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Chinese Internet Culture
Decades after the reforms of Deng Xiaoping known as the "Four Modernizations," "a focus on development of agriculture, industry, science and technology and the military" (The University of Michigan. N.D.); China in 2011, grapples with the multiple dilemmas of internet information access, personal freedom, and government control over content. The rise of digital media, web access, and information availability over the past two decades has spread around the globe encompassing the world's second largest economy. As economic freedom continues to slowly evolve in China, so too does the call from its citizens for unfettered access to internet technology and content become more pervasive. The Chinese internet culture is particularly fascinating due to this inherent dichotomy between government control over content and individual demands for information access. How China's leadership confronts the challenges of information dissemination will be critical to China's long-term economic, social, and political future.
March of 2010 saw an interesting turn of events for China and internet access. "Google executives struck a blow for free speech in China last when they announced they were moving their service to Hong Kong after a series of mounting conflicts with the government over the privacy of its users and the free flow of information" (Carr, D. March 28, 2010). To properly frame this development it is first necessary to provide background on the existing internet culture in China.
According to a 2010 report issued by the "state China Internet Network Information Center, China's population of Internet users jumped by nearly a third to 384 million at the end of last year. The survey, based on a count of residents who said they used the Internet in the past six months, establishes China's position as the world's largest online community, more than the entire population of the United States" (Reuters. Jan 15, 2010). The large numbers of Chinese users underscores the tremendous opportunity for information sharing, innovation, and the rise of what is known in economic parlance as collective intelligence; "the notion that what determines the inventiveness and rate of change of a population is the amount of interaction between individuals" (Ridley, M. May 22-23, 2010). The raw numbers also provide an interesting corollary as "only 29% of China's 1.3 billion people are now net users" (Reuters. Jan 15, 2010) a portent of incredible opportunities to eventually expand access to a preponderance of Chinese residents.
With increasing usage though comes a greater emphasis on content control by the Chinese government. "Internet censorship in China is among the most stringent in the world. The government blocks Web sites that discuss the Dalai Lama, the 1989 crackdown on Tiananmen Square protesters, Falun Gong, the banned spiritual movement and other Internet sites" (New York Times. July 9, 2010). How and why this censorship of information occurs is one of the more fascinating aspects of the Chinese internet culture. "In the new networked China, censorship is a major growth industry, overseen -- and fought over -- by no fewer than 14 government ministries" (Wines, M., Lafraniere, S. & Ansfield, J. April 7, 2010). This widespread effort to curtail content has grown in response to technological advances and increased information flow. The Chinese government defends the censorship of content ostensibly "to curb the harmful effects of illegal information on state security, public interests and children."Laws and regulations clearly prohibit the spread of information that contains content subverting state power, undermining national unity [or] infringing upon national honour and interests.
Websites, blogs and information deemed sensitive by the Chinese government is routinely blocked using a range of technological tools, dubbed the Great Firewall of China" (Bristow, M. June 8, 2010). The increased tension between individuals seeking to tap into information resources and enhance personal, economic, and social freedom; and a government with designs on maintaining its power and control will frame the internet debate in the coming years.
In the broad context of censorship there is an articulated and perspicuous government vision of what content, mediums, and technology will be available to Chinese citizens. That said what specific sites and information are targeted by government censorship? "Today, China censors everything from the traditional print press to domestic and foreign Internet sites; from cell phone text messages to social networking services; from online chat rooms to blogs, films and e-mail. It even censors online games (Wines, M. et al. April 7, 2010). Specific sites which are popular in the U.S. And other democracies such as Twitter, YouTube, Google, and Facebook are not accessible to Chinese residents. In their place Chinese sponsored government alternatives are offered such as "Baidu, Sina.com, and Sofu." These sites present only the information which the censors deem appropriate and "the government's strategy is not just to block unflattering messages, but to overwhelm them with its own positive spin and rebuttals (Wines, M. et al. April 7, 2010).
Despite the rigorous and authoritarian controls of the Chinese government, individuals are slowly gaining access to the information and technology which citizens in democratic nations have long taken for granted. An analysis of the demographics of Chinese internet users provides a useful snapshot. "Users are becoming younger, a majority of Internet users are not married, most have a monthly income of less than 2000 RMB, most do not have a four-year college degree, and most of China's Internet users tend to come from the coastal and metropolitan areas in the north, east, and south parts of China" (Xiang, F. & Yen, D. August 2006). This demographic mix will likely evolve in the future to encompass more educated individuals, and those living away from coastal areas, as economic growth expands into rural and inland populations.
The demographic mix however, does not limn a population that is insouciant to the degree and types of censorship, which leads the conversation back to Google and its decision to vacate China in March 2010. The impetus for the decision arose from Google allegations that Chinese government operatives had hacked into Google e-mail to discover messages and correspondence from political dissidents (Carr, D. March 28, 2010). The larger issue though for Google's decision was the belief that the Chinese government had continuously acted in ways which hindered information dissemination. As Google's Chief Legal Officer David Drummond indicated; "it seemed to us that this was all part of an overall system bent on suppressing expression, whether it was by controlling Internet search results or trying to surveil activists," he said. "It is all part of the same repressive program, from our point-of-view. We felt that we were being part of that" (Carr, D. March 28, 2010). Google's decision underscores a battle of sorts between freedom of expression and government control in China. The reaction of Chinese citizens was particularly interesting. "Visitors left flowers and lit candles outside Google's offices in Beijing's high-tech Haidian district. Notes on bunches of flowers said, "Thank You Google" and "Google Bye-bye." "I'm here to pay my respects to Google because they did not lose their dignity and they stayed true to their company's beliefs," said You Liwei, 28, who works in publishing. Other visitors bowed in a traditional gesture of respect" (Lee, J. January 13, 2010).
The Chinese internet culture is a complex and ever changing dynamic which will shape the country's economic, political, and social landscape for years to come. As an epilogue to the Google story; "in June 2010, ending months of tension, Google announced that the Beijing government had renewed its license to operate a Web site in mainland China. The license renewal is a sign that Google, while uncomfortable with operating in China and censoring its search results on Beijing's behalf, is determined to keep a foot in China" (New York Times, July 9, 2010). There is the dilemma which faces technology companies attempting to garner access to the Chinese market; how to balance engendering an open and free communication environment over time, with the realities of participating in censorship. Chinese citizens will continue to embrace "internet language not only to serve the purpose of information communication, but also, perhaps more importantly, to construct a modern identity" (Yang, C.N.D.). Google's decision is one of pragmatism and profit with the understanding that over time fundamental and lasting change will engulf China. As former President Richard Nixon who opened the door to China in 1972, eloquently articulated in an interview; "I would say that as far as China is concerned though, don't write that off, because what has happened today, over 50% of the Chinese GNP is from private enterprise. And you cannot have private, or what I would call private freedom, or free markets, without having eventually political freedom. Freedom is indivisible" (CNN: Larry King Live. June 5, 2005).
Bristow, M. (June 8, 2010). China Defends Internet Censorship. BBC News. Retrieved January 4, 2011 from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8727647.stm
Carr, D. (March 28, 2010). Not Creating Content. Just Protecting it. The New York
Times. Retrieved January 4, 2011 from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/29/business/media/29carr.html?_r=1&ref=sergeybrin
CNN: Larry King Live. (June 5, 2005). Encore Presentation: An Interview with Richard
Nixon. Retrieved January…[continue]
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