Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2007 > June 30, 2007 > Internet In China : The Media’s Changing Face

Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 28

Internet In China : The Media’s Changing Face

Monday 2 July 2007, by Gunjan Singh

The first connection of the Chinese mainland with the Internet was established in September 20, 1987. Since then the Internet has grown to host the largest base of net users in the world. In the past few years the Internet boom in China can be seen in the light of a new cultural phenomenon.

In the year 1996, China banned access to almost 100 websites in order to prevent the delivery of offending information. The banned sites included sexually explicit sites, Western news outlets, Taiwanese information sites etc. This shows that since the introduction of the Internet in China the authorities have been trying pretty hard in order to keep in under control. There has been a concentrated effort on the part of the government from preventing the Internet from becoming a tool of political discussions without trying to hamper the benefits it provides in the field of education and economic growth.

China issued its first guidelines on Internet content in late 2000, requiring providers to monitor online chat-rooms and bulletin boards and keep records of users’ viewing times, addresses and telephone numbers.
The Chinese Government’s efforts have been concentrated but in spite of this the overall usage of Internet has been increasing with an unexpected pace.

According to the China Internet Network Informa-tion Centre’s 19th Statistical Report on the Internet development in China, the number of Internet users had become 137 million as of December 2006. And the number of broadband users was 90.7 million. This figure represents roughly 11 per cent of the total internet users in the world. The total number of computers that can access Internet has hit 41.6 million, and the total number of websites has reached 669,000.

The Internet in such a short time has definitely revolutionised the way in which the Chinese people are communicating and interacting with the outside world. With such a large number of users to its credit it is certainly the best medium by which the government as well as the intellectuals are spreading new ideas or debating and discussing the older ones. In spite of the high level of government control the Internet today has become one of the most efficient medium by which the public in general are expressing their concern or doubts on existing policies as well as the changes that are taking place within the Chinese society.

Internet, in addition to the rapid level of economic growth of the Chinese society, has led to the development of a space which is almost outside the direct control of the government. Though the government has placed a large number of checks and it closely monitors the information that is gathered/circulated through this channel, there have been instances where if an author finds it difficult to get any view published in the regular media they circulate the article through e-mail or other ways on the net and thus, it becomes accessible to the people.

However, the Chinese Government has a very tight control over the Internet and the way it is used by the people. As of January 2001, sending “secret” or “reactionary” materials over the net had become a capital crime. The people who were found guilty for this were sentenced to anywhere between two to four years and the trial was held under the Criminal Code and not under the Internet specific regulations.

THE introduction of the Internet has provided the Chinese public with the option to accept or refute the version of events which the Chinese Government provides. Now they always have access to a separate or different explanation through the net. This is the reason why a large number of the Chinese intellectuals today are using the Internet to gain access to information. Maybe it is the feeling that the information available through this source is more authentic or less censored which is not the case with the Chinese print or other forms of media. Most of them are generally used by the Chinese Government to promote its own viewpoint.

Though on one hand the government is trying to control the information which is circulated through the Internet, on the other hand it is also making use of this very channel to gain the views of the people on its policies. The Chinese Government is seriously trying to interact with the masses with help of the Internet. This shows that today the Chinese Government cannot make any foreign policy decisions without taking the public opinion into consideration. This is also a major shift in the decision-making apparatus of the Chinese Government as compared to the Mao era, which was more personal and authoritarian.

Today the media in China, after the introduction of the Internet, is playing a major role in the process of decision-making. The Internet has introduced the Chinese people to the global media. As a result the Chinese people have access to the foreign policy developments in the other countries and thus they are also having an opinion as to how their country’s foreign policy should be formulated. This has been proved by the fact that People’s Daily, the state owned newspaper and the official mouthpiece of the government, also has a very popular BBS, known as the ‘Strong Nation Forum’. Such kinds of forums are becoming important because either willingly or unwillingly the party today needs to know what the people are thinking about the state policies.

In China, after the introduction of the Internet, the three most popular online activities are news reading, online chatting/cyber forum discussion, and information downloading. The cyber forums are the space where most of the political discussions take place and the people put forward their opinions on the policies and other undertakings of the government. This shows that the political discussions and online forums are becoming an important part of the day-to-day life of the Chinese people. By the end of 2003, there were 2536 Chinese language chat room websites.

Another important development is the availability of the full text of the Chinese laws and regulations on the Internet. This has transformed the overall characteristic of these texts from being confidential, meant for the government officials and primarily unpublished to ones that are today open to a great level of interpretation.

With these changes taking place, the important questions that arise are: will the Internet change the overall structure of the Chinese political system? And has it started the move towards the creation of a civil society or a public sphere through the internet? The decision-making process has undergone a change in the last few years and the people in general have become more aware of the political developments; and they today feel free to express their views. Though the government is taking a tough stand against the people, the economic benefits that are arising due to the Internet cannot be ignored and the government cannot completely do away with it. The checks and tabs undertaken by the government have their loopholes and the Chinese people are making use of the Internet to the fullest to gain whatever information they want or need. The ‘Nail House’ incident is an example of the ways in which the Internet today is spreading news about the policies and actions of the government. This has been made famous by the Chinese bloggers. The picture was widely posted on the Internet and as a result a large number of people got interested in the incident. This was the case when the owner of a house refused to move out after the land was taken over for the construction of a modern building; and he accepted the monetary compensation but demanded a house of equal area in the new building. The whole debate between the owner and the construction company was greatly popular within the Internet circle.

The author is a Ph.D student at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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