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Digital China: Ten Things Worth Knowing about the Chinese Internet

Thanks largely to the Olympics, 2008 will go down in history as a turning point year for China -- or, rather, one when the country passed several milestones, including for the Chinese Internet.
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Thanks largely to the Olympics, 2008 will go down in history as a turning point year for China -- or, rather, one when the country passed several milestones. It'll be remembered as a turning point year in Chinese sports history, due to the country getting its first chance to host the Games, and the history of Beijing's redevelopment, due to all of that has been torn down and built up to ready the city to play host. 2008 will go down as a turning point year in the history of cross-strait relations as well, thanks to the resumption today, after over half-a-century, of regularly scheduled Taiwan-mainland flights. Here, though, we focus on still another thing that 2008 is likely to be remembered as: a turning point year for the Chinese Internet.

Consider how many Internet-related developments have already taken place. In January, YouTube videos helped publicize Shanghai protests against extensions of a high-speed train line. In February, China replaced America as the country with the most Internet users. In March and April, bloggers and hackers made headlines, as the furor over the Tibet riots and the roughing up of a Chinese torchbearer in Paris played out in cyberspace as well as on the ground. In May, Wen Jiabao became China's first leader with a Facebook page. In June, Hu Jintao became China's first leader to respond to questions online.

And throughout 2008, news and views about the Olympics have shown up on the Chinese Internet, thanks to everything from the official Beijing Games website that features non-stop promotion of and updates about the event, to a flurry of unofficial postings, such as ones by angry netizens who complained right after the May earthquake government television was still showing triumphant images of the torch relay when the time had come to focus on the suffering of the people of Sichuan.

By now, in the wake of these and other digital events, news-savvy Americans all know the Internet has become an important force in Chinese life -- but not necessarily what kind of force. Here are ten things to keep in mind whenever the Chinese Internet makes headlines.

1. Optimists have long forecast -- inaccurately -- that the Internet will swiftly transform China into a completely open society.
Among others, George Will, Thomas Friedman, and Bill Clinton all predicted around the millennium's turn that the arrival of the Internet would inevitably and swiftly set China free. This hasn't happened. China's still run by a Communist Party that takes harsh measures against organizations that threaten its hold on power.

2. Pessimists continue to suggest -- also inaccurately -- that Chinese political life hasn't really changed and cannot be said to have changed until the Communist Party falls. This ignores shifts in which the Internet has figured centrally.

China's leaders may not have to stand for re-election and certainly limit some forms of dissent, but the Chinese public sphere has become a more freewheeling, interesting and chaotic arena for expressions of opinion than it was. This isn't all due to the Internet (crusading print journalists and activists have also done their part), but bloggers calling attention to official corruption or mocking government policies have definitely helped alter the political landscape. It's misleading to suggest -- as the New Republic does in its latest special issue, "Meet the New China (Same as the Old One)" --that the realm of Chinese politics has remained static.

3. It's misleading to imagine that the only Chinese Internet activity that matters politically involves "dissidents" and collective acts of protest.

Often, the politically significant things happening online involve forms of communication, such as efforts to call attention to corrupt acts by local officials, that dovetail with policies that are promoted or at least given lip service by the central authorities. In many cases, these take the form of satirical discussions, which only gradually move toward anything like a "dissident" position. A recent illustration involved reports that pigs raised to be eaten by Olympic competitors are fed a special organic diet to ensure that pork-consuming athletes won't get so full of chemicals they'll fail drug tests. This led to a flurry of Internet postings about the health risks ordinary Chinese face when eating "normal" pigs. First one and then scores of bloggers connected the dots between the regime's attentiveness to the well being of athletes and seeming lack of concern for other groups, like miners. (There are scores of coal mining accidents each year, only some of which are officially acknowledged.) Many corners of the Chinese blogosphere were suddenly plastered with variations on the line: "I'd rather be an Olympic pig than a man in a coal mine!"

4. The political uses of the Chinese Internet that draw attention here and in China often differ.

Take, for example, Zeng Jingyan, wife of AIDS activist Hu Jia. After blogging about her experiences trying to free Hu from detention, she and her husband made Time's list of the 100 most influential people. But her actions haven't gained the kind of traction in her own country as, say, the Olympic pig stories did.

5. A lot of what happens on the Chinese Internet isn't political.
Increasingly, Chinese Internet usage reflects the broad range of online activities happening in the US, Europe, Japan, and other wired countries. Most Chinese Internet cafes are packed with students playing online video games, not checking out political websites. Online chat rooms are packed. Online commerce is growing rapidly. Online stock trading has taken off. And after the Sichuan earthquake, Chinese donated millions of dollars online.

6. Though the Internet is thought of as an "international space," postings on it can be intensely patriotic, even jingoistic (in China and elsewhere).

Early Internet pioneers opined that the Internet would increasingly make national boundaries and identities irrelevant, especially among the wired young. But Chinese netizens can be nationalistic as well as cosmopolitan. In the spring, after the Tibet and Paris incident, for example, fenqing ("angry youths") took to the net , creating YouTube videos and blog posts that denigrated Tibetan rioters and railed against the French.

7. Self-styled patriotic postings can make the government uneasy.

Unrestrained nationalism has often been a problem for the Chinese government. So officials are understandably wary when young people start to toss about nationalist slogans on the Internet and sometimes act quickly to rein things in. For instance, in April 2005, when anti-Japanese protests broke out across China in response to debates over the content of Japanese history textbooks (and their portrayal of World War II events), internet censors quickly added the word "demonstration" to their list of banned words at QQ, China's most popular internet messaging service. This spring, the government initially allowed anti-French sentiment to build, but soon was moving to tamp it down as online activists began calling for boycotts of international companies whose investment money Beijng has courted.

8. Censorship is more complex than just "Big Brother" blocking sites or the "Great Firewall of China" keeping things out.

While Chinese Internet censorship is widespread, it's not a single unified system. There is some meta-level screening of taboo words and images (like the Dalai Lama's name and face), but the "firewall" is actually a series of blocks -- some at the national level, some at the local level. Universities, schools, and companies monitor and screen Internet traffic, as do Internet service providers and even individual websites. At the Chinese news blog Danwei, they've coined the catchy phrase "Net Nanny" to better reflect the Chinese government efforts to prevent its citizens from being exposed to the wrong kinds of things. Some observers, like Rebecca MacKinnon, have noted the playful language games netizens use to circumvent the filters, but other discussions simply never take place, due not just to ham-handed interference but also self-censorship.

9. China isn't always just following trends when it comes to Internet usage, as it sometimes set them.

This is true of software and technology developments for Internet censorship. It's also true of some creative areas. For instance, before the final installment of Harry Potter's adventures hit bookshelves last year, Chinese fans were able to read multiple versions online -- written by Chinese authors riffing on J.K. Rowling's popular series -- as well as several unauthorized translations of the real deal. Another example is that books made up of posting from popular blogs began making regular appearances on Chinese bestseller lists back in 2006 when these were still very rarely published in the West.

10. You don't have to read Chinese to know what Chinese bloggers are saying.

You can go to "Blog for China," a site started by a group of American-based Chinese students during the recent firestorm over alleged Western bias in media coverage of China, Or visit sites like China Digital Times, Danwei, EastSouthWestNorth, Shanghaiist, and RConversation, all of which regularly translate posts from and track development relating to the Chinese Internet. We depend heavily on them in our work for "The China Beat: Blogging How the East is Read" a site launched by academics and freelance writers interested in Chinese affairs. And as anyone who has gone to the links we've provided above will know by now, we've relied upon them in creating this top ten list on the challenging, important topic of making sense of an increasingly wired and ever-changing China.