Speaking Out: The Internet in China. (Global Notebook)

By Worf, Richard | Harvard International Review, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview
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Speaking Out: The Internet in China. (Global Notebook)

Worf, Richard, Harvard International Review

Strong public opinion often drives momentous societal change. The advent of the printing press in Europe during the Reformation and the proliferation of pamphlets in France in 1789 are powerful examples from history.

Recently, observers have pointed to the Internet's spread in authoritarian regimes, such as the People's Republic of China, as a possible catalyst for political reform today.

In China, the Internet is subverting traditional forms of information, such as state-controlled media. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences reports that 67.5 percent of Chinese Internet users believe the Internet allows for more criticism of government than traditional forums. Western companies such as Safeweb provide Internet hosting invisible to government-mandated blocks, enabling users to access banned sites like CNN. Competition from Internet newspapers, which are inexpensive to produce and virtually untraceable, has invigorated independent paper presses. Furthermore, the Internet has rapidly extended its reach in China, with 24 million users, and by 2002, China will be the world's largest market for telecommunications equipment. In fact, in one 1,500-person village, 5 percent of the inhabitants have Internet access even though the village lacks a sewage system.

Unfortunately, flourishing Internet-catalyzed public opinion means little if the government is unwilling to respond to it. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) faces a difficult decision. On one hand, the Internet is a crucial part of the CCP's plan to sustain economic growth in excess of 8 percent. On the other, unrestrained public expression runs counter to the CCP's refusal to tolerate political dissent, including such mild protests as the Falun Gong's pleas for religious tolerance. In April 2001, the CCP promulgated new restrictions on Internet use, using the blanket term "state secrets" to justify taking control over virtually all areas of expression. The CCP also plans to register all forms of encryption software and now requires Internet cafes to register their users, curbing the Internet's anonymity.

But the CCP does not want to atomize public opinion as in the days of the Cultural Revolution--it finds the power of public opinion too tempting. In a society where the number of Chinese engaged in private enterprise (24 million people in businesses larger than eight persons, up from 1.8 million in 1991) rivals the 60-million-member CCP, the Party sees the need to mold public opinion rather than stifle it. It seems more probable, however, that the sclerotic CCP will fail to adapt fast enough to a public opinion partly of its own creation.

An indication that public opinion is no longer in the CCP's control came after a US spy plane's collision with a Chinese fighter jet in April 2001. The CCP patterned its response after its reaction to NATO's accidental 1999 bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, when Communist officials encouraged students to stone the US and British embassies in Beijing. During the spy-plane incident, the state-controlled media presented the loss of the Chinese pilot as an assault on China's dignity. The government took other steps to stoke Chinese nationalism, such as setting up anti-US Internet chat rooms. US President George Bush's initial statement of regret never reached the Chinese people.

However, this display of chauvinistic nationalism was not a creation of the CCP but a genuine expression of nationalist public opinion. Understandably, then, the CCP's strategy to play the public opinion card in negotiations with the United States did not work out entirely as planned. Nationalist sentiment on the Internet soon outpaced the CCP's expectations. Interspersed with "America go to hell" messages were criticisms of the CCP's "soft" handling of the issue.

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