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Teaching Chinese Politics: Microblogging and Student Engagement

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This article reflects on some of the issues involved in teaching Chinese politics in the west and assesses the rationale for incorporating technology into teaching. The article specifically addresses the potential benefits of using microblogging (Twitter and Weibo) as a supplementary teaching tool in Chinese politics classes. The article argues that microblogging has benefits in terms of helping students develop professional networks, extending contact hours without placing an onerous burden on instructors, contributing to the construction of a supportive and collaborative learning environment and demystifying China for non-Chinese majors. Furthermore, in classes where students possess Chinese language skills, China’s domestic Weibo provide a fascinating window onto social and political issues as they are experienced contemporaneously by Chinese netizens. An assessment of the potential uses of microblogging is timely as the learning preferences of current and future cohorts change and commercial and pedagogical imperatives increasingly impel university teachers to consider the effectiveness of their teaching methods.

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    Fischler’s lesson plans and related materials, along with other useful resources, are available at Weatherhead East Asian Institute’s Expanding East Asian Studies project website http://www.columbia.edu/cu/weai/exeas/ . Weatherhead also hosts a collection of teaching resources (although not primarily for Higher Education purposes) under the Asia for Educators banner at http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/.

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    Astonishing China media watchers, CCTV news anchor Qiu Qiming asked rhetorically, live on air, ‘can we live in apartments that do not fall down? Can the roads we drive on in our cities not collapse? Can we travel in safe trains? And if there is a major accident, can we not be in a hurry to bury the trains? Can we afford the people a basic sense of security? China, please slow down. If you are too fast, you may leave the souls of your people behind’ [37].

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    Bridge-bloggers is a term to describe bloggers who post translations and other pieces about a society or culture for an audience in another [56].

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    For example, M. Taylor Fravel (@fravel), Rebecca Mackinnon (@rmack), Elizabeth Economy (@LizEconomy), Victor Shih (@vshih2), Michel Hockx (@mhockx) and many others (including myself @jonlsullivan).

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    Inexperienced western students may find China less daunting when they learn that the NBA, the Academy Awards and Apple products inspire as much attention in China as they do in the U.S. and Europe.

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    For example the ‘grass-mud-horse lexicon’ is a loose collection of parodies and phrases with double and hidden meanings shared by netizens which are used to sidestep the vast array of “sensitive words” which automatically return error messages when searched for. The term grass-mud horse has similar pronunciation to a common mandarin expletive and is embodied by the South American alpaca. Famous examples include ‘love the future’ in reference to the similar characters of artist Ai Weiwei’s name, ‘empty chair’ representing imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, and ‘fifty cent’ referring to internet commentators paid by the government to infiltrate online forums and to direct the discussion in an ‘appropriate’ direction. For the definitive resource, see China Digital Times, Grass-mud-horse lexicon, http://chinadigitaltimes.net/space/Grass-Mud_Horse_Lexicon


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Correspondence to Jonathan Sullivan.

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Sullivan, J. Teaching Chinese Politics: Microblogging and Student Engagement. J OF CHIN POLIT SCI 17, 347–360 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11366-012-9212-4

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  • Teaching and Learning
  • Chinese Politics
  • Microblogging
  • Student Engagement
  • Student Satisfaction
  • Effective Teaching