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"Internets" With Chinese Characteristics:
Are They Necessary Training Wheels or Dead Ends?
The China Matrix Perspective
January 22, 1999

last week's perspective: Cracker war on China

Almost since the first Internet connection was established on China’s mainland, it appears that forces within Chinese government, academic, entrepreneurial circles, and even others in the Chinese diaspora were contemplating the problems of language and information access that would make the Middle Kingdom’s road to the Info Superhighway require a different approach, an approach filled with those undefinable "Chinese characteristics." Hence, it was with little surprise when the China Internet Corporation (CIC) announced in 1996, early in China’s "experiment" with the Internet, that it was would control Internet access to China. Initially, CIC tried to sell the Chinese government on a novel model: CIC would control Internet gateways into China and ensure that those accessing the network agreed to certain business principles, i.e., like not offending PRC standards when it came to reporting political stories, etc.

When the Chinese government did not buy into the CIC concept, the company metamorphosized into a business information company, replete with a "China Wide Web (CWW)." The CIC announcement of the CWW turned out to be considerably less substance than hype, and no industry analyst worth his salt accepts that CIC is “a major player” in China’s Internet scene, as has been widely written. However, the idea of a Chinese Internet was born, and journalists and analysts and the “masses” all began to carry around in their heads an inchoate and frequently changing idea of what the concept means. Then it was Yinhaiwei. This Chinese network was started in 1995 by a young Chinese entrepreneur, Zhang Shuxin. Zhang built an all-Chinese language network focused on chat groups and local information. Yinhaiwei was walled off from the Internet by a sophisticated firewall system. It was safe. It was also a money loser. Late last year, Yinhaiwei appeared to have gone under.

The next incarnation of the "Chinese Internet" was the "multimedia backbone." Unlike CIC, this network, often called the “169" network because customers merely dial these numbers to gain access, is a major player in China’s on-line scene, largely by virtue of its progenitors, who again, as we find frequently in the saga of China online, decided themselves that this was what the Chinese people wanted (or needed?)

Editor's Note
Chinese journalists writing about on-line services typically use hulian wangluo, or "interconnected network" to refer to online activity in general, which can include the Internet or other Chinese network such as 169. They also use shangwang or on-line, to refer to his activity; it can mean any computer network. Often they will spell out Internet in English when they are referring to the global network of networks, or use guoji hulian wangluo (international interconnected network) to refer to the Net, for which there is no real standard translation into Chinese.

The 169 network provides Chinese customers with a cheap and safe alternative to full blown Internet access, providing Chinese language content, local events, and e-mail services. The Data Communications Bureau (DCB) of China Telecom builds and operates the 169 network, which has links with ChinaNet (163).

The latest incarnation of a Chinese-like network of networks is the so-called C-Net, launched late last year in Sichuan and reportedly nothing less than "an internetworking project of Chinese people." According to press reports, C-Net is a brainchild, 8 years in the making, of an unknown Sichuan company called Sichuan Zhongcheng Network Development Company, Ltd. Some 300 organizations and 54 localities have pledged to invest in the project. One article clearly stated that one rationale for Cnet was the fact that the Internet was "wholly dominated (yitong tianxia) by the US."

What in fact, is C-Net? Is it just another attempt to create an ersatz Internet with Chinese characteristics? Do Chinese want their own Internet? Is it more secure than other networks in China? Who will use it? Forced to use it? Is it in fact a necessary set of training wheels for the Chinese people? Or will it turn out to be a dead end, abandoned for the same reason people don’t return to many websites: lack of fresh content? All of these questions arise for the long-time (4 years can seem like a long time in China) observer of the country’s hulian wangluo development.

The implicit argument that runs through official rationales for all these "non-Internet" interconnecting networks is that the Chinese people 1) do not have the language ability to make use of the Internet, 2) would anyway prefer their own, (read "safe") local information rather than have to wade through all the potentially “dangerous” information on the Internet, and 3) would be more willing to pay less and not have to register with the PSB. Several trends would appear to run counter to these assumptions, 1) more and more Chinese language material is finding its way onto the Internet, as are more and more language specific search engines. Being an entrepreneurial people, Chinese have taken quickly to the business/communications potentialities of the Internet. Of course, much of the material is from "dangerous" sources, such as Taiwan and the Chinese dissident community, but a lot is also business-relevant information; 2) while it is true that many Chinese probably do not want to read the New York Times or Beijing Spring online, they are increasingly better educated and interested in the outside world, about which they have precious little information.

On the other hand, it may be that China, or at least some segment of potential online customers, needs such "training wheels." Jumping full bore into the information free-for-all that is the Internet requires some sophisticated filtering by the user, and Western users, accustomed to years of such filtering, are clearly better equipped than Chinese growing up in a world of information monopoly. Chinese have a legitimate concern about the potential damage to cultural values of introducing pornography and other unwanted dark corners of the Internet. In addition, recent upsurges of hacking from inside and out (see Cracker War on China) naturally feed into a tendency to wall off, control access.

China’s encounter with the Internet however, reminds historians of past Chinese attempts to have "Western means," while maintaining a “Chinese essence.” Walling off Chinese to the Internet may prove an effective short-term approach, but is ultimately not sustainable...

© Kenneth Neil Farrall 1999

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