A BRICS Internet and the de-Westernization of media studies

Daya Thussu In Hermès, La Revue Volume 79, Issue 3, 2017,

Coined in 2001 by Jim O’Neill, a Goldman Sachs executive, to refer to what were then the four fastest-growing emerging markets – Brazil, Russia, India, and China – the BRIC acronym has entered the international lexicon. A decade later, South Africa was added, on China’s request, thus expanding BRIC to BRICS. Although in operation as a formal group since 2006 and holding annual summits since 2009, the communication power of BRICS countries has largely escaped serious academic scrutiny, partly because of the difficulty posed by different political systems and socio-cultural norms, as well as varying stages of development within this group of large and diverse nations.

Despite recent setbacks in the economic growth of some of the BRICS countries, notably Brazil and South Africa, the international presence of media and communication from BRICS countries is likely to expand exponentially with the growing convergence of mobile communications technologies and content via an altered and multi-lingual Internet. The predominance of English on the internet might also be challenged, making it more diverse and fragmented. China, for example, hosts the world’s largest blogging population, and the Chinese version of Facebook – QZone – had more than 600 million users by 2017. Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, has an equally large following and is increasingly influential for mainstream journalism within the Sino media-sphere. Internet users in India are expected to reach 600 million by 2020, driven by wireless connections. Russia already has the highest internet penetration among the BRICS nations. In Brazil, too, the internet is expanding at a rapid pace, while the growth of mobile internet in South Africa is likely to increase as 4G becomes more affordable.

Nevertheless, it is still the case that the US continues to dominate and define the global media and communication scene, being the largest exporter of media content across the globe. The American media’s imprint on the global communication space is profound, by virtue of the ownership of multiple networks and production facilities – from satellites to telecommunication hubs, from cyberspace to real space (Thussu, forthcoming). Yet other players, including the BRICS nations have emerged in the last decade – coinciding with the relative economic decline of the West – to complement, if not challenge US hegemony in this field (Nordenstreng and Thussu, 2015).

A Western hegemony that is challenged

My focus in this piece is on the two large BRICS nations – China and India – given the scale and scope of change within these nations with the potential of developing globalization with an Asian accent. Apart from being the world’s two most populous countries and fastest growing large economies, China and India are both civilizational powers, with old and distinctive cultures and aspirations for a greater role in a ‘post-American world’.

As the ‘Washington Consensus’ – globalization of economic liberalization, deregulation and privatization, spearheaded by the US government and the Bretton Woods institutions – faces a challenge, China and India are becoming more vocal champions of neo-liberal globalization at a time when the role of both the US and Western Europe as the main engines of global growth seems to have diminished. The US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trading agreement as well as the uncertain future of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which linked the European Union with the US, are two other recent developments which indicate the relative retreat of the West.

While the West is looking inwards, China and India are globalizing. On the basis of purchasing power parity (PPP), China’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) surpassed that of the US in 2014, making it the world’s largest economy, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), while India has been the third largest economy after the US since 2015. According to the IMF, China’s share of global GDP in PPP terms has grown from just over four per cent in 1990 to nearly 18 per cent in 2016, while that of the G7 countries – US, Japan, Germany, Britain, France, Canada and Italy – shrank from nearly 51 per cent in 1990 to about 31 per cent in 2016. Assisted by the inclusion of the renminbi in the IMF’s Special Drawing Rights, making it one of the world’s reserve currencies, Chinese companies are becoming increasingly competitive in global markets, making sizeable investments and acquisitions.

Although the idea of a BRIC was given a shape by Russia by holding the first BRIC summit, it is China which has become the driving force behind this grouping as well as other important global initiatives to emanate from outside the West. In Beijing in May 2017, Xi formally launched the ‘One Belt, One Road’ project, labelled as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), in which representatives from 68 countries participated, including 28 heads of government. The ‘Belt’ in BRI refers to building a land route linking China to Central Asia and Europe, while the ‘maritime silk road’ will create a sea route from China to the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean. When completed, it will be one of the world’s biggest infrastructure ventures, encompassing 900 projects (valued at about $1.3 trillion) involving 65 countries, 4.4 billion people and 29 per cent of global GDP. Creating information and communication networks are part of the BRI projects, backed by a new $40 billion Silk Road Infrastructure Fund, capitalised mainly by China’s foreign exchange reserves. In addition, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank – set up in 2016, together with the Shanghai-based New Development Bank, established in 2016 by the BRICS nations, are involved in financing these projects.

While it is still the case that the US continues to dominate and define the global media scene, being the largest exporter of media content distributed across the increasingly interconnected and digitized globe, other players – notably China – have emerged in the last decade to complement if not challenge the US hegemony in this field. In 2017, more than half of China’s 1.3 billion people were online, making it home to the world’s largest number of internet users. Although China’s ‘Great Firewall,’ blocks access to foreign websites – including Google, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Instagram – and thousands of censors, employed by the government monitor on-line communication, China is the only country with its own version of these and many other essentially US-based digital properties. While the Western world has been focusing on censorship issues, China has developed its own digital giants: in 2016, four of the top ten internet companies in the world ranked by market capitalization were Chinese, including e-commerce giant Alibaba, search engine Baidu and social-media company Tencent. Alibaba, labelled as the ‘largest virtual shopping mall in the world’: its 2014 IPO in the New York Stock Exchange raised $25 billion, the largest stock market flotation in history. By 2014, with Internet advertising revenue of $16.62 billion, China’s internet advertising market was the second-largest globally after the US (PwC, 2016).

Internet growth is also remarkable in the other Asian giant, India, where it took a decade for the number of internet users to grow from 10 million to 100 million, but just three years to double that number to 200 million. By June 2016, the number had reached 460 million, making India the world’s second-biggest internet user after China. An estimated two million new users are added every month to social media networks in India, which is expected to have the largest Facebook population by 2018, surpassing the US. The projected growth in India’s Internet users is likely to be the highest in the world, given its demographic dividend – more than 65 per cent of India’s 1.25 billion population is comprised of people below the age of 35.

With the expansion of 3G and the introduction of 4G services, paralleled by the affordability of smartphones as telecom companies achieve economies of scale, more and more internet users are likely to be mobile-only subscribers using internet-enabled devices. Such connectivity is encouraging businesses to invest in communication infrastructure. In 2016, one of India’s biggest corporations, Reliance Industries, introduced a 4G broadband network in a phased manner under the brand of ‘Reliance Jio’. Such initiatives have strong backing from the Modi government’s ‘Digital India’ programme, which also includes further globalization of India’s Bollywood, a $3.5 billion industry, the world’s largest film factory in terms of production and viewership in more than 70 countries, primarily consumed by the 35-million strong South Asian diaspora scattered around the world (Thussu, 2016).

For nearly three decades, Brazil’s successful television industry, centred on the telenovela format, has spread to most of Latin America, as well as internationally: it is exported to more than 100 countries across the globe, dubbed and adapted, and has inspired many television mini-series. Brazilian entertainment is particularly popular within the Lusophone world, where it continues to dominate the media. Brazil has the highest Internet penetration after Russia. Brazilians are among the world’s top users of blogs and social networks, and use of online media is growing fast. South Africa remains the least developed media market among the BRICS nations, through its pan-African networks, such as M-Net and NASPERS – the online and entertainment giant – make it a major presence on the continent. Internet usage in South Africa has more than doubled in the last four years, and the government is planning broadband access for every citizen by 2020. In Russia, the internet industry is characteristically indigenous, as its social networking sites (VKontakte), blogging platforms (LiveJournal), and search engines (Yandex) are largely in Russian. Known popularly as the ‘RuNet’, the Russian-language internet has demonstrated exceptional growth.

A global action strategy

China and India see themselves as champions of communication for development and could contribute significantly to the debates about the emerging synergies between cyberspace and sustainable development. From tele-medicine, to tele-education and from mobile banking to e-governance, the opportunities that digital connectivity offers are tremendous. Both countries have sophisticated space and satellite programmes: China has demonstrated exceptional growth in this sector, while the Indian Space Research Organization, which has built and launched a range of satellites at affordable rates (including successfully sending a vessel to Mars in 2014 for only the cost of a Hollywood blockbuster film), can provide communication infrastructure to counter the traditional domination of this field by the US and the European Union.

China has been prioritizing developing communication infrastructure in many countries of the global South. One key component of this is the strengthening of China’s foreign aid: in 2013 China contributed four per cent to total global development assistance, nearly half of it directed to countries in Africa and is aimed at creating infrastructure, including communication infrastructure. China is using its rapidly globalization media to project and legitimise its global presence, part of the country’s ‘going out’ strategy. The state-funded ‘central media’ – Xinhua News Agency, China Central Television (CCTV, which in 2016 changed its name to China Global Television Network (CGTN)), China Radio International, People’s Daily and the English-language China Daily – are generously funded for global expansion.

As the US now takes pride in an ‘America First’ attitude, cuts its international aid budget and international broadcasting – broadly following an agenda of ‘de-globalization’ – countries such as China and India may find more space to promote their versions of globalization. With other BRICS partners, they could be important voices in articulating Southern viewpoints and perspectives in global forums like UNESCO, ITU and WIPO on such diverse and contested issues as sustainable development and climate change, multiculturalism, intellectual property rights in the digital environment and safeguarding cyber security and commerce, thus contributing to consolidating a multipolar world order.

Economist Angus Maddison is not the only person who has shown that, until the eighteenth century, China and India were the largest economies in the world, accounting for more than 60 per cent of global GDP: out of a world total of $694.4 billion in 1820, at international dollar rate of 1990, Asia’s contribution to global GDP was $410 billion, as against the West’s $175 billion (Maddison, 2007). Perhaps more importantly, the rise of large non-Western civilizational powers will entail a reassessment of how one has imagined the evolution of modernity as a manifestation of European ideas. A global history of institutionalized education may have to take into account non-European trajectories of knowledge-creation and dissemination. It would note, for example, that centres of higher education in Nalanda (an international Buddhist university based in India between 5th to 12th centuries) existed for a millennium in Asia before universities were established in Europe. A global history of communication would include communication between non-European countries and cultures. It would note that the interest in Buddhist thought and texts in China led to great Chinese scholars (and extraordinary translators) such as Huen Tsang (also known as Xuan Zang, 602–664) visiting Nalanda to exchange ideas on law, philosophy and politics. Such cultural interaction led to the translation into Chinese of the Sanskrit Vajracchedikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra (Diamond Sutra), the world’s first printed book on paper, published in the ninth century. The rise, or as has been argued, ‘the return’ of Asia may signal a corresponding decline in the Western domination of world history of the last two centuries.

This long historical association between the two Asian giants can help overcome the often perceived contemporary adversarial relations between China and India. Apart from the contentious border dispute and disagreements on Tibet, both countries vie for resources and the leadership role of the global South. Yet China is one of India’s biggest trading partners and apart from being members of the BRICS grouping, since June 2017, India has also joined the China-led geopolitical bloc, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).

Promoting the culture of communication of the BRICS

While the changes outlined above are transforming media in countries such as China and India, the academic study of media and communication has not yet achieved international recognition. By 2017, though, more than 800 communication and media programmes were being run in Chinese universities, paralleled by the publication of many Chinese language journals in the field, as well as China-related material in international journals. In India too, the growth of media has led to the mushrooming of mostly vocational media research institutes and interesting research is beginning to emerge.

Intellectual curiously about BRICS nations is often confined to specialists, at a time when internationalization should be an integral part of teaching and research in media and communication, given the global nature of the subject and globalization of media and communication industries. Such an altered academic environment demands what Appaduari has called ‘deparochialization of the research ethic – the idea of research itself’ (Appadurai, 2001:15).

Can the growth of media and communication studies in BRICS contribute to broadening research concerns and agendas in this relatively new field? Research in the media and communication arena has been traditionally influenced by Eurocentric essentialism and within it an Anglo-American core. The dominant strands of research in global media and communication have traditionally been conducted within a Western, or more accurately, an American framework. It is pertinent to ask whether such frameworks are adequately equipped – both theoretically and empirically – to comprehend the complexity of a new globalization that challenges established ways of thinking about international media and communication The BRICS communication challenge is difficult to analyse within traditional Western-originated and oriented media theory – whether liberal or critical, though both have useful insights to offer (Curran and Park, 2000; Hallin and Mancini, 2012). This calls for original and innovative methodological approaches and theoretical interventions as well as a radical re-evaluation of pedagogic parameters, taking historical, cultural and socio-psychological factors into consideration. As Jack Goody has noted, ‘the Western domination of the world of knowledge and of world culture persists in some respects but has been significantly loosened. Globalization is no longer exclusively Westernization’ (Goody, 2010: 125). This would argue for a serious engagement with the emerging communication cultures of BRICS nation and a concomitant recalibration of the field of media and communication studies.Uploaded on Cairn-int.info on 28/01/2019


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