Universiteit Leiden

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China as a laboratory for the rest of the world

Professor of Modern China Florian Schneider researches what people do with technology and what technology does with people. Social media, for example. And then mainly in China. But his research is also applicable to other parts of the world. He will give his inaugural lecture on 6 May.

You studied Chinese. Why was that?

‘I originally wanted to be a journalist and planned to study English and German literature. But I did a Chinese course and was so taken by it that I decided to study the language, alongside a minor in political science and economics. A lecturer asked later: Why don’t you write a dissertation? Then I decided that I’d prefer to go into academia than journalism.’

What makes China so interesting?

‘It is a country of contrasts. Developments are happening at a gigantic rate. Admittedly, that probably does not just apply to China but you can see the country as a kind of laboratory for the rest of the world: it’s a good place to study our modern global issues and learn from them. So much is happening there and I think that China is ahead of us in many ways.’

So you like going to China?

‘Yes, I’ve been going since 1999. I try to go every year, to get a feeling of what people are up to. March was the first time I’ve visited since the pandemic. I lived there for a few years during my PhD. The people there are really welcoming and friendly once you get talking to them. They want you to have a good impression of the country and its people.’

What will you talk about in your inaugural lecture?

‘About how unpredictable results are if you combine politics with complex digital technologies such as social media. Technology is never neutral but is based on certain ideas and assumptions and serves certain interests. Using technology to persuade someone to do something is not easy. The social platform that the Chinese Communist Party used for its members was not a resounding success. They had to win points in a kind of game to earn their salary but that proved to be demotivating. So I research what people do with technology and what technology does with people and try to learn lessons from it. We sometimes place too much faith in technology being able to solve our problems. Solutionism, as they call it in Silicon Valley. Misjudgments by AI or algorithms can actually exacerbate problems.’

Do you have to be careful not to antagonise the Chinese government?

‘Working there can be hard for researchers and journalists. If you have family there, the risks are greater. There are always phases in history of greater or fewer restrictions and I hope that more openness will come. You never know which topic will prove to be sensitive. But my research is about bigger questions than China alone, questions that are relevant to all of us.’

What do you want to study next?

‘I’m working on two research proposals. In the first, I want to work on the topic of disinformation, rumours and lies. And in the second, with what AI means for people in different Asian countries so we don’t just hear the European and American perspective.’

What has changed most since you first went to China?

‘The enormous urbanisation. Cities with 3 million people are small there. It’s impressive how quickly all those cities have been built but now all the old buildings and street vendors have gone too. I sometimes feel sorry for my students that the China I got to know while backpacking no longer exists. During long train journeys, people sat playing endless card games and chewing on sunflower seeds among huge quanties of luggage and chickens.’

Florian Schneider will give his inaugural lecture on 6 May. Sign up to attend.

Text: Thessa Lageman

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