Grass Mud Horse Seal
As of 2010, there were 9 million domain names registered under “.cn” compared to 1.1 million in 2006. The Chinese Academy of Sciences has estimated that the total amount of information stored on Chinese websites increased by 40 percent between 2005 and 2010. According to The Guardian the Internet "is the only place in China where the public can express views with near-freedom — although they are rapidly cut off by an army of state censors if they stray into territory that attracts official disapproval."

Internet usage has grown very fast. Private citizens were granted access to the Internet only in 1995. At that time only 2,000 Chinese were plugged into Internet. In 1998, there around 1 million Internet subscribers, compared to 25 million in the United States. In 2001, there were 30 million Internet users, with about 20 percent of them gaining access through China’s 60,000 or so Internet cafes. By 2003 there were 80 million Internet users, a 35 percent increase from the previous year. The number reached 160 million in June 2007.

Internet service in China is cheap and accessible. In many cities you don’t need to sign up with an Internet provider or pay monthly fees. If you have a modem all you need to do is call one of several numbers reserved for the Internet and you are charged at a rate of around 35 cents an hour on your phone bill. Many Internet users in China complain about slow Internet service. This is the result of the limited amount of broadband service and the use of government of filters. The Chinese government encourages Internet use for education and business. It invested $138 billion in telecommunications networks between 2000 and 2005. Cisco has provided China with much of its Internet infrastructure including devices that block access to certain websites.

Broadband use is increasing. In 2007, China surpassed the United States as the world’s largest broadband user with more than 66.46 million residents subscribing to broadband services compared to 60.52 million in the United States.

Baidu is the main search engine in China. It had a 78.3 percent share of China’s search engine market as of early 2012, according to Analysys International, a research firm in Beijing. Google Inc. was in second place with 16.7 percent, while Sogou, Tencent Soso and other competitors had less than 3 percent each. In 2008, it had 63 percent of the search engine market, compared to 26 percent for Google and 8 percent for Yahoo. Google has invested millions of dollars in

The daily report on Internet activity compiled at Baidu Beat found the most-searched-for item on one day in March 2012 was the fate of Fabrice Muamba, the soccer player who collapsed with a heart attack during a game in London. Other top searches on the day: a story about “Vibrato Grandma,” who sang mournfully for her dead husband on “China’s Got Talent”; a piece on an American woman, Lizzie Velasquez, who suffers from a wasting disease; and the stranding of four sperm whales on a beach in Jiangsu Province. [Source: Mark McDonald, New York Times, March 20, 2012]

Good Websites and Sources on the Internet in China: Wikipedia article on Internet Censorship in China Wikipedia ; Open Net Initiative on the Internet in China ; Great Firewall Website Test / ; Harvard Law School Report on Internet Filtering ; China Internet Network Information Center ;The Berkeley China Internet Project and China Digital Times

Good Websites and Sources on the Chinese Media: Council of Foreign Relations on Media Censorship in China ;, an English-language blog on the Chinese media ; China Media Blog ; China Today ; Freedom House Report ; List of Media in China ; Modern Chinese Literature and Culture (MCLC) Media Bibliography Modern Chinese Literature and Culture (MCLC) ; News About China ; China Media Project ;China Digital Times


Internet Users in China

There were an estimated 513 million users at the end of 2011, the most of any country, according to a government-sanctioned industry group, the China Internet Network Information Center. The number of Internet users in China reached about 300 million, or 23 percent of the population, in January 2009 and reached 384 million Internet users (about 30 percent of the population) in January 2010. In November 2010, the number of Internet users reached 450 million, over a third of China’s population.

The number of Internet users in China reached about 253 million in June 2008, putting it ahead of the United States as the world’s biggest Internet market. More than 90 million new users were added in the previous year. There is still a lot potential for growth still. In the United States there are about 220 million users. They make up 70 percent of the population. China is expected to have 500 million Internet users by 2012, with three quarter of web newcomers coming from rural areas.

China's Internet penetration rate is still only about 30 percent , versus some 75 percent in the U.S. Internet usage is highest in cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, where over 50 percent of the population goes online either through their computers or cell phones.

420 million Internet users in August 2010, compared too 240 million in the United States and 80 million in India. Many of China’s 700 million cell phone owners have phones that can access the Internet.

Yasheung Huang, a professor of political economics at MIT, wrote in the Washington Post, “Anyone who has spent time online in China can testify hat the Internet community there is easily one of the most dynamic and vibrant in Earth. One any issue, there are passionate debates and opinions across the ideological spectrum. Maoists, Hayekians and Confucians trade barbs and insults. Blogs by serious intellectuals attract audiences unimaginable in the West. China‘s market for ideas is enormous.”

Some have argued that Internet community in China is so large and it is growing so fast that its that more stuff is getting past the censors than ever before.

Details on Internet Users in China

20111102-Wiki com mud grass toy.JPG
mud grass toy

According to one survey, 85 percent of Chinese Internet users are males and half are under the age 24. These users tend to more interested in online games than e-commerce or research. Many are school children spend most of their free time online. Explaining the appeal of the Internet, one university student told the Los Angeles Times, “It’s a great way to kill time and fill emptiness. Most of us can’t afford to travel or do other things for fun. I don’t know about the girls, but for the guys, it’s our No. 1 recreational activity.”

One survey found that 63 percent of Internet users said they had home access and 41 percent used Internet cafes. Only three percent had direct access to broadband but many gained access to it through Internet cafes. A survey in 2005 found that 63 percent of users used e-mail, 30 percent participated in blogs, 27 percent used Google, 49 percent downloaded music, and 17 percent used the Net for online shopping.

Chinese in their 20s spend more time on the Internet than their American counterparts. A study conducted by the Boston Consulting Group found that people in China are far more connected than Americans, and that globally only the Japanese spend more time on the Web. A survey in 2008, found that 70 percent of Internet users in China were 30 or younger and high school students made up the fastest-growing sector of new users.

Li Yufei, a typical 18-year-old college student interviewed by the New York Times, He writes a blog, downloads Korean television shows, manages two Web sites devoted to music and plays an online game called Rongguang Hospital, at “I started doing a lot of this when I was about 11 years old,” Li said. “Now, I spend most of my leisure time on the Internet, he says. There’s nowhere else to go.” [Source: David Barboza, New York Times, April 18, 2010]

Li, a Shanghai Maritime University student, says he surfs the Web to find or build his own community. A shy person with no siblings, he now has 300 online buddies, and says he turns to the Web to find what he cannot find anywhere else, particularly on state-run TV,which banned some Korean shows years ago.

The Chinese are very fond of chat lines. Some online discussions seem as of they will never end. Many Chinese get their news from such sources. A survey in 2006 found China’s Internet users are the world’s have an average of seven chat room accounts. More than 40 percent of the online chat room users use instant messenger service for work purposes, 80 percent like voice chatting and 40 percent liked real time conferencing.

Chinese are not that big on e-mail, voice messaging and phone machines messages because they are not big on leaving messages period because they find that kind of interaction to be socially awkward. They prefer real time communications and tend to favor cell phones and text messaging. Those that regularly use their computer prefer instant messaging to e-mail. One survey found that 70 percent on Chinese online users use instant messaging while 56 percent use e-mail. In the United States only 39 percent of online users use instant messaging while 91 percent use e-mail

Downloading music, movies and other copyrighted material for free is considered normal. Few Chinese have any qualms about doing it. Almost a third of the traffic on some search engines is searches for free music for MP3 players.

A lot of attention is focused on the trivial and inane. For example, when U.S. President Obama visited China in late 2009, a big deal was made about the “Obama girl,” an attractive young woman in a black dress and red ca that happened to be sitting behind hin during a town hall forum in Shanghai. A week after Obama left China a Google search of “Obama girl in red coat” turned up nearly 7 million results. The woman, a student named Wang Zefei, found the attention unwanted, “I don’t want toe popular in th this way, she said in her blog, I thought it would soon be quiet if I kept mum about,,,I turns out that my silence brings more suspicion.”

Internet Communication in China

Internet users have proved to be very effective at spreading the word on everything from student protests to the latest shopping bargains. It is used by people of all political persuasions. Cybernationalists seize on anything seen as anti-Chinese and attack those who are perceived of instigating it. At the same time dissidents post petitions and open letters that criticize the government and farmers post video of demonstrations in YouTube.

Both nationalist and human rights concerns are largely driven through exchanges on Internet bulletin boards, text messages and e-mail.

Many young people spend their time communicating with their peers in online forums and instant messages the way American young people hang out at the mall and go to the movies. On these forums there is a high use of code words, word play and puns not only to make jokes and be clever but also to make serious comments that elude government minders.

Many Chinese who come in contact with foreigners like to be called by their Internet names. Jonathan Franzen wrote in The New Yorker that he traveled with Chinese birdwatchers who asked by to be called Stinky and Shadow, their Internet names. Stinky was quite an attractive young woman. When asked if she really wanted to be called Stinky she said yes.

In the summer of 2009 someone anonymously posted a message on computer gaming forum that went: “Jia Junpeng, your Mom is calling you to come home and eat.” For some reason the posting capture the imagination of the Chinese Internet world and became a source of jokes and messages and was even used by car dealerships and restaurants in their advertisements. A couple of guys in the marketing and advertising fields claimed credit for coming up with the phrase. A high school student in Nanjing named Jia Junpeg said he had nothing to it and said he wished people would leave him alone.

The expression “I’m just here to buy soy sauce” became an expression meaning “it has nothing to do with me” after it was used by a passerby when he was asked what he thought about Hong Kong star’s sex scandal.

When Internet censors cracked down in the late 2000s Internet users responded with the posting a fictional llama-like animal called the grass-mud horse that on Chinese lore defeated the invading river crabs. It turns out the pronunciations of the horse is almost the same as an obscene expression referring to one’s mother and river crabs became an allusion to censors. The creature appeared on T-shirts and stuffed toys.

Blogs in China

There are around 30 million active blogs in China. It is very easy to start a blog in China. It takes only a few minutes and requires no proof of identify.

It is possible to create blogs about Tiananmen Square, Falun Gong and that criticize government leaders and even post “Let’s overthrow the Communist Party!” They won’t be censored until they get a certain number of readers.

The blog of actress Xu Jinglei has attracted more than 174 million hits as of July 2008. At that time 10 other bloggers had attracted more than 100 million hits. Xu, an actress turned director, became the world’s most widely read blogger in 2007 after her site recorded it 100 millionth page view within a 600 day period. Xu started her blog in October 2005 and published a book of here blogged articles in March 2006. Known for her intellect and beauty, Xu won a best director award for her film Letter From an Unknown Woman at a film festival in Spain. Her blog is about her cats, her favorite television shows, daily life and her work.

A young woman with severe muscular dystrophy use a bog to campaign for right to die. In doing so she generated some interest in a topic normally ignored There are scores of beggar websites in which people run sites that say things like “Please donate one yuan, it will help me be rich!” Users can click 1 yuan, 5 yuan or 10 yuan buttons and pay using through an online payment system that sends money to a bank card number. A typical beggar doesn’t do very well, making around $40 a year.

Suicide Rabbit is a popular Internet comic that lampoons the frustrations and abuses that occur in everyday life in corrupt and feckless China. In one strip the eager-to-help rabbit grabs a fire extinguisher to put out a small fore then is burnt a crisp because the extinguisher contains chemicals that catch on fire rather than put the fire out. In another the rabbit is scolded by a low-level Beijing official who wants people to spit so he can make money by imposing fines on spitters. It creator Liu Gang is very careful not to cross the line of what is acceptable and make fun of fun of China’s leaders.

YouTube-style sites are popular. One of the most watched videos on the Internet in late 2007 was a clip from an Olympics promotion event to rebrand the CCTV sports channel as the “Olympics Channel” in which the wife of a popular anchor on the channel crashed the event, grabbed the microphone and accused the anchor of sleeping with another woman. In January 2008, a Chinese couple sued a subway operator after a security video at a subway station showing them necking on a subway platform was downloaded on YouTube and received thousands of hits.

One of the most popular sites in 2005 was a blog launched by a young woman known as Sister Lotus. It began as a quest to get advise on which university she should attend and expanded into an effort to find a boyfriend, with her providing a few suggestive but not obscene photos of herslef in various poses. The site drew millions of hits and started a phenomena that generated in own websites and blogs as well as magazine and newspaper articles.

Wordpress and all the blogs and websites it created on have been blocked because of the presence of offensive keywords. Wordpress, owners and founder Matt Mullenweg, who was 25 in 2009, has refused to kowtow to Beijing’s censors and has not removed the offensive keywords or made any other alterations that would allow it pass through the Great Firewall.

Grass-Mud Horse

20111102-Wiki com  mud grass.jpg
another mud grass toy
China Digital Times reported: “In early 2009, a creature named the “Grass-Mud Horse” appeared in an online video which became an immediate viral hit. The term grass-mud horse, which sounds nearly the same in Chinese as “f*** your mother”, was originally created as a way to get around, and also poke fun at, government censorship of vulgar content. After netizens created an online video depicting the grass-mud horse at war with and eventually defeating the river crab, a homonym for “harmony,” a propaganda catchword, the idea caught fire instantly and the symbolic meaning of this term has been completely transformed. Within weeks, the “grass-mud horse” became the de facto mascot of netizens in China fighting for free expression, inspiring poetry, photos and videos, artwork, lines of clothing, and more. As one Chinese blogger explained, “The grass-mud horse represents information and opinions that cannot be accepted by the mainstream discourse, and — the Song of the Grass-Mud Horse — has become a metaphor of the power struggle over Internet expression? [Source:China Digital Times, December 7, 2010]

The grass-mud horse was particularly suited to the contested space of the Chinese Internet. The government’s pervasive and intrusive censorship system has generated equally massive resentment among Chinese netizens. As a result, new forms of social resistance and demands for greater freedom of information and expression are often expressed in coded language and implicit metaphors, which allow them to avoid outright censorship. The Internet has became a quasi-public space where the CCP’s dominance is being constantly exposed, ridiculed, and criticized, often in the form of political satire,jokes, videos, songs, popular poetry, jingles, fiction, Sci-Fi, code words, mockery, and euphemisms.

In recent years, Chinese netizens have shown they possess boundless creativity and ingenuity in finding such ways to express themselves despite stifling government restrictions on online speech. To the uninitiated, even those who can read Chinese, their coded language can be confounding. But to Chinese Internet users, the terms often resonate deeply by expressing feelings about shared experiences that millions of people can immediately relate to. Despite their subversive beginnings, many of the terms have already become mainstream in Chinese society; a few were even added to the Oxford Chinese dictionary this year.

“Since its first unheralded appearance on a Chinese Web page, the grass-mud horse has become nothing less than a phenomenon, “Michael Wines, New York Times, “A YouTube children’s song about the beast has drawn nearly 1.4 million viewers. A grass-mud horse cartoon has logged a quarter million more views. A nature documentary on its habits attracted 180,000 more. Stores are selling grass-mud horse dolls. Chinese intellectuals are writing treatises on the grass-mud horse’s social importance. The story of the grass-mud horse’s struggle against the evil river crab has spread far and wide across the Chinese online community.” [Source: Michael Wines, New York Times, March 11, 2009]

Wang Xiaofeng, a journalist and blogger based in Beijing, told the New York Times that the little animal neatly illustrates the futility of censorship. When people have emotions or feelings they want to express,they need a space or channel, he said. It is like a water flow — if you block one direction, it flows to other directions, or overflows. There’s got to be an outlet.

Grass Mud Horse Versus the River Crabs

As depicted online, the grass-mud horse seems innocent enough at the start. An alpaca-like animal — in fact, the videos show alpacas — it lives in a desert whose name resembles yet another foul word. The horses are courageous, tenacious and overcome the difficult environment, a YouTube song about them says.

But they face a problem: invading river crabs that are devouring their grassland. In spoken Chinese, river crab sounds very much like harmony, which in China’s cyberspace has become a synonym for censorship. Censored bloggers often say their posts have been harmonized — a term directly derived from President Hu Jintao’s regular exhortations for Chinese citizens to create a harmonious society.

In the end, one song says, the horses are victorious: They defeated the river crabs in order to protect their grassland; river crabs forever disappeared from the Ma Le Ge Bi, the desert. The online videos’ scenes of alpacas happily romping to the Disney-style sounds of a children’s chorus quickly turn shocking — then, to many Chinese, hilarious — as it becomes clear that the songs fairly burst with disgusting language.

Grass-Mud Horse Lexicon

In 2010 China Digital Times launched a participatory Web 2.0 initiative called “Grass-Mud Horse Lexicon,” (“GMH Lexicon”) an online glossary of translations of terms created by Chinese netizens and frequently encountered in online political discussions. The Lexicon has been posted on China Digital Space, a new, collaborative wiki site. [Source: China Digital Times, December 7, 2010]

China Digital Times said, “This project is part of our effort to contribute to a deeper understanding of the Internet’s cultural, social, and political impact by moving beyond anecdotal evidence and systematically documenting and interpreting political discourse created by Chinese netizens. By creating this lexicon, we hope to map out the dynamics of “domination and resistance” in Chinese communication and information networks. The aim is to vividly illustrate the increasingly dynamic and sometimes surprising presence of an alternative political discourse: images, frames, metaphors and narratives that have been generated from Internet memes. This “resistance discourse” steadily undermines the values and ideology that reproduce compliance with the Chinese Communist Party’s authoritarian regime, and, as such, force an opening for free expression and civil society in China.

The terms in our lexicon are all created by netizens and circulated on websites inside China, not just by prominent bloggers or opinion leaders. For many of the terms, one cannot identify the original author or how exactly it originated. China Digital Times selected these terms from a variety of sources. We discovered many from a self-initiated online project of Chinese bloggers to select for the “words of the year in Chinese blogosphere.” Others come from countless online articles, blog posts, articles from mainstream publications such as Southern Metropolis Daily or even Xinhua, and from Chinese BBS. The direct participation of Chinese netizens also yielded many terms after China Digital Times’s Chinese version made the call for submissions public in June 2010.

The selected terms are not a complete recording of pop culture online terminology. Rather, China Digital Times editors have focused exclusively on politically-charged terms which represent the netizens’ “resistance discourse.” These are not “censored” keywords, which have been documented elsewhere by CDT and other projects, nor are they part of the “legitimizing discourse,” used by people who actively defend and support government policy, including nationalists. At times, some of these words may be put on individual websites’ “sensitive lists” or outright blocked, but in general they are popular daily lingo for Chinese netizens.

Baidu’s Top 10 New Internet Phrases of 2011

Language is in constant flux, subject to the sculpting forces of individuals, events, products, and any number of other influences. In all of its ancient glory, Chinese is no exception, evolving with the times to include terms that are but a few months old next to those that date back centuries. Baidu has compiled this year’s list of the ten most widely used Internet expressions. The full list is below, preceded by in-depth explanations for four of the more peculiar terms. [Source:]

Hold zhù. At number two on the list, and the only English-Chinese compound, “hold” deserves a special look. With the “hold” indicating “hold fast,” “hold your ground,” and meaning “live,” “stay,” the combination signifies perseverance, taking charge, being in command of a situation with self-confidence and conviction. When said to someone else, it can have an encouraging (jia-yóu) meaning of “Come on! You got this!” It can also take the negative form “hold — to mean cannot go on, as in: “We can’t do it without you.”

Its origin is not exactly clear, though general consensus suggests that it was coined in Hong Kong in the last 20 years, entering the Cantonese slang vernacular before making its way to the mainland. However, the word’s birth date might as well be August 9, 2011, when it became a national sensation with Miss Lin. Miss Lin, a 21-year-old actress now known as “sister hold”, is credited for popularizing the term after her appearance on a Taiwanese entertainment show. She assumed the hilarious persona of a fresh-from-France fashionista, overflowing with eccentric style tips to share with her unenlightened audience. To prove how nothing could shake her sense of self, she told a story of how she once showed up in a bikini to a beach-themed party to discover that the theme was in fact Qing Dynasty. No sweat, she said, “hold” — “I had the whole scene under control” — and she effortlessly flipped the bikini up onto her head to make a Qing princess headdress.

Sile jiù bùyòng xie zuòyè (I don’t have to do homework if I’m dead). In September 2011, three 10-year-old girls in Jiangxi Province skipped school one day because they hadn’t completed their homework. When after a whole day of work they still hadn’t finished their assignments, one of the girls had the drastic idea to commit suicide. The three girls climbed up to the top of a house and, holding hands, leapt off. The girls survived the fall, and the incident attracted national attention for their alarming response to a universal student chore. “I was scared to jump,” one of the girls recalled, “but I was also scared of being punished for not finishing my homework — I don’t have to do homework if I’m dead.” It was this last sentence that became famous, ranking number six on the year’s list of terms.

yi- pa-n. A “pan” is an invented unit of measurement equaling 1,000 yuan/square meter. Its namesake, Pan Shiyi, is a major player in Chinese real estate as founder and chairman of the SOHO company. On October 6, the day after Steve Jobs passed away, he published a micro-blog post calling upon Apple to manufacture an iPhone and iPad for under 1,000 yuan, so that more Chinese people could enjoy the products and pay tribute to Jobs. It was a bizarre declaration to make immediately after Jobs’ death, and many people fired back at Pan. One such retort said, “The day that you die, Pan, your company should introduce houses for 1000 yuan/square meter. Millions of people would remember you for it.” And so the “pan” entered the world, as a comical but also convenient form of calculation: “How much is that house.” “50.”

wo- hun. Literally translating to “snail marriage,” this word refers to young couples that divorce but remain living together for financial reasons. Statistics estimate that the divorce rate among the 80s generation (80) is around 30 percent. While this number has increased, so too has the price of houses, deterring divorced partners from physically going their separate ways after they’ve figuratively done so. The phenomenon is a product of pressure on couples to get married and buy a house so that they can leave the confines of their parents. Most of these young guys and gals tied the knot right after college and received the support of both families to finance a home of their own. When newlywed turns into newlyshed, some prefer to stick it out side by side, like two snails in one shell, rather than confront the hassle of sorting out new accommodation.

The complete list: 1) sha-ng bù qi (Too delicate to bear a blow). 2) hold zhù (Persevere, stick with it. 3) tu cáo (To call someone out on something). 4) you mù you — (To have/not have, same as). 5) mài méng (Purposefully try to appear adorable). 6) sile jiù bùyòng xie zuòyè (“I don’t have to do homework if I’m dead”). 7) hù fen(mutual fans). 8) fanzhèng wo xìnle (Regardless, I believe it). 9) wo-hun (‘snail wedding, “when a divorced couple continues living together. 10) yi- pa-n (1,000 yuan per square meter).

Internet as Entertainment in China

The Internet is arguably China’s prime entertainment service. David Barboza wrote in the New York Times, “Frustrated with media censorship, bland programming on state-run television and limits on the number of foreign films allowed to be shown in China each year, young people are logging onto the Web and downloading alternatives. Homegrown Web sites like Baidu, Tencent and have captured millions of Chinese youths obsessed with online games, pirated movies and music, the raising of virtual vegetables, microblogging and instant messaging.” A lot of young people complain that there is not much else to do.[Source: David Barboza, New York Times, April 18, 2010]

Li Yufei, a typical 18-year-old college student interviewed by the New York Times, He writes a blog, downloads Korean television shows, manages two Web sites devoted to music and plays an online game called Rongguang Hospital, at “I started doing a lot of this when I was about 11 years old,” Li said. — Now, I spend most of my leisure time on the Internet, he says. There’s nowhere else to go.”

One of the more remarkable developments in the Internet in recent years has been the informal network of young people who volunteer to produce Chinese subtitles for popular American television series like Prison Break and Gossip Girl. The Chinese subtitles are often translated within hours of the program’s showing in the United States, and then attached to the video and made freely available on Chinese file-sharing sites.

“The Web is really a reflection of real life, Gary Wang,” founder and chief executive of Tudou, one of China’s biggest video-sharing sites told the New York Times. “What people do in real life is they go to karaoke rooms, they go to bars, they get together with friends and they shop. And that’s what they do online.”

Every Chinese Internet company seems to be building its own online conglomerate to offer online games, shopping, blogs and bulletin boards. Few companies want to specialize.

Impact of the Internet and Microblogging on China

George Yeo and Eric X. Li wrote in Global Viewpoint: More than a decade ago, when China’s Internet was in its infancy with a few million users, the government made it clear that it would exercise political oversight on the nascent cyberspace while allowing it to grow. Many experts then predicted that such efforts were doomed to fail. The Internet, they said, was to be a brave new world that could not be controlled. There were only two possible outcomes: A freely expanding Internet beyond the reach of political authority and subverting it, or an Internet stifled by government control and unable to realize its social and economic benefits. Rupert Murdoch famously proclaimed that advances in communications technology posed an “unambiguous threat to totalitarian regimes everywhere.” [Source: George Yeo and Eric X. Li, Global Viewpoint, January 20, 2012. George Yeo is a former Foreign Minister of Singapore and Eric X. Li is a venture capitalist in Shanghai]

Confounding these experts, neither has happened in China. By any standard, the Chinese Internet is one of the most vibrant economic and social cyberspaces in the world. Four hundred fifty million users communicate, transact, and entertain in it. Entrepreneurial companies have created tens of billions of dollars in economic value. China’s search engine, e-commerce and online video businesses are among the world’s leading companies. On Taobao, China’s eBay, millions of mom-and-pop shops are conducting billions of dollars of transactions per month. On QQ and Sina, the two largest Weibo services, 200 million users are active — expressing their views on anything and everything from sex to official corruption.

Concurrently, a massive government-directed monitoring system combined with self-regulation by hosting companies makes China’s Internet highly controlled by political authority. Facebook and Twitter are banned while their domestic versions flourish. In a well-publicized spat with the government, Google’s search presence was curtailed while its other businesses have continued. When social crises occur, key-word barriers are erected to prevent amplifications that threaten stability.

China’s size and its centralized governance have enabled the creation of a parallel Internet universe connected to and separate from the one outside. There are leaks and many VPNs are available. Minor leaks are ignored. When leaks become important, they are plugged and sometimes bluntly. When the Jasmine Revolution became an issue, search engines simply blanked out the word 'jasmine'. However, it is a mistake to think that all the regulators do is censor.

China is pursuing a distinctive response to the Internet. More than half a century ago, at the onset of the information revolution, a pioneering thinker on the cyberspace Norbert Wiener authored an influential book entitled Cybernetics. Wiener separated human responses to new challenges into two types: ontogenetic and phylogenetic. Ontogenetic activities are organized and carried out through centrally designed institutions to shape the development of society. The phylogenetic response, on the other hand, is evolutionary. It is analogous to the way bacteria behave in mutual interaction without organizational oversight. The development of human civilization has always been characterized by the constant struggle between these two opposites - the ontogenetic attempts to control the phylogenetic and the latter’s undermining of the former. The relationship is both adversarial and symbiotic, much like yin and yang. In today’s context, political authority is ontogenetic while the cyberspace is phylogenetic. The health of human society depends on the balance between the two. When they are out of balance, the body politic falls sick with catastrophic consequences.

The easy scalability of the Internet makes it perhaps the most powerful phylogenetic invasion of the body politic in recent times. Bill Davidow, in his book, Overconnected: the Promise and Threat of the Internet, talks about how the Internet’s “hyper-connection” can spread “contagions” like pandemics. The Internet is not an unmitigated force for good. It can also do harm to human society.

The approach of the Chinese government is similar to that of Chinese medicine. The emphasis is on the Internet being an organic part of the body politic. Too much intervention is as bad as too little. Constant monitoring is necessary so that one knows when and how much to intervene. The word in Chinese is tiao, which means continuous tuning of a complex system.

Social media has enabled the Chinese government to overcome an age-old problem of poor feedback of ground problems to the centre because of too many layers in between risking explosions due to over-suppression. Social media brings such problems to the attention of China’s leaders. The train accident in Wenzhou last year was a good example. Like a Chinese physician feeling the pulse of a patient, China’s leaders were alerted to a serious imbalance and reacted comprehensively. The result will be a better and safer high-speed rail.

The current health of China’s cyber universe is not bad. Economically and socially the Internet is flourishing. Politically it is being used to help maintain social stability despite rapid change. Never before in history have such a large number of people undergone such rapid change. Old values have been undermined before new values develop, leading to crass materialism. Regulations have not kept up with the new realities, causing frequent problems of public safety. Social and economic divisions have widened considerably.

Social media provides a safety valve alerting the government to problems that can get out of control. Both the over-amplification and over-suppression of these problems can make them explode and destabilize the country, which is the last thing China needs after finally leaving behind two centuries of war and revolution.

While China’s parallel universe is inevitably being influenced by the outside, the reverse is also happening. India now demands that Facebook and Google remove derogatory materials. Other countries will follow. Eventually, as in the real world, cyberspace will not be flat but will have interconnected mountains and valleys.

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2012

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