Today I'm going to tell you a story not of how the
internet is changing
My story begins in an unlikely place: the
A couple hours outside of
And so my camera crew and I were welcomed by the village's Communist Party Secretary who immediately took us to see the farmers who claimed to have seen mysterious flying objects over the chicken coop and pigsty. But it soon became clear that UFO sightings were not his main agenda. He was more interested in showing us the mountain village's tourism potential, with a local temple they were restoring.
Then he took us to Pusalu tourism promotion central, otherwise known as the village communist party office - a cold little one-room office with a phone line which his teenage son was using to dial up on the internet and create the village's website..Pusalu dot com.
This is Pusalu dot com today in 2005. It has gone from an amateur student-designed with updates on UFO sightings and information for Chinese city tourists wanting to experience the simple country life. to an elaborate tourism promotion site with flash animation. And it appears the village's ability to promote itself on the internet has changed the fortunes of the place, bringing in investment to build the necessary tourist traps..
They've also gone from having one PC in the party secretary's office to hosting a computer-training center for residents of the surrounding district.
Now THAT is precisely why the Chinese government is now spending 100 million dollars to upgrade the nation's internet infrastructure. There is a huge problem of unemployment and under-employment in the Chinese countryside. But the cities are already overwhelmed with farmers migrating to urban areas in search of work. The hope is that more villages like Pusalu will use the internet to find markets and customers - to migrate digitally, rather than physically.
But the internet is advancing the fortunes of many other
people who those Communist Party Cadres aren't so interested in promoting -
It used to be that you couldn't be a famous cultural icon in China unless some cultural officials had signed off on the lyrics for your album, the kinds of characters you played in films, or and the kind of public image that you portrayed.
Now you can get famous if you publicize the titillating details of your sex life on your blog. On Monday Muzi Mei wrote: "With or without a boyfriend, a woman should make love at least once a week." Then proceeds to go into details of how.
Then there's 26-year old Yang Chengang and his hit MP3 song: "I love you like mice love rice" Yang was just an average music teacher and karaoke fanatic in some place nobody's heard of in Hubei province until his friends convinced him to upload this song he wrote onto the internet. He became an overnight smash hit and now has a concert tour and a record deal.
The ability to select one's own cultural icons makes many Chinese feel empowered. This is Li Yichun, winner of the the "Super Girl" singing contest - a kind of Chinese American Idol, in popular vote of Chinese all around the country using their mobile phones.
As the Chinese blogger Michael Anti quoted one of his friends: ""I don't think that I will ever get to vote a president in this lifetime, so I'll choose a girl that I like." He then went on to comment: Super Girls is obviously not the same as democracy, but it is a fantasy for the 1.3 billion Chinese people who do not have democracy."
But this technological empowerment has yet to penetrate to most of the population, more people are likely to have their first internet experiences through cell phones, not PC's.
* 103 million: World's 2nd largest internet user base (
* Only 7.9% Chinese are online
(compared to 67% of Americans)
* 10% global PC demand, 15% global handset demand are in
* 385 million mobile phone users (World's #1 in mobile subscribers.)
And Chinese user-created content services are growing fast.
* over one fifth Chinese internet users use BBS (internet bulletin boards)
* more than 50 blog-hosting services
* 5 million blogs
* over 200 billion SMS mobile phone short text messages sent in 2005
The exponential growth of Chinese blogs is now a major driving force in the growth of the international blogosphere, according to David Sifry, founder of the blog-tracking service Technorati in a recent presentation on the size of the global blogosphere.
This is happening even though the Chinese government launched a new requirement this summer that all independent websites and blogs have to register with the government. And despite the world's most sophisticated system of internet censorship.
What you need to understand about Chinese internet
censorship is that it's not aimed at total social control. That's obviously impossible
and futile. Chinese internet censorship targets a very
focused objective: preventing new political leaders and movements rising from
the internet just the internet is spawning
Anybody here not know what this is?
Well this is what the Great Firewall of China looks like. When you try to get on websites like Human Rights Watch, you get an error message.
This is a Google News search for the Chinese phrase "Tiananmen Massacre" done from Cambridge Massachussetts.
This is the same search done on a Chinese internet
connection hosted inside
While it's Google's decision not to show all the blocked results - they say it makes a better user experience - the blocking itself is done at the router level, by the Chinese internet service providers and system administrators. Chinese telecommunications authorities can configure routers to block hundreds of thousands of web addresses and keywords.
This capacity for censorship is built into basically all internet routers. Technology for packet filtering and IP blacklists - built into routers by Cisco and all other router manufacturers - helps internet service providers and system administrators protect us from viruses, worms, and spam. It enables libraries and parents to block children from seeing pornography. The same technology can also be taught to treat the word "democracy" like a virus.
But as the Chinese are proving, treating
a whole genre of speech like a virus doesn't kill the growth of the internet in
This is one of
Commercial web services - domestic search engines, internet bulletin boards, mobile phone messaging services, web-hosting services and blog-hosting services are all expected to police and censor their users' content, and maintain long and frequently-updated lists of unacceptable keywords that cannot be posted or sent.
They are baking the censorship into their software.
So a couple million Chinese blogs like this one exist on services that automatically censor their posts.
Even blogs like this one- one
Yet at the same time, this blogger can blog safely because the software will save him from any possible dangerous political impulses. If he tries to publish something on the Tiananmen Square Massacre, his post will be rejected by the keyword filters.
So here we're seeing a new and very effective model of
soft censorship developing - the parameters are set wide enough, that the
internet still enables so much more communication and information exchange than
was ever imaginable before, that most Chinese internet users rightly feel they're
reveling in new-found freedom. Yet at the same time,
American companies operating in
I got an error message. "You must enter a title for your space. The title must not contain prohibited language, such as profanity. Please type a different title."
The Chinese government didn't do this. Microsoft did.
Yahoo! Has already come under a lot of criticism for baking censorship directly into its search engines. It is also choosing to house services like e-mail within Chinese legal jurisdiction. So when the Chinese police needed the IP address of an anonymous e-mail account sending sensitive political information to a U.S.-based dissident website so they could trace and arrest whoever sent the email. Yahoo! Handed over the user information for Shi Tao - who is now serving a 10 year jail sentence for sending that email.
But while people can't rant and curse online about their own government the way we get to do on our blogs here, they can rant and blow off steam to their hearts content when it comes to other countries' governments. This is the "Anti-Japan Forum" where one of the posters is discussing the sale of anti-Japanese products.
Products like this video game, Resist Japan Online, where
the goal is to kill as many Japanese people as possible. Online hostility
against the Japanese is practically encouraged given that
But when that hostility spilled into the streets this Spring in reaction to a row between
And that is one of several reasons why the government has moved this year to impose a new round of regulations and controls over online news and information.
Interesting though, the information crackdown doesn't seem to be worrying the businesspeople that much. The blog hosting services continue to grow like gangbusters - though they're policing themselves more tightly.
While new user driven content services - like this mobile blogging platform - continue to evolve.
Now one thing you HAVE to understand is that the Chinese aren't simply playing catchup to duplicate what we have here. They're developing their own uniquely Chinese internet.
And it's an internet that will be accessed increasingly through mobile phones, not PC's.
I recently met the CEO of this company, Marcus Xiang. He says most Chinese outside of the big cities have a TV and a mobile phone. They're unlikely ever to have a PC in the home. So they watch shows incoming, but then communicate, create and consume even more through mobile phones which are increasingly web enabled.
Look at this blog on his service. Not only is a of the content posted from a mobile phone, but it's all configured so that you can read it and other people's blogs - and rss feeds of content, all on your mobile phone. So a PC never has to be involved.
And just like the other blog-hosting companies, he's baking his software to keep his company out of trouble, which means certain kinds of political conversations and organizing will simply be prevented from happening at PDX.CN
So here's the thing. There's a political assumption here
in this country that the internet will ultimately play a key role in
Because China is also changing the internet, and
pioneering a new model of censorship that actually feels very free to most
users - except the potential political activists, who in any society are a
minority. It's a model that
Because I come from the
Code is Law.
But with a new question: If the Chinese are writing the code that builds the next generation of the internet, will soft censorship be baked in?
Is this future inevitable? Are we helping to build it? What other alternatives might we have?