Government Technology

China's Internet Spreads a Complex Web

September 10, 2007 By

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,"

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