China's Internet Spreads a Complex Web

As China rumbles ahead with an incredible speed of economic growth, the Internet has started to impact on China, bringing with it the beginnings of profound change to its society.

by / September 10, 2007
As China rumbles ahead with an incredible speed of economic growth, the Internet has started to impact on China, bringing with it the beginnings of profound change to its society.

"The Internet is a revolution in China," says Guo Liang, deputy director, Center for Social Development at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), "there is no doubt that it is changing the ways of business, life and communication in China. And this is happening despite the fact China embraced the Internet much later than most developed countries."

But to understand the impact of Internet in China it is important to note how this medium has caught on in the world's most populous nation.

Ever since the commercialization of the Internet in China in 1995, China has been one of the most aggressive adopters of this medium. For instance, around June 1998 -- just about 30 months after the Internet made its debut in China, the country had notched up 1.1 million Internet users. That doubled in the next 6 months and reached 2.1 million by the end of that year. A half year later, the figure reached 4 million, and the user base continued to double every six months from then on until 2000, when the number touched about 17 million users.

Over the next six years even as the growth rate slowed, in absolute terms the Chinese continued to be cyber-converts in hordes. According to the recently published survey of China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC), the total number of Internet users increased from 111 million last year to current 137 million (representing a 23-percent increase).

This trend, of course, cannot go on forever, but says Wang Enhai of CNNIC, "As personal computers and Internet access become affordable and Internet-based offerings diversify, we are expecting even faster growth in 2007 and 2008 given that Internet penetration now has exceeded 10.5 percent in the country. We believe it will take two years at most for China to overtake the United States."

While the US still has the largest number of users -- at 153 million -- the growth according to the industry is slowing down since the last year and stands at around a mere 2 percent.

Impact on Society
Indeed, there's no doubt that China is a booming Internet society. But as the country enters the digital age in earnest, one moot question is, has the Internet benefited the Chinese, and if yes to what extent?

Although Elliot Schrage, the global communications head at Google Inc, says "the Internet is transforming China for the better," according to an official (who requests anonymity) of the Internet Society of China, there are really two sides of the Internet in China.

"While it is true that the Internet is altering China's economy and society and has certainly had a positive impact, it is also true that to a large number of Chinese, the Internet has been a bane as well," he says.

What benefits are evident? "I think that the biggest benefit of the Internet is that it has given the Chinese the freedom to express themselves," says Liang of CASS. "While there's a lot of talk of the repression of the Internet in China, the fact is that the Internet has given the Chinese the power to change the course of their lives."

His favorite example of the impact of the Internet is the case of a Chinese high-school teacher who was found dead and dismissed by the police as a case of a suicide. Her student, however, suspected homicide and believed that some of the corrupt police officials were blocking proper investigations. They launched an online awareness drive that raised such a great public outcry that the police were forced to reopen the investigation.

"This just shows how the Chinese use the power of the Internet for interpersonal communication,"

says Liang. "The Chinese are not only using it to communicate with the people they know, but also with people they do not know." No other media (like television, newspapers and radio) but the Internet, he adds, is used to obtain information about personal life, learning and entertainment.

SARS Knitted China's Network Economy
But Internet in China also means business these days. According to Kou Xiaowei, deputy director of the Audiovisual and Internet Publication Department of the General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP), although China's dependence on the Internet for trade and commerce is still comparatively low compared to other developed economies, even that too is slated to change. "Thanks to the characteristics of the Internet and Chinese people's insatiable urge to consume," says Xiaowei, "China's Internet economy is slated to grow faster and could eventually even be larger than many Western countries."

As per CASS study on China's Internet habits, the seed for trade and commerce over the Internet was sown in the 2003 when the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic forcing the Chinese to trade over the Internet. That's when China realized the benefit of the Internet as a tool for developing trade and commerce . And since then they have started to adopting e-commerce with vengeance.

According to the January 2007 Statistical Survey Report on The Internet Development in China conducted by the CNNIC, last year, Chinese Internet users spent a monthly average of $22 online, including the costs of Internet access, on-line shopping and games, compared to about $20 in 2005. The on-line consumer market expanded by 47 percent over the previous year, said the report

"These days even a small garlic farmer uses the Internet to sell his harvest as far as in Japan, and it is difficult to find a car buyer who has not researched on the Internet for several hours before buying a car," says Liang

Is Repression of the Internet is Propaganda?
International media has often focus on the Chinese government's control over the Internet. However, experts there believe that this most discussed aspect of the Internet in China really  does not affect its people at all. "The control on the Internet in China is misunderstood by the world," says Gao Jie, and analyst with CCID Consulting, a Chinese consulting firm. "Although the Chinese media system is in the process of marketization, some western scholars and researchers still turn a blind eye to these characteristics and function changes of the media. Their researches on China's news media were still based on the prejudiced idea that the Chinese press was a mouthpiece of the central government and an ideological apparatus of the state."

And this is not true anymore, says Liang. The Chinese administration's tight control over the Internet stems more from its paranoia over national security and leakages of sensitive data (like financial, transportation and military information) critical to the functioning of the Chinese society, rather than restricting the flow of information to which the Chinese are exposed.

Moreover, the Government too is a heavy user of the Internet, not just it its efforts to filter information passing through the web, but also to perform many of its duties and disseminate information to the general public.

Many Feel the Internet Also Needs "Purification"
Nevertheless, the scorching growth of Internet in China has also raised some concerns. Many are worried that this medium is increasingly being used as a "tool for criminal activities, pornography, violence, and the likes." Moreover, for too long, the Chinese did not have the freedom to voice their opinion fearlessly. And now that they have discovered the power of the Internet as a tool for free expression, "many may be going overboard," says an official from Internet Society of China.

For instance much has been written about journalists and bloggers getting jailed over expressing their opinion on the Internet. But according to the Internet Society of China, the rising number of "irresponsible" blogging and publications resulted in a "phenomenal" number "blog piracy and infringement" disputes in 2006, that has prompted the government to study the feasibility of implementation of a "real-name blog" rule.

This is why perhaps President Hu Jintao feels that the Internet needs cleansing and there is a need to nurture a healthy online culture. "The rapid development of the Internet in China has played an important role in spreading information, knowledge, and Government's policies", Hu Jintao said in a recent address to government officials. "Whether we can cope with the Internet is a matter that affects the development of socialist culture, the security of information, and the stability of the state. We should spread more information that is in good taste, and promote online products that can represent the grand Chinese culture."


Indrajit Basu is international correspondent for Government Technology's Digital Communities.

Photo by Peter Morgan. Creative Commons License Attribution 2.0