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Is Internet a Tool or Threat to China? - 2002-04-23

Internet use is soaring in China, as more people have access to computers. This growth may present Chinese officials with a dilemma, as increased Internet usage can both help expand the nation's economy and provide a means to spread political dissent.

The Chinese government said eight years ago there were only 1,600 Internet users in all of China. Today, an estimated 33 million Chinese regularly use the Internet, and some estimates say the country will have 200 million Internet users by the year 2005.

Eric Harwit of the University of Hawaii has studied the political and social implications of Internet use in China. He said Chinese, who five years ago had never seen a computer, today visit Internet cafes almost daily to check their e-mail or look up Web sites.

"We have all different kinds of surveys about Internet use. One I read said that 90 percent of Chinese Internet users would give up television to keep using the Internet. But," he laughed, "another 20 percent said they'd give up their spouse to keep using the Internet. So, I don't know, either that number is a little wrong, or there may be quite a few unhappy marriages."

He presented his research results at a recent conference of the Association of Asian Studies in Washington. He said the dramatic rise in the number of Internet users correlates with the government's effort to lower the cost of Internet access.

Eberhard Sandschneider of the Free University in Berlin said there has been great speculation in the west about the impact of the Internet in China. He said some observers think it may destabilize Chinese Communist Party rule and help democratize China, while others believe authorities will turn it into their own tool. Mr. Sandschneider said China's leaders have two motives, when it comes to the Internet.

"On the one hand to use Internet to promote and perhaps even accelerate economic development and on the other hand to prevent abuse of Internet in the sense of a possible loss of the CCP's major instrument of political rule which is control of political information," Mr. Sandschneider said.

Simona Thomas, also of the Free University, has studied the economic impact of the Internet in China. She said it is estimated that e-commerce - actual commercial transactions made through the Internet - will generate about $15 billion for China next year. By comparison, she said, China is likely to earn $300 billion next year through e-business - which includes all business-related information and communication processed through the Internet.

Ms. Thomas said foreign companies operating in China all use the Internet. But she said the Internet is enabling Chinese companies to grow faster and stronger than their foreign competitors.

"The foreign companies still have fixed lines between headquarters in Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai, [which is] tremendously expensive. But the Chinese companies, [notably] Hai-er and Legend, they have outlets throughout the whole country and they are using Internet technology - very cheap and very useful and very adequate to them," Ms. Thomas said.

In particular, Ms. Thomas said, many Chinese companies are using wireless Internet technology, which allows more flexibility than fixed telephone lines.

Eric Harwit said the Chinese government exercises different levels of control on different aspects of the Internet. The data networks which carry the signals must be government-owned companies, he said, but Internet service providers can be government or private firms. Yet most consumers still get their Internet access through government-related companies and Mr. Harwit said that makes government scrutiny of Internet content easier.

Mr. Harwit said China's police are able to control Internet content by blocking objectionable Web sites and selectively punishing people who post banned material on the Internet. That, he said, leads to self-censorship because everyone knows what's not allowed.

"As one might expect, the government prohibits the content similar to what's targeted in other areas of Chinese life. So, counter-revolutionary material - I mean everybody in China knows that that's something that you're going to get in trouble with. If you're circulating in paper form, if you're out in the street carrying a sign, there's a good chance if a policeman sees you, you're going to get in trouble. Pornography is also something, it's prohibited on the street. Why shouldn't it be, I guess, prohibited on the Internet? Gambling is also something the government worries about," Mr. Hartwit said.

He said today's typical Chinese Internet user does not fit the profile of someone trying to undermine the government, but that could change.

"I argue that these young, educated, technologically savvy users have a vested interest in the current political system. But as the Internet spreads over the next few years to perhaps more discontented members of the population - maybe unemployed workers, for example, people in the countryside - that could give a new tool to organizing social activism," Mr. Hartwit said.

Mr. Harwit believes Chinese leaders are not really worried that the rapid spread of the Internet in China could undermine their rule. Otherwise, he asks, why would the government allow 33 million people to use the Internet now and project that there will be 200 million users in a couple of years?