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Growing Internet Use in China Reflects Changing Society

May 30, 2008 at 6:35 PM EST
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Last month, China passed the United States in the number of people online. The growing Internet use has given the Chinese a chance to see how the rest of the world views them, and is helping shape the attitudes of younger generations. Margaret Warner reports from China.
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RAY SUAREZ: Margaret Warner finishes two weeks of reporting in China with this story about the Web and how it touches a vast audience.

MARGARET WARNER: This Internet cafe in downtown Beijing is open 24 hours a day. And for most of the day, it’s packed, its young customers engrossed in games, movies, music videos, and chat rooms.

All across China, Internet use is exploding. It’s no wonder that last month, for the very first time, China surpassed the U.S. in the number of people online.

KAI-FU LEE, President, Google China: It’s really unbelievable. The growth rate has been 40 percent, 50 percent even in the last two years.

MARGARET WARNER: Kai-Fu Lee is chairman of Google China. He says nearly a quarter of China’s 1.3 billion people will be online by year’s end. They’re not just more numerous than in the United States. They’re different.

KAI-FU LEE: The Chinese users, on the average, are much younger than the American users. Average American user is about 45; average Chinese user is about 25. So that means they’re going to be more curious, more interested in any kind of information.

MARGARET WARNER: Or are they? The Internet played a crucial role when the Sichuan earthquake hit. News of the disaster swiftly appeared on social networking Internet bulletin boards before the mainstream Chinese media jumped on the story. And the Web has also been key to the citizen effort to donate money and to find out which town needs which relief supplies.

Internet has not stirred reforms

MARGARET WARNER: But the Internet's popularity does not appear to have done what many in the West hoped it would: encourage the Chinese, particularly its young, to question their single-party government. In fact, judging by recent evidence, it's been quite the opposite.

During the Tibet riots in March and the torch relay protests in Paris, London and San Francisco, Chinese Internet users appeared to focus on some glaring mistakes or misrepresentations by the Western press.

The Chinese Internet exploded with anti-Western invective. Young people used the Internet to organize anti-Western protests and pro-China demonstrations.

Melinda Liu of Newsweek, president of the Foreign Correspondents Association of China, says Western journalists even received death threats via e-mail.

MELINDA LIU, Beijing Bureau Chief, Newsweek: It felt like a hostile place for a lot of foreign correspondents for a period of time. And we were all scratching our heads and wondering, "Is this really the atmosphere that China wants?"

MARGARET WARNER: Liu says these Chinese protestors were not uneducated people.

MELINDA LIU: These are like university people or yuppies, young people working in companies, some of them, you know, even studying overseas.

MARGARET WARNER: We came out to an elite Beijing university to find out why Chinese young people erupted with such anger. This lecture hall looks like any college classroom in the states, and the students here are bullish on their future prospects in a booming China.

We sat down outside with five graduate students at the university's School of Public Policy and Management. They were selected by the school for our conversation. Some have studied in the states and insist they get their news from a wide range of sources, including Western media on the Internet.

Yet all expressed the same sentiment, that as Chinese they felt personally insulted by the Tibet coverage and the anti-torch protests.

LI YANG, Student: Most students in China love our country and love our nation. So if we heard something untrue, we feel very angry.

HU YINGLIAN, Student: When we talk about Tibet issue, we're talking about sovereignty, the Chinese sovereignty. Tibet has been, and is, and will be a part of China forever.

ZHANG YING, Student: Chinese people are very willing to offer a party, a harmonious party, a happy party, a sport party to the world. But when this goodwill is tainted with riots and protests and intention to humiliate the Chinese people, so it's easy to understand why they are angry.

MARGARET WARNER: Are you all saying that when people in the outside world criticize your government, you feel it's insulting to you?

ZHANG YING: I think what the outside world needs to understand is most Chinese people are for their government. They are very supportive of the government, because we see the results from this reform and the work of the government.

We're enjoying a lot; we improve a lot. That's why people are supportive of the government. So when the outside world is criticizing the Chinese government, people think that they are -- that maybe they are trying to taint their improvement or life.

MARGARET WARNER: Why do Chinese young people so identify with their government, when young Americans tend to shrug off foreign criticism of U.S. policies like the Iraq war? Melinda Liu says it's rooted in the life experience of this post-Mao generation, raised in an era of liberal market reforms.

MELINDA LIU: All they knew is getting better and better, getting stronger and stronger, the economy's growing faster and faster. You know, we've got the Olympics; we've got these great buildings, you know, built by all these, you know, worldwide names. We're great, but why doesn't the world acknowledge that we're great?

MARGARET WARNER: At the same time, says Liu, they've grown up in a climate of tight government control of the media and the absence of open political debate.

MELINDA LIU: This is also a legacy of a society that's not used to hearing disagreement, confrontation. They see it as bad. Some of them even see it as criminal.

Controls relaxed in some areas

WANG JIANSHUO, Blogger: I think currently China is more and more open. Now I'm writing some things that I don't think I would write five years ago.

MARGARET WARNER: Popular Shanghai blogger Wang Jianshuo insists the West is missing the degree to which the media environment has loosened up. Wang writes a daily blog and also founded China's most popular classified ad Web site.

He spoke to us at a coffee shop in Shanghai, one of countless hot spots where young people can bring their laptops and go online. He says his readers don't hesitate to post anti-government comments on his blog.

WANG JIANSHUO: Criticizing the government is not something new here. If you say 20 years ago, yes, it may be very rare. But today, when you open a newspaper, even traditional newspaper, you watch the newspaper, you can see a lot of negative comments.

HUNG HUANG, CEO, iLook: Right now, it's enforced by two sets of codes. One set of codes are published; the other set is not published.

MARGARET WARNER: But another blogger says, in fact, the censorship and self-censorship lines are clear. China media superstar Hung Huang edits a glossy-style magazine, iLook. Her office is in the back of a gallery in Beijing's art district.

After working in every medium possible -- radio, magazines, television, and the Internet -- she says the no-go zones are clear. They include Tibet, Taiwan, and Tiananmen Square.

HUNG HUANG: The government is only really pretty sensitive about politics and economics, particularly politics.

MARGARET WARNER: The rules are a lot more relaxed for her magazine, because it's a lifestyle publication. But writing satire for her blog can be a frustrating experience.

HUNG HUANG: I would love to be like Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show" and be able to poke fun at everything. But that's not something you can do.

So you're missing -- you know, as a satire writer, you do miss that part of an open, democratic society, where you can -- your material has all of a sudden become limited.

Questions of Web 'filtering'

MARGARET WARNER: One might have expected that, once satire and commentary moved to the Internet, it would be harder to control. But the Chinese government manages to do an effective job of it.

What is the Great Firewall? How does it work?

KAI-FU LEE: In my position, I can't answer that. I'm sorry, because the Chinese government does not acknowledge that, the existence.

MARGARET WARNER: But Google does the filtering?

KAI-FU LEE: Certainly. In order to enter China, we needed to comply with the Chinese laws, which means our servers need to be located in China and that our content, our search results, would be filtered, per local law and regulation.

Some people ask us, why do we choose to filter? But, really, that's not the question. We didn't have a choice of filter or not filter. Our choices are, A, we filter, comply by the law, and have a legal presence in China or, B, we don't enter China.

And we feel that we chose "A" because we felt to engage and to offer as much information as we could was the right decision.

MARGARET WARNER: You said, "We filter." So do you do the filtering?

KAI-FU LEE: We -- there are certain content that are known to us to be not acceptable, and we would delete them from being shown -- from showing up in search results.

MARGARET WARNER: So Tiananmen Square or Tibet, for example, or Falun Gong, you all take care of just blocking that?

KAI-FU LEE: Those are the -- some of the examples, yes.

MARGARET WARNER: We asked Kai-Fu Lee to show us what happens when we go to Google.

All right, let's try opening "Tibet," down here, the Dalai Lama's site. It doesn't look like it's going to happen.

KAI-FU LEE: I don't think so.

MARGARET WARNER: No. Any of the others, Wikipedia?

KAI-FU LEE: Wikipedia, in general, you can open, but...

MARGARET WARNER: No?

KAI-FU LEE: But, I don't know if this page will -- this page does not open.

MARGARET WARNER: Why, in this era of capitalist reform, has China's communist government not embraced greater openness of debate, as well? China's leaders are convinced that they can't develop the country economically unless they maintain firm political control. So says former Chinese ambassador Wu Jianmin.

WU JIANMIN, Former Ambassador, China: Development is the aim. We are facing many problems. I believe only development can provide solution. Reform is the driving force. We can't afford to go too fast; too fast will disturb stability.

You know, I went through so-called Cultural Revolution. Mao advocated democracy. Tell me you know, during so-called Cultural Revolution, how many parties, political parties did we have in China? More than a million. So what?

Big chaos. This is why people hate the chaos. When people tasted the first fruits of the reform and the modernization, people wanted to go on.

Links to media freedoms

MARGARET WARNER: To maintain public support and control, the government works overtime to shape the coverage in the media. In the aftermath of the quake, Beijing granted open access to the press on the ground in Sichuan, but the actual information came from a multi-layered government media apparatus, disseminated to state radio, television and newspapers through daily briefings at the state council in the capital.

None of these officials is ever quoted, even anonymously, talking out of school. Hung Huang says this concept of the role of the media to promote as opposed to inform is deeply rooted in Chinese tradition and culture. It was the role of the emperor's wall posters centuries ago.

HUNG HUANG: There's a messenger from province to province who writes it up in beautiful calligraphy, chops it, and go to village, and put it on the wall. And all the people come and read it. And whatever it says, the people have a habit of taking it as the truth. Nobody ever questioned what the emperor said. It's a matter of people are not giving second thoughts.

MARGARET WARNER: Huang believes this unquestioning attitude by the Chinese public means it could be risky to free the media suddenly and totally. Yet, Huang also believes China is sacrificing something precious in not doing so.

HUNG HUANG: I think what is lost for China is the intellectual capacity to think. Ultimately what you have is generations and generations of Chinese who don't know how to think for themselves.

This is the total damage to our nation and to us as a people, that we are not able to be introspective. We're not able to learn from our own mistakes, because we have no free thinking.

MARGARET WARNER: The artists in Beijing's 798 District are creating the kind of edgy work, even gently mocking the Communist Party's revolutionary past, that suggests free thinking. But they know they can only go so far.

The question for China is: Is there enough ferment bubbling beneath that surface to one day insist the boundaries come down?