By David Robson
Four years ago, the British anthropologist Tom McDonald set-up home in Anshan, a small rural town between Beijing and Shanghai. His aim was to study the way local people used social media – but even they were perplexed at his decision.
“They wanted to know why on Earth someone would choose to live in a place like this,” says McDonald. To them, the town was a backwater that many hoped to escape – hardly the thriving hub of technological change. But Anshan’s relative isolation was the precise reason McDonald had come.
Most writing about China’s internet had explored metropolitan elites living in the country’s huge cities – and had tended to focus on the issues of censorship and government control, painting a joyless place straight out of George Orwell’s 1984. Yet here in Anshan, McDonald was surprised to find a vibrant and innovative online world. “It is easy for us to assume that ‘the Chinese Internet’ ought to be a very drab and boring and constraining place, whereas actually, Chinese internet users are incredibly creative and the internet is incredibly lively,” he tells me. “It was more like an online carnival.”
I’m visiting McDonald in his office at the University of Hong Kong, for a wide-ranging conversation about China’s digital world and the ways that everyday people have integrated these developments into their own traditions.