Academic capitalism is a global phenomenon. In China, it has acquired particularly interesting forms that may foreshadow things to come elsewhere. Academic capitalism is built on the extraction of gain from academic labor in two ways: On the one hand, there is the generation of markers of prestige, quantified and handily packaged in citation frequencies, impact factors, journal rankings, and so forth. On the other hand, there is the direct mobilization of academics as sources of financial revenue, most notably through the establishment of research grants as a necessary condition for academic research.
Academic capitalism in this sense is all about the numbers, continuous growth in the value of these numbers, and the achievement of such growth at the fastest speed possible.
This, in turn, requires universities to get academics to work more quickly and produce results more quickly. So how to go about increasing academics’ speed? One way is to exert direct pressure on them. This is the purpose of performance management systems that set out certain requirements for academics to retain their jobs or be promoted – x journal articles to be published, x amount of money to be made in grants, and so on – and that periodically review the attainment of minimum performance standards. Performance management is all about the creation of direct pressure to yield results.
A far more subtle way to make academics to produce more results more quickly is to transform their everyday working lives, in ways that become taken for granted and therefore hard to spot. This is were WeChat enters the picture. WeChat is a social media platform that comprises online text, voice and video chat, live blogs, an online payment system, and more. It is operated by Tencent, the largest social media corporation in the world by user base. Think Facebook on steroids, in terms of number of users, range of services offered, and lack of concern for users’ privacy. The latter is, in fact, built into WeChat’s mode of operations – upon signing up for a WeChat account (you can check this in WeChat’s international version), users completely waive their right to privacy and agree to all their data being shared with a very wide range of parties.
WeChat’s take-up in Chinese society, moreover, has been so widespread that it has come to erase boundaries between work and private life. WeChat allows users to post photos, notes, links, and other items, and, in a way similar to Facebook, it then publishes these items in a stream of latest news among the people in one’s contact list. Chinese people use this news stream to keep track of what family members, friends, and acquaintances are up to. At the same time, WeChat has long since surpassed e-mail as the main tool of mediating communication at Chinese universities. This means that news is circulated via WeChat, that notifications about administrative procedures are circulated via WeChat, and that everyday communication takes place to a very large degree via WeChat.
This has several notable consequences for academics’ day-to-day work. First, it breaks down between work and private life, in terms of the mixing of text and images that reveal both at once to anyone in one’s contact network – family, friends, work colleagues and superiors alike. Second, it well and truly makes academics reachable and available at any time of the day, in ways that even e-mail does not. WeChat both feeds into and creates a work culture of never-ending hours, in which everyone has to be available at any time. In doing so, WeChat, as a technological facility, is supported by norms of online messaging etiquette that demand that one answer one’s messages at speed, lest one be considered rude or obstructive. Think your colleague or your student texting you at 10 p.m .with an urgent query and your phone going ‘ping ping ping’ and never stopping and you know what I mean. It is in this way that WeChat speeds up academic labor to a heretofore unknown pace. The question is, of course, for how long such a system will be sustainable.