China’s Digital Future

UC Berkeley is running a conference at the moment on China’s Digital Future Advancing The Understanding of China’s Information Revolution. The two-day conference and webcast looks at how information and communications technologies are affecting Chinese society.

China is experiencing a digital revolution. ICTs are already altering the course of China’s ongoing social and economic reforms. But the long-term impact of the Internet on the Chinese government, people, society and culture is not yet clear.

Over 78 million Chinese now utilize the communication power of the Internet, and over 257 million have wireless phones. How will China’s rapidly expanding high tech industry and market affect global technological development and the world market? How does the Chinese government maintain a balance between control and growth of the Internet? How does the flexibility and pervasiveness of the new media alter the traditional information landscape? And what are the expansion, control and transformative effects of these technologies on China and its future?

China Digital News is carrying synopses of the presentations, and it makes for invaluable reading into the current and future state of China’s society. Unsurprisingly many of the speakers addressed issues of censorship in China, how the Great Firewall of China works, development, regulation and control of the internet, and the development of e-government including two networks, one internal and one external.

The synopsis of Bill Xia, “How the Great Fire Wall Works” is particularly interesting, especially how he sees a ‘critical mass’ of users which undermines the censorship. He explained that knowledgable web users can circumvent IP blocking in a matter of seconds.

He started with a quick explanation of how the Internet works in China. China has an IP number blacklist – so if your email comes from a black listed IP, it doesn’t get throught. The Chinese government claims it is mainly blocking porn sites, but it doesn’t want people to see uncensored news sites. Websites directed to bogus locations if Chinese users try to access a blocked site. Censorship also exists on the email level, instant message, BBS, chat room, SMS, etc. (words like falun gong, revolution, communist, etc, don’t get through).

To the government, even objectiveness is considered anti-Chinese. There’s a belief that the Internet will destroy traditional culture, replace traditional Chinese characters, and loosen morals (“drink, eat, man, woman”- all is allowed). So the propaganda department works hard to control the minds of public. But the crash of this system is coming.

The internet, BBS, and other new communications technologies including SMS, email, and p2p are becomeing the default methods of rapid, uncensored information disemination. Serious social and political issues including SARS, Hong Kong democracy, are being discussed almost in real-time, ahead of any traditional state-controlled media. This circulating of information in itself creates a demand for a state media response, and forces important issues out into the open, where it becomes less easy or simple to manufacture a denial, or suppress dissent.