The second annual Chinese blogger conference in Hangzhou came at a time when Chinese government authorities are feeling threatened by this new grassroots medium and are trying to find ways to control it. The proposed "real name system" policy (still under discussion, not yet implemented) would require bloggers to register their real names and identities with their blog hosting services and to publish under their real names. Most seemed to agree that the proposed system would be hard to implement without destroying the business of many blog-hosting companies. More than that - they are bewildered that they should be feared rather than praised for their creativity and initiative. As the A-list tech blogger Keso pointed out in his keynote speech: "Those who think that blogs are violent or threatening only see it that way because they view society as threatening." (I blogged his speech in more detail here.)
Fang Xingdong, head of the blog-hosting service Bokee.com, declared in a presentation that he believes China will drive global innovation in the 21st century. It was clear that the people in the room would love nothing more than to play a part in making that dream a reality. Will the authorities allow them to play this role?
Foreign participants could not help but come away being impressed by the creativity, optimism, and idealism of China's Internet generation. The people in this room are not socially disruptive revolutionaries. They are people who would like to get on with the business of finding ways to use the Internet to improve people's lives. To the extent that politics won't prevent them from doing so, they would prefer not to be involved with politics. A quick sampling of their values and ideas:
Several speakers spoke about how individuals and companies can build reputation and credibility in ways that have social as well as economic value. A professor from Guangzhou, Cheng Lehua, gave a very interesting talk about the psychology of trust and credibility on the web. Sessions on Chinese wikipedia and Creative Commons led to discussions of how any individual can share their knowledge and creative energies to the benefit of society.
A panel of educators described how they are using blogs to share knowledge in new and exciting ways - to the betterment of China's educational system. (A blog and wiki for geography teachers is helping people pool and improve their teaching materials and methods, for instance.) Teachers have their students use blogs as a way to collaborate on assignments and engage in new kinds of distance learning as well as home schooling.
Members of small non-profit organizations and charities demonstrated how they use blogs not only to raise funds but also to inform donors about how their money is being spent. One panelist, a blind man who leads an organization for the visually impaired, described how blogs combined with voice recognition software is helping China's isolated community of visually impaired people communicate with one another and educate themselves in a society where resources for handicapped education are extremely limited.
Bloggers speaking in a mash-up panel and an entrepreneur presenting about microcontent demonstrated how user-centric platforms are being built for content-sharing and creative collaboration. Over and over again, people repeated the importance of respecting the individual user's needs - and the importance of building tools that maximize the user's ability to drive services in directions that the companies themselves might not have imagined. People spoke of the importance of "personal spaces" as well as "public spaces" online - and the responsibilities that go with creating and maintaining both types of spaces. One of China's earliest bloggers, Wang Jianshuo said: "keeping things open encourages creativity." At this point, you're not competing on the basis of your content, you're competing on the basis of creativity.
In the final panel on entrepreneurship, Isaac Mao pointed out that if you really want to sustain your company's success over the long run, your focus should be on the value you create for your users, rather than simply on profits. As Chen Xuer put it, the goal of a Web 2.0 company should be to help "fulfill people's urgent needs and also find ways for people to live their lives more fully."
If one extrapolates China's future from this group of individuals, you see a peace-loving, compassionate, humanistic, globally minded, flexible, hard-working lot who are well poised to drive Chinese innovation.... and to drive it in directions that the entire world should certainly welcome. The Chinese government would be crazy not to embrace them as poster kids for China's future. If the government is not capable of doing so, it will be to the long-term detriment not only of China's economy but also of China's global credibility, which in turn has an impact on China's long-term global influence.
Bokee's Fang Xingdong warned in his speech that while the "invisible hand of the market" may have enabled China's blogosphere to reach its present stage, "from now on the hand of the government will play the biggest role."
If there had been time for me to ask him a follow up question, I would have asked him whether he thinks that the result will be an increasingly unfair playing field for Internet businesses in China. Will that stifle entrepreneurship? Will the growing need for businesses to focus on playing politics with regulators - and scrambling to comply with constantly-shifting, vague regulations - sap the innovative energies of China's entrepreneurs? If anybody reading this has some thoughts about the answer, please hit the comments section.