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Fast-growing Internet is China's new 'Democracy Wall'


Economic growth triggers unfettered communication

By Catharin Dalpino

(CNN) -- The expansion of the Internet in China has unmistakable implications for relations between the Chinese citizenry and the state.

Although Internet users make up a slim percentage of the population -- informal estimates put the number of users at up to 7 million -- they are the fastest growing client base in the world. From 1997 to 1998, the number of Chinese users rose by 75 percent.

Economic growth has loosened state control over every aspect of the Chinese media, but the introduction of telecommunications -- the "citizens' media" -- offers the most immediate chance for unfettered communication.

Because technology offers a cloak of anonymity, some Chinese see the Internet as a successor to the Democracy Wall of 1978, when Beijing citizens called for political reform through public notices posted on a university wall in Beijing.

Internet Cafe
An Internet cafe in downtown Shanghai  

The government responded to the threat last year by regulating the Internet and blocking hundreds of sites.

Chinese users quickly learned to circumvent these controls with proxy servers, however, and often relay information too sensitive for China-based sites by e-mail from offshore sites.

The government has also learned to use the Web for its own political and public relations purposes. In July, it set up a site to criticize the Falun Gong movement. Falun Gong members had been using the Internet to publicize the group's teachings and to organize anti-government protests.

The Internet has figured in key issues in China, even when there is no internal debate. After the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia last spring, for example, Chinese hackers broke into the Web site of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and replaced the text with anti-American graffiti.

Apart from thorny issues of freedom of expression, the Chinese government is well aware of the commercial possibilities of the Internet., the Web site operated by the official Xinhua News Agency, set off a frenzy of international speculation when its stock was offered in July.

An even greater international impact is expected once China joins the World Trade Organization and international telecommunications companies have greater access to the Chinese market, effectively ending the state-owned China Telecom monopoly.

Catharin Dalpino is a visiting scholar at the Brookings Institution. From 1993 to 1997 she was U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for human rights.

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