ADI Academic Profiles - Jun Liu

By Martin Wendelbo Rasmussen, Asian Dynamics Initiative

The ADI - Academic Profiles series puts spotlight on individual researchers working on Asia related issues in the social sciences and humanities, and promotes remarkable publications and innovative research projects.

Jun Liu

Jun Liu, Associate Professor at the Department of Communication since August 2017 has been actively engaged in activities with Asian Dynamics Initiative. Jun’s research stands at the intersection of communication, technology, politics, and society with particular attention to the social, cultural, and political implications of digital communication. Drawing upon theories from communication, sociology, and political science, his research focuses on how digital technology interacts with socio-cultural forms and settings and generates new power dynamics in politics in specific cultural and institutional contexts such as authoritarian regimes like China.

In this ADI Academic Profile interview, he presents the inspiring academic path which led him from The School of Journalism and Communication at Xiamen University to his current position at the University of Copenhagen, his forthcoming Oxford UP monograph Shifiting Dynamcis of Contention: Mobile Communication and Politics in China as well as his current research on the social credit system and censorship on social media in China.

Focusing on fields like information and communication technologies, political communication, political sociology, Chinese politics, computational methods, and collective action, Jun Liu’s academic field has an impressive scope. We asked Jun Liu how his former areas of interest have paved the way to the work behind his current research.

After working as a journalist in China, I decided to continue researching on the topic of my master thesis from 2006 about critical implications of mobile communication. In 2007, protests against a local petrochemical factory in Xiamen arose, partially facilitated by mobile text messages, which became a very interesting case for me to investigate. I looked up the opportunities of continuing my research, which led me to Copenhagen to finish my PhD dissertation on the political influence on mobile communication in China. During that period, I also went to Stanford University and integrated in more theories from political sociology in the study of contentious politics in a broader sense including protests, civic disobedience, and everyday resistance. Afterwards, I collaborated with the Oxford Internet Institute in order to bring me to a wide variety of approaches e.g. using big data approach to study censorship. This interdisciplinary background paved the way to my current work as associate professor at the Department of Communication at the University of Copenhagen - for example my forthcoming monograph on digital communication and political contention in China and beyond.

We are very interested in hearing more about your next publication “Shifting Dynamics of Contention: Mobile Communication and Politics in China”. Could you explain the main outlines?

Yes, of course. As the mobile phone has become part of people’s everyday life and thereby exerts its influence towards different domains of people's activities concerning politics, the discussion on politics or possibilities of politics is apparently expanded as it allows people to engage in politics in different ways. So, in this monograph, I discover through my firsthand in-depth interviews and fieldwork data from a period of ten years how people tactically and strategically use mobile technologies on political contention in China.

What I found out is that specific cultural norms of guanxi addressing reciprocity and reliability between people actually becomes one of the driving forces for people to engage in political contention in China, which is what I call guanxi-based mobilization, a unique, culturally bound phenomenon.

I further investigate how rumor dissemination, or, in a broader sense, misinformation or fake news in political contexts becomes a meaningful resistance but also a kind of collective frame against communication control in contemporary China. The call for rumor spreading entails a very strong counter-authority initiative. More specifically, I identified that there are two general initiatives behind rumor circulation, 1) that people believe rumor is the exact truth held back by government, and 2) that people forward rumor regardless of the content. In the case of the second initiative, rumor circulation affords a relevant outlet for rising public discontentment with the authorities’ adoption of repressive approaches to suppress and intimidate everyday communicative activities in the guise of “rumor crackdown”. Consequently, in both situations, official rumor allegation and rebuttal only add fuel to the counterattack fire and stir up even further dissemination of rumor instead.

Moreover, my monograph in a general sense also goes beyond China, as I actually developed an interdisciplinary, comparative framework to compare and investigate the Wukan Protests in China, the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 and the Civil Rights Movement in US in order to pinpoint the contribution from digital technology. This cross-spatial and cross-temporal comparative study emphasizes a nuanced understanding of changes digital technology actually brings to social movement.

Congratulations on your forthcoming monograph, we look very much forward to reading it. As I understand, your current research also expands on topics like the social credit system and censorship on social media. Could you briefly outline some major findings on those topics?

Yes, I am currently working on two further topics I would like to introduce. The first topic concerns censorship, namely how the regime controls information and how people take a stand at the censorship, which are some very relevant topics when studying social media platforms like WeChat or Weibo. Through my research I try to bring a complimentary perspective to the dominant text-based approach towards censorship. I argue that nowadays, when people go online they do not only post textual content, but also images, videos and more, which is why I think we should start understanding censorship from a multimedia perspective. My latest research takes the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong in 2014 as an example. It shows that multimedia content suffers a much higher delete rate than plain text. This means that the effect of censorship must be underestimated as the multimedia part is ignored, which is why the censorship rate should be much higher than reported. This is followed by a number of issues, e.g. what kind of censorship will the authorities adopt in the case of Tik Tok, a platform in which censorship takes on a whole different form than text-based platforms like WeChat and Weibo.

My second topic concerns the social credit systems in China, a subject matter that faces a lot of criticism and concerns in the existing media landscape. Through my comparative study, I argue that credit rating systems do not only exist in the authoritarian context of China but have actually already been implemented in democratic governance systems like in the UK, Germany, and India. This means that the Chinese social credit systems are very different but not something unique, as credit score systems already exert extensive power in western democratic countries.

So, what does the future hold for you? What are your next research projects? 

The mentioned fields of research will be my ongoing projects and I am going to focus on a more comparative perspective in the future. I think it will be interesting to compare different technologies in different parts of the world and to look into how people use the technology differently in different cases. It is interesting to compare different content moderations mechanisms across different platforms, which can be overlaid to my research on contention, censorship, and the social credit system. 


ADI would like to thank Jun Liu for featuring in this interview.

April 2020