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Hardening National Boundaries in a Globally-connected World

Paid Post:CityU College of Liberal Arts & Social Sciences

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Information and communication technologies (ICTs) such as the internet are often thought to have removed the boundaries among countries and brought us to a boundless world. But is that really the case? To investigate this question, research authored by Dr Jun ZHANG, Assistant Professor of CityU’s Department of Asian and International Studies, takes as entry point technological nationalism among middle-class professionals in urban China in the context of the Sino-American trade war of recent years. 

Nationalism is a form of identity that is built on—as Benedict Anderson famously argues—an imagined community within a bounded territory. Unlike much existing research, this work does not see ICTs as merely the medium through which nationalism is expressed. Instead, it looks into how ICTs are entangled in people’s everyday lives and how such entanglement shapes “socio-technical imaginaries” of their relationship with their country. Experts may understand ICTs through theories, algorithms and experiments. But when many ordinary people talk about ICTs, they are actually talking about things such as smartphones, and daily practices such as ordering food and hailing a car through online platforms—a way of life that can be called a “platformised lifestyle”.

This research draws on over a decade’s conversations with middle-class professionals and observation of their lifestyles in the urban areas of the Pearl River Delta. It is found that these middle-class professionals are proud of their platformised lifestyle with its unique socio-technological features, high-end smartphones made by Chinese companies, and development in ICTs by tech companies such as Huawei—seemingly advanced enough to alert the American government and thereby leading to Huawei being sanctioned. For many professionals, these achievements suggest that China is moving beyond its sweatshop factory reputation and becoming a rising power in technology. This matters a lot to these professionals. While they have benefited greatly from China’s economic growth because of those sweatshops, their contribution to it is largely overshadowed by the cheap labour that attracted capital investment in the first place. With the projected rise of China as a technological power, the role of professionals is now finally getting more recognition, and they are leading a lifestyle that is—in their eyes—more technologically advanced than those in other parts of the world. ICTs or technology in general has become the key link between their professional identity and national identity. In other words, ICTs, embodied as smartphones and platformised lifestyles, reinforce a territorially bounded identity rather than breaking down boundaries. 

Publication and achievements

Zhang, J (2022). Hardening National Boundaries in a Globally-Connected World: Technology, Development, and Nationalism in China, Journal of Contemporary Asia.
DOI: 10.1080/00472336.2021.2001841