Emerging Markets Digital Ethno Series: China's Dreams

20 Mar 2007|Cynthia Chan

As Denise introduced in her earlier blog , we recently boarded an eye-opening journey to China via online social networks. China kick starts our initiative to further understand youth culture in several emerging markets around the world.

We conducted the first of two rounds of digital ethnographies with several young people in both top and second tier cities in China via QQ, one of the most popular social networking sites in China. We gave each respondent a week-long assignment that included blogging, picture-taking and posting. They were also asked to post links to their favorite websites on their home page, and to invite friends to join the forum.

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What we got back were page after page of dynamic real-life stories. We were so excited as we read their blogs and browsed through pictures they took every day during that week. As ethnographers who have conducted many ethnographies in person, we were pleasantly surprised by the energy that came through these web pages. We also had the luxury to interact with our respondents digitally for the entire week!

After locking ourselves up in a series of analysis sessions when we finished our first phase of data collection, something interesting started to emerge – China’s dream.

We saw the vision for China’s dream emerge from different levels in the society, which in turn shed light on what we had seen in recent trips to China. At Cheskin, we look at China through the different identities that its people assert: from an individual, community, and national level. Each level is inter-related to each other, and there is a unique set of aspirations tied to each level of identity. They impact each other at different times, and tensions, positive or negative, emerge when they go against each other, resulting in very interesting contexts or situations.

On an individual level people are very open to exploring the outside world, knowing there are many opportunities and possibilities out there for them. They strive to understand the world around them but at the same time there is a strong tendency among young people to learn more about themselves, and to establish a self identity. They are taking the steps to realize their dreams starting with understanding who they are as individuals.

Group identity is very strong too. The Internet plays a major role in injecting further communal bonding into this culture that strongly embraces relationships. Numerous communities emerge as online and offline dynamics work their magic. As a result, group culture is developing at a rate never before seen. Neighborhood hip hop teams tour around to perform, die hard fans of PC games group together online to bargain at a retail store, an online warrant is issued to arrest a cat-abuser in a Shanghai university, etc. These are only the tip of the iceberg!

As a country, China’s national pride is peaking as it gears up to host the 2008 Olympics and the 2010 World Expo. Everyone is ready for the time to come when their country will show itself to the world. New roadways are being paved, cab drivers are learning English, stadiums are being built, and people are asked by the government not to jay walk! Things are happening at multiple levels to ensure the coming events will be successful. While many think the Chinese are heavily influenced by the West, there have been a series of recent movements that show people are embracing their own culture, traditions, and history in a prominent way. The recent Starbucks incident is one of the many examples. A television host launched an online campaign to evict Starbucks from Beijing’s Forbidden City. It stirred up a lot of conversation around whether Starbucks existence in the Forbidden City posed a challenge to the traditional culture. A survey by Sina.com.cn, a popular Chinese Internet portal, showed as much as 70% of people interviewed opposed having any kind of coffee shop in the Forbidden City!

As dreams and aspirations bubble up as people assert identities in different levels, tensions arise. In upcoming blogs, we will be sharing more about China’s dreams, and how they spark tensions and opportunities.

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