Wang Jing on Brand New China

Wang Jing (王瑾), professor of Chinese Cultural Studies at MIT, chair of the international advisory board to Creative Commons / China (知识共享/中国大陆), and author of Brand New China: Advertising, Media, and Commercial Culture (Harvard Univ. Press, 2008), discussed “Creative Culture and Creative Commons: Web 2.0 in Mainland China” at Portland State University on June 2.

Wang’s leading insight is that web 2.0, meaning open business models and community-created content, is a natural path of evolution for China. It is a third way, different than being absorbed by “globalization,” in the sense of Western brands colonizing China, and different than a socialism that is either culturally conservative or even de-cultured and thus lacking the energy of innovation.

In this “third way” vision, it is possible to see aspects of several influences. One is an escape from the kind of cultural double-bind associated with Edward Said’s critique of colonialism. Another is an escape from the double-bind of that emerged in the Chinese reformist, pre-revolutionary period, in which some advocated “Western technology but Chinese culture,” perhaps best captured in the Exhortation to Study (1898, 劝学篇) of Zhang Zhidong (張之洞).

Wang is skeptical of bright-eyed Western marketing’s optimism about the so-called rise of the Chinese middle class.

In her analysis, there are, first, limits to growth of the “middle class.” Many web 2.0 digital innovations are being driven not by a middle class consumer culture, but by either the digital elites or the socially marginalized (such as the literally hundreds of millions of largely disenfranchised migrant worker families, or ethnic minorities, neither of whom is readily absorbed by a would-be middle class).

Second, in Wang’s analysis, an important current in Chinese web 2.0 culture is a critique of consumerism that has transformed into an issue of user rights, hence there are already over 1 million contributors to Creative Commons in China. With food and fuel prices rising even more rapidly in China than in the U.S., sustainable lifestyles may shortly be another key component of this critique.

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