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Transcultural Communication Through Lens of Critical Scholarship

By FENG JIANHUA Translated by LINDA QIAN | 2017-10-26 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Zhao Yuezhi was born in Jinyun County in Zhejiang Province. She is Canada Research Chair in Political Economy of Global Communication and Professor of Communication at Simon Fraser University. She is also a Changjiang Chair Lecture Professor at the Communication University of China. A founding editor of Global Media and Communication and on the editorial board of many academic journals, her areas of specialization range from political economy of communication and global media governance to information technology and social development, and vernacular culture and urban-rural relations. Her books include Sustaining Democracy?Journalism and the Politics of Objectivity, Communication in China, and Communication and Society: Political, Economic and Cultural Analysis. Zhao won the Dallas Smythe Award and the C. Edwin Baker Award respectively in 2013 and 2014, becoming one of the two scholars who hold these two lifetime academic achievement awards in communication studies.


As a renowned scholar who specializes in the political economy of communication in North America, Professor Zhao has devoted herself to the construction of a transcultural political economy of communication theoretical framework, while frequently returning to China in her role as a Changjiang Chair Lecture Professor. In a recent interview with CSST, she talked about her endeavors to overcome Western-centric narratives and shared her thoughts on the ways of challenging various rigid “dichotomies” in communication studies.


CSST: You have spent most your time conducting research in North America, yet, as a Chinese communication scholar, you have made persistent efforts in de-Westernization throughout your academic life, which some find difficult to understand. So why such an adamant pursuit for this line of analysis?

Zhao Yuezhi: I think this can be attributed to my initial encounters with Western critical scholarship upon my arrival in North America. One of the key dimensions of this critical scholarship critiques Western imperialism from the perspectives of political economy and culture. I went to Canada to pursue my master’s degree in 1986. At that time, American empirical scholarship was introduced into China as something new, and this was the only thing I knew of Western scholarship when I left for Canada. I had no idea that Edward W. Said’s Orientalism was already published in 1978.

Of course, I didn’t develop my critical stand immediately upon my arrival in Canada. It was through a gradual process of self-awakening and praxis that I developed my critical stand against Western-centrism. For example, I didn’t foreground an explicit de-Westernization perspective when I collaborated with Professor Robert A. Hackett on the book Sustaining Democracy? which focused more on the internal dilemmas, controversies and crises of Western journalism. I advanced my thoughts a bit further in my book Media, Market, and Democracy in China by demonstrating that Western liberalism failed to explain the complex reforms in the Chinese media. My clear stance took shape when I learned more about anti-racist theories within the Western and debates on the issue of theoretical frameworks for the study of China.


CSST: The “gradual process of self-awakening and praxis” must have been complicated. Were there any critical moments throughout this journey?


Zhao Yuezhi: Yes – my process definitely includes a number of “landmark” leaps. The first was my encounter with radical African-American scholarship and post-colonial scholarship after I started teaching at University of California, San Diego in 1997. This led me to critically reflect upon the critical political economy of communication itself. My efforts in this aspect came to fruition when I co-edited Global Communications: Toward a Transcultural Political Economy with Paula Chakravatty in 2008. 

The second event was when I was invited to Taiwan in July 2010 to give a keynote speech at the Chinese Communication Society Annual Meeting. Its theme —“Looking East, Going South: Local Knowledge and Global Practices in Communication Studies”—was full of academic imagination and foresight. By subverting the seemingly normative expressions of “global knowledge” and “local practices,” this conference led us to a complete reconsideration and reexamination of the otherwise taken-for-granted relationships between the “global” and the “local,” and between “knowledge” and “practice.”  At the conference, I presented on “Looking East, Ongoing South: Opening-up New Horizons of Communication Studies in a Post-Crisis Era,” which was included as the final chapter of my book in Chinese, Communications and Society.

Then, in 2013, in celebrating the 40th anniversary of my School at Simon Fraser University, I took the lead in organizing an international conference on “Communication and Global Power Shifts” in Vancouver. This, I’d say, was the third most significant event that contributed to my gradual “self-awakening.” One of the themes of this conference was the decolonization of knowledge for alternative epistemologies, in the pursuit of a more just global communication order.  Toward this end, we invited several distinguished Canadian aboriginal scholars as the conference’s keynote and plenary speakers. Their critique of North America’s colonial history showed us that “de-Westernization” is not just a “trendy” academic stance. It is, in fact, an anti-colonial and anti-racial position that speaks to and for fundamental values of equality, justice, and human and scholarly dignity.

To be frank, I had such empathy for and identified so strongly with their viewpoints because,  at that point, my academic subjectivity as a communication scholar from China had already begun to influence and alter my academic ecosystem. And this naturally did not sit well with some Western-centric and, perhaps, even racist individuals in the academy. But the point I want to emphasize is, just like how the aboriginal scholars struggled for their cultural survival, as a Chinese scholar based in North America, but committed to my critical scholarship, “de-Westernization” and its underpinning notions of anti-racism and anti-colonialism, necessarily concerns my personal struggle for academic integrity and personal dignity.


CSST: You’ve definitely shown how, through these circumstances in your life and academic career, pushing forth the “de-Westernization” narrative has been gradually incorporated into your academic raison d’etre. As we know, it was swiftly after the introduction of mainstream American communication research to China in the early 1980’s that prompted the emergence of and debates over the notion of “localizing” the field, which, of course is a stance premised upon its opposition to Western-centrism.  So within this context, how do you understand the relationship between “de-Westernization” and “localization?”


Zhao Yuezhi: Let me answer this question by revisiting the story I mentioned earlier about inviting Canadian aboriginal scholars as leading speakers at my School’s 40th anniversary conference. These scholars are strong proponents of de-Westernization. In fact, no one takes a stronger de-Westernizing stance than they do! Yet, however ironically, standing upon that piece of “Western” land in North America, their studies are truly the purest form of “local” scholarship!


CSST: With the goal of realizing your academic mission of de-Westernization, you suggested setting up a transcultural framework for the political economy of communication. That’s certainly a grand objective, filled with academic imagination. What was the original intent behind this vision?

Zhao Yuezhi: I attempted to develop this framework – or rather, I have worked under this framework for just about a decade now, and I have produced some articles about it here and there over the years. As I see it, this objective of mine is not only a natural part of my academic practice and part of the process towards developing a theoretical framework, but, more importantly, it’s also a vision that tries to bridge the differences and similarities between the Chinese and Western academic communities. My aim is to create a framework wherein different social and academic communities can discuss, interact, and advance their research together. I ultimately hope that, through my efforts, I can help push the bounds beyond the simplistic binaries that still characterize much of the academic world.

In terms of epistemologically, my academic mission rests heavily on de-Westernization and the decolonization of knowledge systems. At the same time, and again as shown by my earlier example of the aboriginal scholars, I don’t necessarily aim to overturn such existing binaries as “Western” versus “Eastern,” or “global” versus “local” by essentializing or depoliticizing them. Yet, “transcultural” and global history perspectives have provided the necessary theoretical and historical lens for me to do so, and in a way that precisely supports my own theoretical framework. As I’ve mentioned in other capacities as well, I emphasize “transcultural,” as opposed to “intercultural” and “crosscultural” within my framework, as the former refers to the concepts that have long been discussed and explained by scholars like the French anthropologist Alain Le Pichon and Chinese philosopher Zhao Dingyang. The way I see it, “transcultural” encompasses the possibility for new subjectivity formation and processes of cultural transformation out of uneven encounters between different political and socio-cultural forms in concrete world historical contexts.   


CSST: As a transcultural and transnational scholar yourself, where do you see your contribution in reinvigorating the humanistic spirit in scholarship, and perhaps even a more just global order?


Zhao Yuezhi: I received an education in the humanities in China and obtained training in the social sciences in Canada. As an interdisciplinary scholar, I stay alert to the exaggerated division of “political economy of communication” and “cultural studies.” I have been combining these two approaches in my own research in order to engage with subjectivity and objectivity in a dialectical way.

After years of research and exploration, I think I’ve grasped the core ideas of a transcultural political economy of global communication framework. It is an emancipatory framework argued from anti-imperialist and counter-hegemonic perspectives. It is a transformative framework that foregrounds the openness of history and emphasizes the multiple potentials of reality. It is a dynamic framework that not only takes adequate account of the forces of domination, but also underlines the resistant subjectivities of oppressed peoples and their struggles. It is a humanist framework that transcends the biases of elitism and rationalism to combine the rational and the affective, minds and hearts. Finally, it is a holistic framework of praxis that integrates knowing and doing, aiming to change the world in the process of understanding it. This largely explains why I have pursued my recent work under the mantra of “global to village” by grounding my globally-oriented scholarship in a local setting in China and by combining structural analysis with ethnographic and participatory action research through the Heyang Institute for Rural Studies.