Bridging Cultures: Hong Kong and the Open Internet

The JMSC hosted a lively discussion on the Open Internet last week bringing together experts from Hong Kong and the United States and, with the help of YouTube, one of Canada’s leading net video sensations.

Lokman Tsui

Google Asia Pacific’s Policy Adviser, Lokman Tsui, served a moderator for the September 20 event which was streamed live over the net.

Discussion focused on the cultural value of the internet and its power to allow the exchange of different points of view among different cultures around the world.

“There is a risk that we take open internet for granted and it is a great potential for the facilitation of global culture exchange. That is why Google is doing this today,” Tsui said of the seminar.

The first of the speakers to address the audience was Ethan Zuckerman, Director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT and co-founder of  Global Voices, an international community of bloggers and translators.

Zuckerman remarked on the importance of Hong Kong as a bridge of cultural exchange and noted the role of the internet and social media in the Arab Spring movement, which started in Tunisia in 2010 and was fuelled in part by smartphones and social media. This enabled the mainstream media to collect information and produce news stories on events in a country where there was little in the way of a traditional media presence.

Left to right: Sky Canaves, Gordon Matthews and Ethan Zuckerman

The concept of bridging across cultures is central to Global Voices, which Zuckerman co-founded with former JMSC professor, Rebecca MacKinnon.

“Hong Kong is a bridge between different cultures. There is now the notion of bridging between cultures and the idea that the internet can somehow give us exposure to a much wider world than we all get in our ordinary existence,”  Zuckerman said.

Professor Gordon Matthews of the Chinese University of Hong Kong and author of Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong, said the sprawling building in Kowloon served as physical conduit across cultures.

Matthews described Chungking Mansions as a “world centre of low-end globalisation. The ageing building is a warren of guesthouses, small shop-stalls, cafes and cheap apartments and is a magnet for asylum-seekers, backpackers and traders from every corner of the earth.

He amused the audience with anecdotes from his anthropological fieldwork at Chungking Mansions, including one about witnessing a Nigerian scammer attempting to conduct a 419 e-mail con from one of the building’s internet cafes.

Evelyn Ho (MJ 2012) in the audience

The third guest to address the audience was Carlos Vidal, better known as Carlos Douh — the name of his Youtube video channel.

Speaking on video from his home in Canada, Vidal entertained the audience with an account of how his videos, which teach Cantonese slang to English speakers, went viral.

He learned Cantonese during a stint in Hong Kong as a missionary.

Vidal said his Youtube channel has more than 35,000 subscribers and his videos have been watched more than 5 million times.

“Its a really cool feeling to get comments and interact with people from all over the world and Youtube is a really great vehicle because the videos can be viewed anywhere,” he said.

JMSC Teaching Assistant and former Wall Street Journal correspondent, Sky Canaves, described the setting up of the China Real Time blog at the Journal and how it went on to spawn a family of “Real Time” blogs covering a number of Asian countries.

This experience proved useful at the JMSC where Canaves was instrumental in setting up the Centre’s Covering China blog.

“Hong Kong’s internet also serves as a source of information about human rights and civil society issues in mainland China,” she said.

“I think that the key thing that Hong Kong can do is to maintain the legal environment that protects freedom of protection and an open internet.”

The discussion element of the event ranging from restrictions on internet use and social media content and how citizens are developing methods to evade particular situations.

“Free expression really should be about a larger question about how do we build our culture,” said Google’s Lokman Tsui.

“It is about building culture; we have free expression so we can develop ourselves and we can understand each other better.”