A Chinese consulting firm has announced that more people connect to the Internet now from China than any other country in the world. BDA Advisory Services, which specialises in Chinese telecommunications, media and technology made the announcement last week. The quoted the work of the China Internet Network Information Centre (CINIC) who reckoned there were now 210 million Chinese Internet users at the end of 2007. While this figure is slightly less than the 216 million US users counted by Nielsen at the same time, the growth rate in China is much higher leading BDA to conclude China has now overtaken the US.
CINIC now estimates that the total number of Internet users in China is 253 million people, which represents 19.1 percent of the total population. CNNIC defines an Internet user as anyone aged six and over who accessed the Internet at least once per month, via a desktop computer, laptop or mobile phone. It says the users are predominantly a young group. Half the entire user base is under 25, while those aged 35 and under account for 80 percent of all users. CINIC also noted the high-tech nature of the Chinese Internet with a whopping 85 percent connecting via Broadband. The numbers show that China is becoming its own Internet centre of gravity.
China is now re-creating the Internet in its own image with the aid of US high tech companies. The great firewall of China runs on Cisco routers. China also has a contract with Yahoo to filter materials that might be harmful to Communist Party rule. Yahoo inspects and monitors information on behalf of China and its Chinese search engines only return sites not deemed threatening to public order. When Chinese journalist Shi Tao sent an email to a US democracy website from his Yahoo mail address in 2005, Yahoo identified the sender to China, who promptly jailed Tao for 10 years.
Yet these strictures are not impacting the explosive growth of the Chinese Internet. Commenting on the growth mid-last year (when there were “only” 137 million users), the Pew Centre said the influx has far-reaching consequences for China and the world at large. It says the Internet will give the Chinese a much more sophisticated information and communications world view. It also believes that the single Chinese written language (despite many different spoken tongues) could have a unifying effect on the country's widely dispersed citizenry. It could increase domestic tensions that could spill over into China's relations with the West and says the difference between Chinese and Western approaches to the internet could create new pressure points over human rights and restrictions on non-Chinese companies.
Business Week wonders why India is being left behind while China surges ahead. Frederik Balfour notes that although the country’s have similar populations; there are just 42 million Internet users in India, representing just 4 percent of the total population. And barely 10 percent of these users access via Broadband. Balfour is surprised that China has an Internet boom despite operating “a vast and sophisticated firewall to prevent its citizens from accessing information and opinions the communists deem a threat to their monopoly on power”. He says the success of online commerce sites such as Alibaba’s Taobao are testament to how the country’s embrace of the internet is reshaping how its economy works.
However those who hope that China’s large Internet population will eventually lead to democracy, may be sorely disappointed. The government is weaving its own nationalist ideology into the Internet and the effect of its control of all media (including the Net) is not to kill all discussion of democracy but to put any movement for change at a major comparative disadvantage. For instance, Chinese chatrooms ban the discussion of democracy so users invent secret languages to get around the problem. While this may fool the government, it also makes it unintelligible to most ordinary Chinese. If the code becomes too well known, it gets blocked.
Meanwhile the Government does encourage open and fervent discussion of Chinese greatness. In their book “Who Controls the Internet?” Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu say that Internet-driven nationalism is beating democracy “hands down”. They say the ultimate effect of the Internet and its effect on China’s political evolution is too difficult to assess. However they warn that the West should not assume Chinese controls are meaningless or bound to fail. China is an enormous force that is changing the identity of the Internet. They quote the warning of Des Moines’ Drake University law professor Peter Yu. “The question is no longer how the Internet will affect China,” he says. “It is how China will affect the Internet.”