These are a couple of pictures I took in Beijing’s high tech district, Zhong Guan Cun, where most of the Beijing-based internet companies are headquartered.
China remains a country of stark contrasts: Amongst the taxis and limos and motor-scooters, the migrant peasant farmers still struggle upwind with their flat-bed tricycles overloaded with whatever wares they are hauling – or whatever garbage they are collecting.
8 percent of China’s population is online: in the picture on the above right, the guy standing in the crosswalk with a briefcase probably is. The peasant going kitty-corner across the intersection on his trike probably won’t be for quite a long time, at least not on a PC and certainly not on broadband. His kids probably aren’t online either.
As I spent a good part of last week catching up with old friends, I heard a story of high-tech takeoff combined with disturbing tales of resource scarcity. My friends who enjoy fishing described what they said was a common experience: their favorite fishing spots keep drying up. China does not have the land or natural resources to sustain its growth. You can taste Beijing’s air and it gave me a headache since I’m no longer used to it.
Meanwhile some of my old friends who work in TV and video talked with great interest about how they’re already re-thinking the way they shoot video so that their work can be marketed for the new 3G mobile phones set to roll out in a big way next year. My Chinese friends have always been very quick to adapt their jobs, their work habits, their values, and even their personalities to changing conditions (a skill well honed during the Cultural Revolution when total adaptability was required to survive), so I have full faith that they will move quickly to fit with new content delivery methods without wingeing too much that “this isn’t how it should be done.”
China had a tech boom in the late 90’s until the tech bubble burst worldwide. Now the China tech frenzy is back. My friends tell me Beijing and Shanghai are crawling with venture capitalists looking for projects to invest in. Several good online resources have emerged to follow China’s tech developments, some free, others costing a good chunk of change. In the free department, check out the new China Web 2.0 blog, run by a group of Chinese bloggers, some of whom were at the Shanghai Blogger Con. Marbridge Consulting, a new China-IT/telecoms focused company, has a free newsletter available on its website… or free for now, anyway. I heard much praise in IT and tech-journalism circles for Pacific Epoch, which has a very nifty website, complete with tag-cloud and other Web 2.0 goodies, though most of their substantive content is not free. On the totally unfree, expensive side is BDA Consulting, run by China internet veteran Duncan Clarke, who definitely knows his stuff. What struck me hardest during my ten days in China was that it’s almost impossible to keep up on all the latest developments unless you’re based in China and read Chinese.
My primary reason for visiting China this time was to get a better handle on the Chinese blogosphere for a book chapter I’ll be writing before the end of the year. This ten–day visit made something else very clear to me: Chinese bloggers are sharply divided about what is most important: commercial success, open source and open access, or freedom of speech. When speaking at the Shanghai Bloggers conference, Kevin Wen, who now works for Bokee, China’s largest blog-hosting company with ambitions to list on NASDAQ, didn’t even mention his company’s name because most of the attendees have a strong dislike for Bokee. The Shanghai attendees are part of a group of Chinese bloggers who I’ve begun to call the “open source-open access group.” Centered around the group blog CNblog and the Social Brain Fund, their emphasis is on the importance of free software and community tool development which, they believe, will empower individuals to communicate, network, and realize their full social potential – whether it be in education, high tech, or running a charity. They’re big Larry Lessig fans. But for the most part they make a point of staying away from politics. (More on this view in my post last week about the conference.) A third group represents the more political Chinese bloggers, who are pushing the edges: People like Michael Anti, who in a recent blog post criticized the Shanghai bloggers for being too IT-oriented and for de-emphasizing the future of blogging as an alternative form of media. Bloggers like Wozy who wrote an article for WIRED magazine recently about how he deals with censorship, and people like Wang Yi whose blog has been blocked due to its politically sensitive nature.
Group 1 is working not only to comply with censorship requirements, but also to develop better methods for filtering and monitoring to make sure their services don’t accidentally enable political dissent. They are also trying to promote corporate blogging and to provide commercial blogging platforms. Group 2, which also includes some businesses and service providers, are making a lot of effort to convince government officials – especially in the fields of education, charity fundraising, and local government – that blogging and other tools can help people learn and do their jobs more effectively, and that this new medium can help government officials get their own messages across. Their aims are certainly motivated by a strong belief in what some would call “small -d democracy”… democratization of voices and opinions and conversations; but not “big D democracy”: the democratization of voting and politics. There’s another D-word for Chinese who advocate big D democracy: Dissident.
People from groups 1 and 2 all told me that they wish the 3rd group would tone it down and be more pragmatic before they spoil the party for everybody. But people from Group 2 generally have unkind things to say about the money-focused motives of Group 1, while people in Group 1 claim to be frustrated that Group 2 is taking a holier-than-thou attitude and refuses to work work with them on projects (like Creative Commons licensing, for instance) which outght to be for the common good. There is no solidarity amongst blogger-brethren. If anything, what this means is that if people in Group 3 get in political trouble, the other groups aren’t exactly going to stand behind them. Some will sympathize in silence, but others will say: “what did he/she expect?”
This divided situation is yet another reason why nobody should equate the proliferation of Chinese blogs with a hastened end to the current political system. If the Chinese Communist Party is ever brought down, it will be brought down by some offline event: peasant riots that spread out of control, un-containable public outrage over a badly-managed plague, massive battles over resources, or something like that. If public outrage becomes widespread and unified enough, then I think the system of internet and wireless censorship would become overwhelmed: chatter on blogs, bulletin boards, cellphone texting and all these other new forms of media will hasten the Party’s demise. But these tools and technologies won’t be the cause. So far, the authorities have been very good at preventing any offline events from generating anything close to enough unified, sustained public outcry needed to threaten the Party’s power. Too many people have too much to lose, and many tech entrepreneurs who have benefitted from the Party’s economic reforms over the past quarter-century are working actively to help prevent that critical mass from ever forming.
In one conversation I had the other day, an interesting question came up. Right now, only 8 percent of Chinese are online. These people are the ones who have the most to lose from political turmoil, and the most to gain from doing business under the current system. But what happens when internet access spreads to, say, 30 percent… including a growing number of people who have not benefitted so much from economic reforms, are victims of corruption (like the peasants of Taishi village), and have a lot less to lose? That will be interesting.