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Digital China: Ten Things Worth Knowing about the Chinese Internet

July 9, 2008

The Huffington Post (USA)
July 7, 2008

Thanks largely to the Olympics, 2008 will go down in history as a
turning point year for China -- or, rather, one when the country
passed several milestones. It'll be remembered as a turning point
year in Chinese sports history, due to the country getting its first
chance to host the Games, and the history of Beijing's redevelopment,
due to all of that has been torn down and built up to ready the city
to play host. 2008 will go down as a turning point year in the
history of cross-strait relations as well, thanks to the resumption
today, after over half-a-century, of regularly scheduled
Taiwan-mainland flights. Here, though, we focus on still another
thing that 2008 is likely to be remembered as: a turning point year
for the Chinese Internet.

Consider how many Internet-related developments have already taken
place. In January, YouTube videos helped publicize Shanghai protests
against extensions of a high-speed train line. In February, China
replaced America as the country with the most Internet users. In
March and April, bloggers and hackers made headlines, as the furor
over the Tibet riots and the roughing up of a Chinese torchbearer in
Paris played out in cyberspace as well as on the ground. In May, Wen
Jiabao became China's first leader with a Facebook page. In June, Hu
Jintao became China's first leader to respond to questions online.

And throughout 2008, news and views about the Olympics have shown up
on the Chinese Internet, thanks to everything from the official
Beijing Games website that features non-stop promotion of and updates
about the event, to a flurry of unofficial postings, such as ones by
angry netizens who complained right after the May earthquake
government television was still showing triumphant images of the
torch relay when the time had come to focus on the suffering of the
people of Sichuan.

By now, in the wake of these and other digital events, news-savvy
Americans all know the Internet has become an important force in
Chinese life -- but not necessarily what kind of force. Here are ten
things to keep in mind whenever the Chinese Internet makes headlines.

1. Optimists have long forecast -- inaccurately -- that the Internet
will swiftly transform China into a completely open society.

Among others, George Will, Thomas Friedman, and Bill Clinton all
predicted around the millennium's turn that the arrival of the
Internet would inevitably and swiftly set China free. This hasn't
happened. China's still run by a Communist Party that takes harsh
measures against organizations that threaten its hold on power.

2. Pessimists continue to suggest -- also inaccurately -- that
Chinese political life hasn't really changed and cannot be said to
have changed until the Communist Party falls. This ignores shifts in
which the Internet has figured centrally.

China's leaders may not have to stand for re-election and certainly
limit some forms of dissent, but the Chinese public sphere has become
a more freewheeling, interesting and chaotic arena for expressions of
opinion than it was. This isn't all due to the Internet (crusading
print journalists and activists have also done their part), but
bloggers calling attention to official corruption or mocking
government policies have definitely helped alter the political
landscape. It's misleading to suggest -- as the New Republic does in
its latest special issue, "Meet the New China (Same as the Old One)"
--that the realm of Chinese politics has remained static.

3. It's misleading to imagine that the only Chinese Internet activity
that matters politically involves "dissidents" and collective acts of protest.

Often, the politically significant things happening online involve
forms of communication, such as efforts to call attention to corrupt
acts by local officials, that dovetail with policies that are
promoted or at least given lip service by the central authorities. In
many cases, these take the form of satirical discussions, which only
gradually move toward anything like a "dissident" position. A recent
illustration involved reports that pigs raised to be eaten by Olympic
competitors are fed a special organic diet to ensure that
pork-consuming athletes won't get so full of chemicals they'll fail
drug tests. This led to a flurry of Internet postings about the
health risks ordinary Chinese face when eating "normal" pigs. First
one and then scores of bloggers connected the dots between the
regime's attentiveness to the well being of athletes and seeming lack
of concern for other groups, like miners. (There are scores of coal
mining accidents each year, only some of which are officially
acknowledged.) Many corners of the Chinese blogosphere were suddenly
plastered with variations on the line: "I'd rather be an Olympic pig
than a man in a coal mine!"

4. The political uses of the Chinese Internet that draw attention
here and in China often differ.

Take, for example, Zeng Jingyan, wife of AIDS activist Hu Jia. After
blogging about her experiences trying to free Hu from detention, she
and her husband made Time's list of the 100 most influential people.
But her actions haven't gained the kind of traction in her own
country as, say, the Olympic pig stories did.

5. A lot of what happens on the Chinese Internet isn't political.

Increasingly, Chinese Internet usage reflects the broad range of
online activities happening in the US, Europe, Japan, and other wired
countries. Most Chinese Internet cafes are packed with students
playing online video games, not checking out political websites.
Online chat rooms are packed. Online commerce is growing rapidly.
Online stock trading has taken off. And after the Sichuan earthquake,
Chinese donated millions of dollars online.

6. Though the Internet is thought of as an "international space,"
postings on it can be intensely patriotic, even jingoistic (in China
and elsewhere).

Early Internet pioneers opined that the Internet would increasingly
make national boundaries and identities irrelevant, especially among
the wired young. But Chinese netizens can be nationalistic as well as
cosmopolitan. In the spring, after the Tibet and Paris incident, for
example, fenqing ("angry youths") took to the net , creating YouTube
videos and blog posts that denigrated Tibetan rioters and railed
against the French.

7. Self-styled patriotic postings can make the government uneasy.

Unrestrained nationalism has often been a problem for the Chinese
government. So officials are understandably wary when young people
start to toss about nationalist slogans on the Internet and sometimes
act quickly to rein things in. For instance, in April 2005, when
anti-Japanese protests broke out across China in response to debates
over the content of Japanese history textbooks (and their portrayal
of World War II events), Internet censors quickly added the word
"demonstration" to their list of banned words at QQ, China's most
popular Internet messaging service. This spring, the government
initially allowed anti-French sentiment to build, but soon was moving
to tamp it down as online activists began calling for boycotts of
international companies whose investment money Beijng has courted.

8. Censorship is more complex than just "Big Brother" blocking sites
or the "Great Firewall of China" keeping things out.

While Chinese Internet censorship is widespread, it's not a single
unified system. There is some meta-level screening of taboo words and
images (like the Dalai Lama's name and face), but the "firewall" is
actually a series of blocks -- some at the national level, some at
the local level. Universities, schools, and companies monitor and
screen Internet traffic, as do Internet service providers and even
individual websites. At the Chinese news blog Danwei, they've coined
the catchy phrase "Net Nanny" to better reflect the Chinese
government efforts to prevent its citizens from being exposed to the
wrong kinds of things. Some observers, like Rebecca MacKinnon, have
noted the playful language games netizens use to circumvent the
filters, but other discussions simply never take place, due not just
to ham-handed interference but also self-censorship.

9. China isn't always just following trends when it comes to Internet
usage, as it sometimes set them.

This is true of software and technology developments for Internet
censorship. It's also true of some creative areas. For instance,
before the final installment of Harry Potter's adventures hit
bookshelves last year, Chinese fans were able to read multiple
versions online -- written by Chinese authors riffing on J.K.
Rowling's popular series -- as well as several unauthorized
translations of the real deal. Another example is that books made up
of posting from popular blogs began making regular appearances on
Chinese bestseller lists back in 2006 when these were still very
rarely published in the West.

10. You don't have to read Chinese to know what Chinese bloggers are saying.

You can go to "Blog for China," a site started by a group of
American-based Chinese students during the recent firestorm over
alleged Western bias in media coverage of China, Or visit sites like
China Digital Times, Danwei, EastSouthWestNorth, Shanghaiist, and
RConversation, all of which regularly translate posts from and track
development relating to the Chinese Internet. We depend heavily on
them in our work for "The China Beat: Blogging How the East is Read"
a site launched by academics and freelance writers interested in
Chinese affairs. And as anyone who has gone to the links we've
provided above will know by now, we've relied upon them in creating
this top ten list on the challenging, important topic of making sense
of an increasingly wired and ever-changing China.
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