Tuesday, March 10, 2009
Cyber Discussion Unplugged
The Bookworm Literary Festival is on and on Sunday evening I attended the discussion called "China and the Internet".
Danwei founder Jeremy Goldkorn moderated with three guest speakers: Andrew Lih, whose book The Wikipedia Revolution is soon to come out; Time Magazine's China correspondent Simon Elegant; and Vanessa Na, a Chinese author and blogger.
While Goldkorn joked wondering if someone was going to "twitter" the event, the discussion was really off-line which was engaging.
What they talked about wasn't much new about the Internet and how China controls it through "the great firewall". The government isn't so much concerned about blocking websites from abroad, as not many Chinese seek information from overseas websites, but keeping a watch on what's happening within.
The majority of the 270 million Internet users are young people, mostly under 40-years-old and they are either surfing for pornography, playing games or chatting with friends. Most of their blogs and online social networking are about themselves and their aspirations rather than anything politically subversive.
Another interesting fact is that there are some 500 million who use surf the net on their cellphones and this is a market that's already being tapped by game developers and others creating applications.
However there are some "netizens" who have become socially active in pursuing justice. They have "caught" officials who seem to have lavish lifestyles and after enough complaints it is found they really did received bribes and are sacked or demoted.
But there are still sensitive issues on the Internet that cannot be discussed in the Chinese cyberworld. The usual ones are Tibet, Tiananmen and Falun Gong, but there are also other issues, like the schools that were destroyed in the Sichuan earthquake and families are still trying to get the government to release the actual number of students who died on May 12 last year.
Nevertheless, Elegant seems to think the government is ahead of its users in terms of controlling the Internet. And there is a theory that as the young people take on bureaucratic posts, they will also use the net to their advantage too, furthering the cat-and-mouse game to an even higher level of sophistication.
The panel was asked if the Chinese felt deprived of not being able to see everything that people in the West can see on the Internet. Lih answered that if someone gave you a Mercedes you wouldn't be asking for a Lamborghini, you'd take what you got. So no one is really complaining and the few that are have tried to find their way around The Great Firewall through proxies.
And Elegant says it's going to be the social protests the government has to be more careful with. He explained the day before the Sichuan earthquake, a "walking protest" was organized in Chengdu. These had spread around the country, seemingly harmless walkabouts that were silent, but also peaceful protests about Nimbyism, or Not In My Backyard.
These ambulatory protests against things like nuclear reactors planned to be built in their neighbourhoods had been happening in Shanghai and Xiamen as well, organized through the Internet and text messaging. But since then they've been either shut down or forgotten due to other economic matters at hand.
So it's going to be interesting to see what's next in China's Internet development and how both the people and the government use the cyberworld to their advantage.