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Regional Strategies > Book Reviews > China and the Internet: Politics of the Digital Leap Forward >

China and the Internet: Politics of the Digital Leap Forward

Edited by Christopher Hughes and Gudrun Wacker

2003 RoutledgeCurzon, London

178 pages

Review by Madanmohan Rao madan@inomy.com

The compilation of essays in “China and the Internet” provides an informative and detailed analysis of the socio-political impacts of ICTs in China. It addresses the aspirations of Chinese policymakers for using ICTs to achieve a “digital leapfrog” in economic development, and the challenges and limitations faced.

The material is divided into 7 chapters and covers themes like the digital divide, Internet censorship, bureaucratic turf wars, Silicon Valley development models in Greater China, IT security, and the Internet domain name system. The book is the product of two workshops organised in Europe in 2000 and 2002, and includes a comprehensive bibliography of print and online resources. The material is an excellent addition to the growing literature on the political economy of new media, especially in Asian countries like China.

Christopher Hughes is director of the Asia Research Centre at the London School of Economics, and Gudrun Wacker is head of the Research Unit Asia at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. The contributors are all based in Europe; it may have been appropriate to include writers in Greater China as well.

“The study of Chinese politics can no longer be considered complete without an understanding of the social impact of ICTs,” the editors begin.

China’s leaders strongly believe that ICTs can play a major role in bringing about economic growth, according to Xiudian Dai, senior lecturer at the University of Hull. They have been influenced in part by the global climate of opinion in the l990s which favoured a strong developmental and market role for ICTs like the Internet. However, the government has also been reluctant to promote active political participation by citizens or to relax its control over the provision of content.

Chinese ICT initiatives and policies include the 863 Programme (launched in March 1986 to promote technological excellence); the Tenth Five Year Plan (2001-05); breaking up of the monopoly China Telecom into six telecom operators; design of the TD-SCDMA 3G standard; and creation of the Ministry of Information Industry (MII). The twin-track strategy involves informatisation as well as industrialisation of the national economy.

“Overall, the Chinese government can be said to have displayed a great deal of vision in its policy of closing the gap with the industrialised countries by placing digital communications technologies at the heart of its development policy,” according to Dai.

The year 2001 was called “China’s Broadband Year” and China is expected to become the world’s third largest broadband market in 2006 (after the US and Japan). China already has the biggest single cable TV market in the world, largest mobile phone network and second largest fixed line telephone network.

Karsten Giese, research fellow at the Institute of Asian Affairs in Hamburg, draws attention to the severe challenges in obtaining reliable and consistent data on Internet usage in China. The semi-official China Internet Network Information Centre (CNNIC) has often released figures based on methodologically questionable and inconsistent surveys.

There is even less reliable data on ICTs in rural China. The digital divide between rural and urban China is in danger of becoming even wider if there is no political will and if pro-active measures to boost ICT infrastructure and literacy in rural areas are not taken, according to Giese.

Gudrun Wacker draws on the theoretical frameworks of Lawrence Lessig, James Boyle and Jeremy Bentham and shows how security agencies in China and commercial actors (foreign and domestic) are working together to create sophisticated surveillance technologies and measures for the Internet – thus challenging those believers of technological determinism who are of the opinion that the online medium operates irrespective of political context.

Contrary to prior expectation, the Chinese state is in no danger of being “eroded” by the tidal wave of ICTs. Through regulations, social norms, market forces and the architecture of Internet infrastructure in China, monitoring and control of Internet traffic is possible.

Wacker shows how it has been possible in China to carry out Internet censorship by listing the types of content access and publication that are forbidden in China, controlling licenses issued to cybercafes, storage of ISP data, surveillance units, penalties for violators, and blockage of “offensive” Web sites.

“This involves a complex interplay between the state and the key commercial actors in the sector, namely ISPs, ICPs and the official media,” according to Wacker. “This does not mean that the Internet is politically irrelevant, just that it is not likely to be the cause of significant social change. The limits of toleration are being constantly tested and re-negotiated.”

Ngai-Ling Sum, lecturer at the University of Lancaster, covers the politics of “siliconisation” (adopting models based on Silicon Valley) in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and southern Mainland China. Regional players are shaping their “techno-economic identities” in different ways: Hong Kong as a logistical, financial and digital centre; southern China as a collection of science and technology parks; and Taiwan as a key part of a “Silicon Bridge” to California.

Challenges will arise in the thorny political relationship between Taiwan and China as Taiwanese companies – major global players in manufacture of laptops and desktops – continue to move operations to mainland China.

Junhua Zhang, lecturer at the Free University of Berlin, shows how the convergence between computer, telecommunications and cable TV networks is generating turf wars between the Ministry of Information Industry (MII) and the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT). The stakes involved range from lucrative economic gains to control over crucial content and propaganda functions. Turf wars are also breaking out between local and central ICT infrastructure players.

Christopher Hughes and freelance journalist Monika Ermert address the challenges that China faces in controlling Internet domain names (.cn), in a system that originated in and is still dominated by the US. Momentum is building up in Asia and other parts of the world for ending the “linguistic hegemony” and creating domain names in languages and scripts other than English. Disputes have already arisen between China on the one hand and ICANN and VeriSign on the other, over domain name registrations and standards for Chinese names.

Christopher Hughes rounds off the volume by addressing the threats that China perceives via excessive reliance on foreign – largely US – technology and standards. China perceives the Information Age as consisting of information hegemons, information sovereign states, and information colonial/semi-colonial states.

The new “smokeless war” involves technology components like serial numbers on PC chips, proprietary operating systems which can transmit PC information to other Web sites, and tactics for cyberwarfare. Past incidents like the Taiwan Straits crisis, attacks on ethnic Chinese in Indonesia, and the US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade have provoked widespread cyberattacks on Web sites of both sides of the conflict.

At the same time, however, the Chinese military-industry nexus has been more than willing to partner with US and European technology firms to create Internet-based surveillance systems (the “Golden Shield”). China has also been able to exert pressure on Western media moguls like Rupert Murdoch to ban the BBC from StarTV services for China and North Asia.

“Seen from the longer historical perspective of Chinese nation-building, policymakers in the PRC thus face the task of harnessing the forces that are generated by economic and technological globalisation in ways that buttress national information security rather than erode it,” Hughes concludes.


Madanmohan Rao is editor of “The Asia-Pacific Internet Handbook” and can be reached at madan@inomy.com

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