Monday, January 30, 2023

What is China's Tech Policy?

Greetings from the Australian Centre on China in the World,at The Australian National University, where Rogier Creemers from  Leiden University i speaking on China’s Techno-Developmental State: Achieving the Future. He began by noting there were few China tech policy watchers, despite there being plenty of Chinese government documents available to work from. Also Dr Creemers suggested China is a "future oriented authoritarian state", in contrast to Russia's "eternal present". 

Working out what the thinking is in the Chinese government is of vital interest to Australia. It is also of immediate interest to me, as yesterday new reports indicated China has banned their citizens studying online. But exactly what had the Chinese government decided, and why?

In 2003 I attended a conference in Beijing to provide advice on building the website for the 2008 Olympics. As a former Australian government technocrat, and academic, I felt very comfortable talking to Chinese technocrats and academics. The US representative, in contrast, seemed to expect everyone to be in Chinese tunics, waving little red books.

Dr Creemers argued that Chinese tech policy is shaped by being a late adopter. China had to have its Internet first hosted by a Western university, and accept its libertarian underpinnings. This is perhaps a little overstated. When we needed to set up the Australian Defence Department's web site, I turned to a university. Admittedly this was the Australian Defence Force Academy, but the Government bureaucracy could not cope with what to do, I bypassed it. Similarly, the laissez-faire ethos of the Internet is something which the Australian Government could not comprehend. In a Senate Internet inquiry we had to explain why there could not simply be a government agency which approved every document before it went online. In contrast, when I visited the People's Daily, they had a sophisticated view of how to guide discussion online. 

Dr Creemers suggest that the rise of the smartphone took the Chinese government by surprise, but an office was established to regulate this, and coordinate digital policy. 

As Dr Creemers explains it, the Chinese government had some surprises and made adjustments to policy. This reminded me of Juan Du's "The Shenzhen Experiment: The Story of China’s Instant City", which challenged the idea that the city's success was due to a single central policy decision. One insight was that China wants not to just master a technology, but apply it profitably. This is an approach the Australian Government could perhaps learn from. Successive Australian Governments have attempted to set up defence industries. However, these have failed, due to a lack of competitiveness. 

Dr Creemers argues that China is trying to design a new economic model which provides economic prosperity, but is not the same as western liberal capitalism. 

At question time I asked Dr Creemers: "Given how important China is to Australia, what should the Australian government be doing, apart from generously funding a tech policy unit at ANU? ;-) ". He explained he had just arrived, but would tell European governments to work out what they see as a long term acceptable relationship with China, rather than short term knee jerk reactions.

Philippa Jones, from China Policy asked about China's interest in the Digital Economy Partnership Agreement (DEPA). Dr Creemers suggested China was heavy handed in expressing interest in this, and there would need to be involvement from the USA, for balance. He made the interesting point that DEPA is a rare example of an agreement to regulate trade of something which was not regulated, rather than removing trade barriers.

Back to the Campus Says Chinese Government

Greetings from the Coffee Grounds Cafe, at the Australian National University, on a wet monday morning. According to media reports, the government of China has placed restrictions on its citizens studying online at foreign universities (Australian universities welcome snap decision by China to ban online studies, The Guardian, 29 January 2023). Australia's universities were already preparing for the return of students, so this is not a major difficulty.

While media reports refer to online being "banned", the announcement from China's Ministry of Education, characterise this as a return to previous policy, and there is provision for students who are unable to get to campus. An example given is those who can't get to a Ukraine campus due to war:

In investigating how Australian universities might offer online learning to international students, I noticed China, in particular, was wary of this (Worthington, 2014). COVID-19 required a softening of attitudes to online learning, in Australia, China, and other countries. There is a wish to get back to "business as usual", however, what was usual, and is that the best for the students, or the community they aim to serve?


Worthington, T. (2014, August). Chinese and Australian students learning to work together online proposal to expand the New Colombo Plan to the online environment. In 2014 9th International Conference on Computer Science & Education (pp. 164-168). IEEE. URL

Thursday, January 26, 2023

Metaverse will Fail

Trying HoloLens
at LinkedIn Sydney
I am not a believer in the Metaverse, and doubt I ever will be. The same claims were made for previous generations of VR, and Iwas proven right to doubt them. Metaverse is too much like Second Life, Google Glass, and real life, so will fail.

The hype over Metaverse sounds all too familiar, and the reality far short of what is claimed for the technology. It is not that I am particularly skeptical of this form of VR, but when there have been so many waves of hype, making the same claims, and producing the same disappointment, it is hard not to have skepticism as your default position.

I recall eight years ago when we were all going to be wearing Google Glass. I sat in one presentation where I was the only one not wearing some sort of gadget. Google Glass went the way of the Apple Newton: the subject of ridicule.

There is a role for VT (or more likely AR) in education, and particuarly training. This especially applies to hands-on training. It also has potential in language learning. However, VR may not be needed for this. Dr Jinghong Zhang pointed to grass roots use of TikTok for language learning in her seminar at ANU yesterday.

Building an online campus has advantages. But that has been done for decades, very successfully, without VR. Attempts to add VR have failed, not due to a lack of the technology, but because it was missing the point. Virtual campuses work not by emulating physical ones, but by getting rid of the physical limitations.

For the last ten years people have been showing me demonstrations of how Second Life, Mozilla Hubs and other assorted VR could emulate a university campus. Apart from being clunky implementations these all seemed to be missing the point. Virtual universities work by not emulating the features of a real campus. The silliest implementation I saw was of a library in a virtual university, complete with a virtual card catalog (real libraries no longer have card catalogs). A virtual lecture theatre showing rows of avatars perhaps makes an out of date lecturer feel good, but is emulating a poor learning experience.

This is not to say some form of VR/AR will not work, just as the Apple iPhone succeeded where the Newton failed. But it will take some inspired design to make the Meta-verse more than just another clunky old VR application. As an example, I found Microsoft HoloLens much better than Google Glass, despite having a much bulkier headset.

Tea and Teaching

Dr Jinghong Zhang making tea 
Photo by Tom Worthington, 2023 CC-BY
Dr Jinghong Zhang, Associate Professor at Southern University of Science and Technology talked on "Gongfu Tea and Camera" a the Australian National University in Canberra, 25 January 2023. As a bonus they made tea after. There was a serious scholarly point to this. Dr Jinghong Zhang described an approach to anthropology where the camera becomes part of the introduction to people. In one of Dr Jinghong Zhang's videos, a family is explaining the local dialect, & that some learn it from TikTok. The parents were encouraging their children to learn local words through the use of TikTok. I thought this might be relevant to Manisha Khetarpal's study of learning language online.