Today's date:
Winter 2001

The Internet in China: A New Fantasy?

Wang Jisi
is director of the Institute of American Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Beijing - Suggestions that the spread of the Internet in China will spell the demise of the Communist Party are greatly exaggerated.

The speedy growth of information technology industries in China has been strongly facilitated by government policies and funds. "Globalization," a daily word in China's official media, is vividly portrayed by the screens of the online Chinese population, which reached 16.9 million by July 2000. Compared to the old figure of 1.17 million users in July 1998, the new number indicates an amazing Chinese craze over the Internet.

However, those who have access to the Web account for only 1.3 percent of the total Chinese population. Categorized figures make more sense for an analysis: Among China's cyber citizens, 67 percent are unmarried; 75 percent are male; 98 percent are attending or have attended polytechnic schools, colleges or universities; 46.8 percent are 18-24 years of age.

Users above the age of 60 comprise only 0.41 percent of the total number; those age 51-60 and 41-50 account for 1.3 percent and 5.1 percent respectively.
The professions of the Internet citizens are remarkably diverse, but the highest percentage (13.6 percent) are those working for computer and IT industries, followed by the fields of science and education (12.6 percent).

To infer from these figures, a typical "Web worm" (as a surfer is called in China) may be a bachelor who has just obtained a bachelor's degree from college, taken a job in an IT business, and is willing to spend 5-10 percent of his income to pay for the Web access.

These facts make clear that the Web connects only a tiny minority of the Chinese population, most of whom are hardly experienced, or even interested, in politics. To the bulk of China's cyber citizens, the purpose of being connected to the Web is personal or commercial, not political. One survey shows that 49 percent of the complaints about the Internet's official management point to the low speed, 36 percent to the expensive charges and only 6 percent to the inadequacy of Chinese-language information.

For those who are in a position to stage a political act or promote a political idea, especially in the vast countryside and non-metropolitan areas, the Internet is far from being a practical and effective tool at present or in the near future.
It is a Western propensity to view Chinese politics (as well as politics in other "undemocratic" states) as a constant division and tension between "the authorities," which are preconceived as hostile to the West, and "the people," who must be friendly to the United States and its allies.

It seems to Westerners that should the official control of the media be loosened, the people surely would turn to alternative views and sources of information, which would in turn bring about a popular revolt against their suppressors and "spell the demise" of the Communist rule.

This fantasy about new means of communication sounds quite familiar. Short-wave radio since the 1970s, exemplified by the broadcasting of the Voice of America and reinforced recently by Radio Free Asia, has been anticipated to stimulate anti-Communist consciousness. During and after the Tiananmen demonstrations in 1989, fax machines and long-distance phone lines were seen as formidable instruments assisting coordination among dissidents. Now it is the turn for cell phones, the Internet and other electronic devices to play such a role.

To be sure, the ideological edifice in China has been eroding, but to what extent the erosion should be attributed to new techniques is an open question.
Political activists in China who seek alternative information and ideas have long had a wide range of sources to draw on. And, those who try are likely to succeed in breaking the Web firewalls the authorities have set up.

DIVERSITY | The information explosion necessarily produces a diversity of viewpoints. But, to the extent the Internet has any impact at all, the diversity of viewpoints does not necessarily serve China's reform-minded politicians and their policies. For example, some Chinese organizations are dissatisfied with the lack of detailed information about China's WTO agreements with the US and Europe that Beijing may want to keep to itself for the time being. Should such information be widely publicized on the Internet, mounting domestic pressures and bureaucratic politics could seriously complicate Beijing's endeavor to join WTO.

Another example involves the problem of Taiwan. Most sentiments and views expressed in chat rooms about Taiwan are now in favor of a military attack on the island by the People's Liberation Army or whatever forceful means that would bring Taiwan to terms. Some comments there go as far as to criticizing vehemently the Beijing leadership for being too soft to Taiwan and the US. Ever since the Taiwan elections in March 2000, there have been numerous popular proposals on Web sites about military operations against Taiwan. In contrast, moderate voices are rarely heard and often relentlessly overruled by barrages of bellicose opinions.
Such diversity of views based on Internet information indeed reduces the government's flexibility to respond to a political crisis, but probably not in ways the Americans would like to see if a crisis were triggered over the Taiwan issue.
In other fields of interest, public debates are also worth noticing and subject to careful interpretation. While underground dissident journals are sent to hundreds of thousands of Chinese e-mail accounts from the safety of the US, journals of other political tendencies are equally available-perhaps more easily retrieved-from the safety of everywhere.

Essays by self-claimed "neo-leftist" writers are clustered by quite a few Web sites and sent to personal e-mail addresses as well. They denounce the evils of US imperialism, castigate the alleged Western conspiracies to keep down China and other developing countries and regret the demoralization caused by the introduction of Western thinking and cultural products.

Moreover, a great many writings nostalgically glorify the Red Guards and deny the wrongdoing of the Cultural Revolution. Such views, privately held in certain social circles, are not allowed to appear in China's official press. Yet, they have now found their outlet through the Internet. The easy accessibility of these radical, nationalistic writings makes it doubtful that they are as rigorously censored by official watchers as their counterparts in the liberal wing.

At this early stage when civil society is just beginning to develop, the opening of new channels of expression gives rise to well- intended and conducive exchange of ideas. Unfortunately, the rule of Web anonymity provides greater room and freedom for vulgar curses and humiliating attacks on a whole host of individuals and organizations, that, when taken together, look ridiculous-liberal Chinese thinkers, the Chinese Communist Party, the CIA, Japanese conservatives, the Taiwan authorities, Mikhail Gorbachev, the Dalai Lama, the Almighty.

This leads to a central question of political value judgment: To what extent are the hopes and efforts to thwart government controls over society in China justifiable? Should whatever alternatives to the current CCP leadership be embraced by the outside world?

Here is a paradox to consider: The failure of the Chinese Communist Party undergoing reform may well be a failure, not a success, of the Chinese nation. Such a failure would invite catastrophe far beyond China's borders, something the proponents of the information age surely don't want.

back to index