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Experts Say China Serving as Test Case of Internet's Impact - 2003-06-02

Analysts say China offers a test case of the power of the Internet to promote economic development, or provoke harsh restrictions if officials see it as a threat to stability. Scholars who met in Los Angeles say China is shaping the Internet, and is being shaped by it.

Jeffrey Cole, director of the Center for Communication Policy at the University of California at Los Angeles says at any gathering of Internet experts, the topic of China nearly always comes up for discussion.

"The obvious reason is the size," he explained. "But they really see [that] China will be an important case to see how the Internet may play a role economically, if it will assist, hinder or play no role in the economic development. And also to see if it will change China politically. Will people having access change freedom of speech, give them access to information they haven't seen? So nowhere are the political and economic questions more interesting and more relevant than in China."

China is the world's second largest nation of Internet users, with 60 million citizens online. But only five percent of the country has Internet access, and few nations have a greater digital divide.

Eric Harwit of the University of Hawaii says China's coastal region is much more "wired" for Internet access than the country's interior.

"But I think it's even more sharp [a divide] rural/urban," he said. "You see that 99 percent of Internet users are based in cities. Only one percent of 750 million people in the countryside are Internet users, according to government statistics."

Eric Harwit stresses that Chinese officials are trying to change that.

"The China Education Research Network, or CERNET, has wired virtually all of China's one thousand-plus universities," he said. "So in that sense, for higher education they really have done some work to bridge the divide. But for other parts of the education system, secondary schools, primary schools, there's still a lot of work to be done. Hardly any secondary schools have access to the Internet and virtually no primary schools."

While Chinese officials are embracing the Internet for education, commerce and public administration, they also view it with suspicion. Groups outside China, from human rights organizations to the outlawed religious sect Falun Gong, use the Internet to demand radical change in the country.

Liang Guo of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences has conducted two studies of Chinese Internet users, and sees little Internet activism inside China.

"In my survey, I found most people just playing games and chatting," he said. "But some older people, in their forties or older, they may be more interested in news and discussing some political questions."

The popular Chinese websites and carry news, although only from the state-approved media. Mr. Guo notes, however, it generates lively discussions.

"People can make comments on all that news, and people may be more interested in those comments," he said.

He went on to say that after a major news event, the comments quickly build in Internet chat rooms.

China now accounts for seven percent of the world's Internet traffic, but there are heavy restrictions on Chinese users. Analysts at the conference say Chinese Internet service providers monitor chat rooms and bulletin boards, and ferret out comments that the authorities could consider "risky" or "harmful."

Officials block some sites, including the Voice of America's, by restricting access through Internet service providers or by blocking sites [at the routers that connect the ISPs to the worldwide web]. Some blocking is intermittent, and in other cases is permanent. However, determined web surfers can often gain access through proxy sites outside China that lead to the banned destination.

Chinese Internet users, says researcher Guo, are willing to tolerate some controls but dislike other restrictions, based on their responses to two of his surveys.

"In 2001, we did a survey that found that most people, more than 60 percent of people, think it's necessary to manage and control Internet content," he said. "And this year, even more than that, about 80 percent think it is necessary or very necessary to manage Internet content. But this year I continued to ask, what kind of content should be managed or controlled?"

He says most people want restrictions on pornography, violence and junk mail, but not on political speech or Internet advertising.

Chinese officials are promoting the Internet, providing broadband access to major business centers and creating high tech industrial parks to foster Internet start-ups. But Western analysts say the officials are clearly nervous about the Internet's potential as a political tool, which the telephone, fax machine and short-wave radio became during the Tienanmen protests of 1989.

These analysts say the case of China raises the question: Can the Internet be controlled? China may well provide the answer. One commentator says the Internet will undoubtedly bring change to the country, transforming its economy or its politics.