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From Worker-Generated Content in China to Hong Kong's Umbrella Revolution

The AoIR 2015 keynote today is by Jack Linchuan Qiu, whose begins by highlighting the contributions Asian communication and Internet researchers and practitioners have made to their fields, from very early research publications to Korea. citizen journalism site OhmyNews, Chinese Internet giant Alibaba, and most recently the incomplete "umbrella revolution" in Hong Kong.

But Asia is also the industrial base of the global digital revolution, and in this it remains part of the global south. Here, classic 19th century-style industrial struggles take place using 21st-century communication technologies. The problems around Apple iPhone manufacturer Foxconn represent just the tip of the iceberg for these kinds of struggles.

To illustrate this, Jack discusses the picture of a handwritten protest poem which was posted to a tree in the manufacturing town Dongguan, and was shared virally using social media. Transmitted through social media, this is an expression of digital activism, similar to so many other campaigns around the world. But in Asia it also has a special meaning, as it represents workers armed with smart phones challenging the Chinese social and industrial model. The recent tidal wave of social media use amongst Chinese workers is just as important to study as the Arab Spring uprisings.

Twelve years ago, workers began to have more access to electronic media, but their choices remained limited. Television was freely available in canteens or street food stores, or paid watching of recorded content in video halls. Such viewing practices have now declined and been replaced by a highly variegated set of media practices, especially also through mobile phones.

Working class ICTs often also have antennas for radio and TV reception, as well as built-in QQ social messaging functions, video viewing and Bluetooth functionality. DSL access is widely available (and affordable), too. And a truly profound leap forward is represented by users' ability to become active in generating their own content: workers can make and share their own materials, and reshape the structures that surround them.

Social media on the picket line are thus leading to the generation of more worker-generated content (WGC), and we're only beginning to see the impact of this change. Such tendencies are also impacting on other parts of the global south, in fact.

China now has the world's largest Internet population (more than 632 million), but only 20% of them have a college education; this is largely a working-class network, then. This is radically different from other advanced Asian societies such as South Korea, importantly. Working-class Netizens occupy the bulk of the Chinese Internet, and they may even be pushing out users with higher socioeconomic status.

WGC is an empirical subcategory of user-generated content, but it transcends UGC's parameters where they are set by logics of capitalist and state surveillance. WGC highlights issues of social class, collectivity, and needs-based communication; it is a harbinger of new class-making processes that are based on bottom-up and horizontal communication.

Replacing "user" with "worker" is more than a recontextualisation of social practices, then: it shifts emphasis from mere usage of online tools and content to the full human being in all of its dimensions. "User" in Chinese has connotations of imported middle-class concepts, while "worker" notes the continuing industrialisation of China, points to the massive working-class populations engaging in collective social media practices, and provides a chance for a holistic understanding of workers' life worlds beyond UGC's one-dimensional instrumentality.

Notably, the Internet is the main channel for WGC, due to the continuing limitations of traditional media. The rising cost of wage labour, the higher cost of material inputs, and the increasing demand for public service and democratisation each constrain the capitalist world system, and the main role of WGC has been to develop modes of resistance that address this last point. A growth of working-class social media is consistent with the rise of the working class in society, especially also amongst specific groups (e.g. women workers).

The number of "mass incidents" in China has grown substantially, with tens of thousands of strikes every year. The role of social media may be to drive a transition to a new system, influenced by neomaoist ideas amongst young workers, as well as new socialist and anarchist formations. These are positioned relative to residual Maoist perspectives and the dominant neoliberal orientation of the Chinese state.

A brief history of working-class social media in China has a number of different phases, from the use of QQ and its spin-offs for collective organising in phase one, where workers were able to use private QQ conversations to breach official information lock-downs, but we're ultimately suppressed by the state apparatus; through the public sharing of undercover video recordings and photos to document the confrontations with the authorities in phase two, on blogs and elsewhere; to the use especially of Twitter-style Weibo and Facebook-style WeChat social media platforms in organising collective and connective action.

Meanwhile, QQ has remained a super-stable tool that is still crucial to working-class social media. This is a challenge also for Internet researchers, of course, who are style middle- and upper-class and have largely migrated away from QQ in favour of other platforms.

Working-class social media are the key building blocks for class solidarity in the current era, and the challenge for workers is for these to reach out to other citizens beyond their own networks. Images and videos have been especially instrumental in this, perhaps also because they are open texts that are available to various dubious interpretations. Texts, and especially poetry, are less popular than before, although songs and music ("worker MP3s") are also growing in popularity. Finally, working-class memes have emerged in a handful of exceptional cases, but have not become a widespread practice to date.

Individual social media usage by workers is inadequate, therefore: there has to be collective action. While the social media platforms themselves remain in the hands of major corporations, there remains an opportunity to carve out worker spaces in these media environments nonetheless. Basic functions of worker media are information seeking and dissemination; mobilisation; deterrence; and virtual offensives.

Chinese censors do not actually mind criticism, but go up against content with "collective action potential". But such picket line social media are only a fraction of WGC; workers also generate plenty of content which fits into conventional UGC frameworks and does not challenge the status quo. WGC content highlights collectiveness, activism, and empowerment in a variety of combinations, and within this continuum we see the complex relationship between dominant, residual, and resistant views.

State strategies to combat WGC activism have included direct blocking or censorship of the social media platforms or their contents (the Erdogan approach); spamming of voters with pro-government messages (the Berlusconi approach); or the use of social media for a counter-mobilisation of government supporters (the Lee Myung-Bak approach). Whether any such strategies can succeed depends on the internal strengths and weaknesses of WGC.

To address such weaknesses, more worker ownership of social media platforms and contents may be necessary, as well as a redundant transplatform distribution of content. There is a need for collective rather than individual control over digital content, and surplus value from workers' digital labour needs to be redistributed back to the community.

Turning to the current pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, led by high school and college students, it is notable that there is no single picket line, by comparison with the labour protests in mainland China. Lots of unexpected elements are bubbling up: from new socialist and anarchist perspectives to warnings of the emergence of a new left.

Hong Kong has a highly unequal class structure and is a paradise for crony capitalism; the city's public policy has long been hijacked by real estate tycoons. There is thus a fertile ground for class warfare, from both sides of the protest lines, even if many of the Hong Kong protesters are not from the working class in a narrow definition.

The umbrella revolution protesters could learn a great deal from WGC for their own activities, therefore – their enemies, and their goals, are largely the same. Both are involved in an epochal transformation that is ultimately about redefining boundaries of class and addressing questions of intersectionality from the bottom up. Upon their success hinges a better China, a better Asia, and a better world for tomorrow.