A Little More China

From the Economist: China and the internet | The party, the people and the power of cyber-talk [pdf]

Six years ago Bill Clinton described China’s efforts to restrict the internet as “sort of like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall”. But as China’s web-filtering technology has grown more sophisticated, and the ranks of its internet police have swelled, some have begun to wonder. A report in 2003 by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace suggested that, despite the difficulties the internet posed to authoritarian regimes, it could also be used to fortify them. China, the authors concluded, had been “largely successful at guiding use” of the internet. At a congressional hearing in February on American companies involved in internet business in China, a Republican congressman, Christopher Smith, said the internet there had become “a malicious tool, a cyber sledgehammer of repression”.


Research by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences suggests the scale of the government’s task. Over 20% of people surveyed in five Chinese cities last year said the internet had increased their contacts with others who shared their political interests—a far higher proportion than found in a similar survey conducted in America (8.1%) by collaborators in the investigation. Nearly half of the respondents said going online increased their contacts with people who shared their hobbies, compared with less than 20% in the United States (networked role-playing games, growing fast in popularity in China, may partly account for this). And nearly 63% agreed that the internet gave them greater opportunities to criticise the government.

“China is changing, it’s improving,” says Jack Ma, head of Alibaba, which last year took over the running of Yahoo!’s Chinese operations—for, despite an early start in China, Yahoo! has been elbowed aside by domestic rivals. “Ten years ago, 20 years ago, in Chairman Mao’s time, if we came here to talk about these things [government censorship],” he begins. Then he puts an imaginary pistol to his head and, with a grin, fires it. That, of course, was when power just grew out of the barrel of a gun. Now it also grows out of the infinite, albeit virtual, barrels of the internet.