

So researchers have to know which sources to trust and how to read between the lines and look for gaps.

What you are describing is a situation in which information is framed in ways that may be unfamiliar to users or companies in Germany.

Yes, but there are significant differences depending on both the topic and current political sensibilities. There is the issue of censorship, be it self-imposed by the authors and (online) publishers or applied by the government once something is (on its way to) being published. What is often missing from journalistic or academic texts from China is an open and multi-faceted discussion, especially when it comes to certain areas of domestic or foreign policy. The lack of balance or certain facts, combined with a copy-and-paste mentality here and there quite often leads to a lack of intellectual rigor and an acquiescence to government positions. You have to take these limitations into account when you try to grasp certain debates in China. But, again, this always depends on the topic discussed.

Do you use Chinese search engines? How do they compare to their Western counterparts? What kind of results do you get?

Yes, I also use Chinese search engines, mainly Baidu. But in most cases they play only a minor role, owing to result censorship, blocked search terms and technical factors. When it comes to general search, I prefer Google. The key is to know how to use Google's advanced search methods with Chinese search terms.

Are Chinese social media sites open to the same forms of quantitative analysis as Facebook or Twitter?

They are not necessarily set up in this way yet, but they are trying to catch up. Take Sina Weibo – China's biggest social media platform which has been labeled “China's Twitter”. They have teamed up with Czech social media analytics company Socialbakers to extend their analytics services.

Let us talk about how all of this fits into the bigger aims of the Chinese government. What role does digital information play in the government’s economic strategy?

Digital information and, more broadly speaking, digitization play a hugely important role for China’s economic strategy and reform. They are being seen as enablers of the consumption-led economy that is to gradually complement or even replace the export-led growth of the past with all the cheap products that ‘Made in China’ has been standing for. Driven by its internet-savvy population, China’s economy is set up to become more productive, more innovative, and more service-oriented. Its e-commerce market with players like Alibaba and Taobao is the world’s largest. Here’s one figure that encapsulates this development: Online retail sales totalled 590 billion USD in 2015 – a 33 per cent rise on the year before!

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Are there any indications that state-sponsored or state-controlled Chinese media deliberately spread misleading information internationally? Is there still a boundary between Chinese domestic and international strategy when it comes to the digital?

Some observers would go as far as to speak of misleading information deliberately spread internationally, for example by the Global Times. But what is happening can also be viewed as government PR that is framing topics in a certain way and is at least in some aspects not so much different from what other countries do – albeit not via this kind of state media. You have to look at information taken from sources like the Global Times or the People’s Daily very critically, but it can make sense to use them: it all depends on what you are looking for.

A boundary between China’s official domestic and international digital information strategies may exist in the sense that content published internationally is subject to even tighter pre-publication scrutiny since it affects China’s global image more directly.

In the West, we tend to emphasize the distinctions between facts and opinions, and between facts and convictions or beliefs. Very generally speaking, is there a similar tradition in mainstream Chinese thinking today?

Yes, of course. They can be observed in the media and in academic practice every day, at least as far as adherence to superficial convention is concerned. The problem is that the space for an unconstrained expression of opinions can be very limited, depending on the subject discussed. I often have the impression that “opinions” are still developed along officially endorsed lines, at the expense of perspectives or facts that run counter to those convictions.

Oliver Pöttgen’s research focus is on the Chinese media, entertainment, and Internet landscape. He works on the role of social networks as alternative public spaces that provide a window into the development of Chinese social life. He also teaches Chinese translation at Tübingen University.

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