Grace Yuehan Wang visits the set of Tencent's news channel and creative technology lab during a research trip to Shenzhen.
Photo courtesy Grace Yuehan Wang

PhD graduate delves into China’s Silicon Valley

Ever since she was a young girl growing up in Shandong province in northeast China, Grace Yuehan Wang knew that the city of Shenzhen, now China’s hub of high-tech commerce far to the south near Hong Kong, was unique. “I heard about this city when I was little, because my grandfather, who worked at an electronics manufacturing company, went on business trips there,” she said. “He always described to me how Shenzhen differs from other cities in China. When I think back, that planted the seed — I was curious why it was so different.”

As she grew up, Wang came to understand that the city’s thriving technological and financial sectors was home to companies like Huawei and Tencent — private enterprises created in Shenzhen that grew into multinational firms. But the curiosity to delve into the city’s history, politics and policy never went away.

Now, a deep, ongoing exploration of how Shenzhen became and remains China’s Silicon Valley has become the center of her scholarship. With her successful defense of her dissertation on Shenzhen’s innovation and development model earlier this year, Wang will graduate with a PhD in communication from USC Annenberg in May.

Though she’s now on a path towards a career in academia, that wasn’t always her ambition. “Since I was very little, I always wanted to be a journalist,” she said. With an eye on broadcast news, she began studying in a joint degree program between Shandong University and UCLA. “But UCLA doesn’t have a journalism school, so when I was there, I studied communications,” she said.  “My undergrad thesis was about network analysis and social media.”

She returned to China and worked as international news editor for the country’s national television station, but her interest in the communications discipline was drawing her back toward academia — and the United States. In 2012, she went to Boston University to pursue a master’s degree in public relations and emerging media technology. After earning her master’s from BU with a thesis on the adoption of Google glass and smartwatches, she went to work doing market research consulting before heading to USC Annenberg.

“I knew I wanted to be a part of that intellectual community,” she said. “I love that Annenberg is very interdisciplinary. You work with professors from different backgrounds – sociology, international relations, social psychology. They recognize that communication is not a narrow field at all.”

When she first came to Annenberg, she intended to carry on the research into social media and emerging technology she had begun in Boston. But during her second year, she took a class with her advisor, Manuel Castells, University Professor and Wallis Annenberg Chair in Communication Technology and Society, and “my whole intellectual pursuit and interest has changed,” she said.

For Castells’ “Networked Society” class, she wrote a research paper about the most networked city in her home country: Shenzhen. “When he gave it back to me, Professor Castells told me, ‘I think you’ve got a dissertation topic here, you should carry this on for your final thesis in the program,’” she said. “And that’s what I’ve been working on for the past four years.”

“Dr. Wang is extremely bright, incredibly hard working, and insightful in her research,” said Castells. “She is already changing the perception of China's technological capacity by her careful field work and analysis of the formation of the Shenzhen industrial complex. She is a young star scholar who will bridge the academic world between the United States and China.”

Wang says that Castells helped her understand how to put the interdisciplinarity of the communications field to work. She also said that one of her committee members, James Irvine Chair Professor Elizabeth Currid-Halkett from the USC Price School of Public Policy, has expanded her thinking on public-private collaboration in various national and cultural contexts. “I studied Shenzhen as an innovation ecosystem,” she said. “Development in the 21st century is not only about economic development, it’s actually informational development.”

She notes that the Shenzhen local government has had an executive training agreement with the USC Price for nearly a decade — a relationship that helped her during her fieldwork in the city. “They were always looking for innovative ways to create public-private partnerships to facilitate innovation,” she said.

Though Shenzhen draws comparisons to Silicon Valley, Wang points out government officials and entrepreneurs there didn’t simply replicate the Silicon Valley model for incubating new tech companies. “They build their own model by combining their local culture and local government with global networks,” she said. She called this model “participatory innovation,” based on the concept of participatory culture from the work of Henry Jenkins, Provost Professor of Communication, Journalism, Cinematic Arts and Education. “I think this model will be very beneficial to other developing regions, especially for countries in the global South who want to create their own hubs for technology.”

As Wang’s graduation nears, she’s in conversation with publishers about turning her dissertation into a book and is also applying for postdoctoral fellowships. Recently, her paper “Digitized Narratives of Gender Controversy — Participatory Feminism and Online Reality TV Shows,” was accepted to the 2021 American Sociology Association Conference. She says she hopes to continue working with researchers from a broad range of disciplines as she continues her career.

“From working with Professor Castells and his ideas of networked societies, to Professor Jenkins from a cultural studies and media studies perspective, to the scholars of geography and urban planning, USC Annenberg has helped me learn from so many different fields, and that has really enriched my work,” she said.