Internet genie out of the bottle in ever changing China

08:41, May 05, 2010      

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It's always been amazing to me how quickly China changes.

Every time I leave Beijing for more than a few weeks, there are always noticeable differences.

A favorite restaurant vanishes along with the surrounding buildings. What is true in the physical world is also true in the virtual one. And therein lie some opportunities and dangers for both individuals and the Chinese government.

It wasn't too many years ago that there was no Internet in China. Then came dial-up connections. The speed of both connecting and uploading and downloading data, was glacial. The reliability of continuous connectivity was low and frustrations were high.

Now we live in a world of ADSL and other high speed broadband connections. About 384 million Chinese are now online, and 233 million mobile phones can connect to the Internet.

It should come as no surprise then that the global public relations firm Fleishman-Hilliard reported that China is on its way to becoming the "guiding light of the digital world."

Indeed in every one of five usage areas tracked by the firm's Digital Influence Index - commerce, communications, mobility, publishing and research - China is the leader.

The average Chinese consumer spends 34 hours a week using all forms of media and more than half of this time is devoted to either e-mail or the Internet. According to the Boston Consulting Group, only the Japanese spend more time online.

For the government, this is both good and bad news. By one estimate there are nearly 58 billion pages on the World Wide Web. These contain the good, the bad and the ugly.

Like it or not, however, this is not your grandfather's new information age where the Chinese media consisted of State-owned print and electronic media. The genie is out of the bottle and can't be put back inside.

So even though accesses to sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are sometimes denied, robust discussions still take place on, and of course QQ.

In my view, China becoming the "guiding light of the Internet world" gives the government new tools to help it both serve the people and build a more harmonious society.

The Internet provides an easy means of communicating with Chinese citizens. To be effective, however, these need to be interactive: working both top down and bottom up.
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