- The Washington Times - Monday, September 25, 2000

In a country where dissidents risk prison terms for putting up wall posters expressing mild criticism of the government, the arrival of the Internet has made it possible for Chinese to speak out as never before.
"There is one thing I have always wanted to say," reads a recent posting on a U.S.-based Chinese-language Web site, addressed to President Jiang Zemin and accessible to millions of Chinese readers.
"That is, we only have the freedom to praise the Chinese Communist Party in mainland China. To criticize it, there's no freedom."
The three-page letter, teeming with strong words and passionate metaphors, asks the president to redefine communism, establish an impeachment system, grant freedom of speech and end economic monopolies.
Similar messages and political jokes are proliferating on the Web and the electronic bulletin boards of Chinese universities as residents of the world's most populous country explore the limits of what can be said.
But the easing of China's strict limits on public speech is not a sudden embrace of Western notions of free speech. Rather, it illustrates a desire of the leadership to cash in on economic globalization and the business growth that the Internet can bring even at the cost of losing its grip on public speech.
"China actually is enthusiastically embracing the Internet, because in various other areas of technological leapfrogging and progress, China has always been behind… . So this time, we're determined not to be left behind," said Zhao Qizheng, chief spokesman for China's State Council, during a visit to Washington in August.
The growth of Chinese Internet use has been rapid. From January 1999 to July 2000, the number of computers wired to the Internet soared from 747,000 to 6.5 million. The number of Internet users rose to 16.9 million from 2.1 million in the same period, according to the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC).
The center, managed by the China Science Academy, has been keeping track of China's Internet development since its establishment in 1997.
"Had it not been for favorable policies, the Internet wouldn't be like this," said Zhang Yuanyuan, a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington. "We see [the Internet] as a very good way of popularizing information and helping our people."
Villagers are peddling family products directly to international buyers on the Web. City youngsters are on line, chatting, playing games and seeking soul mates. Most departments of the central government make announcements and promote their services on sophisticated Web sites.
But political dissidents also have seized on the opportunities, using the Web to disseminate previously unavailable information and, in the process, forcing the mainstream media to deal with issues they never before touched.
They do so at some risk. The government has shut down Web sites and arrested individuals for Internet-related activities inside China. It also has tried to block foreign Web sites and e-mail coming from abroad, setting up a cat-and-mouse game with some of the overseas dissidents.
One such dissident Web site is "Bignews.org," begun in 1997 by Chinese dissidents living in the United States. The title, parodying the name of a publication available only to high-level Beijing officials, focuses on democracy and human rights in China.
The site became inaccessible in China last summer, said Richard Long, the Washington-based founder, who casts himself as "a champion of free speech in Chinese cyberspace."
Mr. Long said the Chinese government blocks links to news sites in Taiwan, Hong Kong and the United States, including the New York Times and The Washington Post.
Yet, Big News has managed to bypass the block. Mr. Long has collected tens of thousands of e-mail addresses in China to which he can send news and commentaries regularly.
He said he believes more than 10 million people in China have access to his e-mail service, and the real number may be even larger because many people share computers at work.
"Our style is to test the limits of the freedom of speech in China," Mr. Long said. "We have a political agenda."
The collection of e-mail addresses is considered subversive by the Communist Party and bears considerable risks, Mr. Long said. Lin Hai, a Chinese software entrepreneur in Shanghai, was sentenced to two years in prison last year for supplying e-mail addresses to Mr. Long's group.
Yet the young, computer-savvy generation in China seems optimistic about free speech.
"We have much more freedom than 10 years ago," said Thomas Zhang, a 24-year-old Chinese studying in Britain who was interviewed on line. "And I'm sure we will have much more 10 years later. The Internet is such a thing that no one can resist it."
Many of the Chinese Web sites feature chat rooms, where topics range from government corruption to youngsters' cohabitation, from the Taiwan issue to Hollywood blockbusters, and from classic literature to modern personal financing.
Crime, official corruption and scandals involving pop stars all are popular fare on Chinese news sites, such as dayoo.com and 21dnn.com, based in Guangdong province and Beijing respectively. The sites usually include articles from major newspapers.
Hurst Lin, a senior official at Sina.com, one of the major Web sites based in California and serving Chinese communities worldwide, said it would be "foolish to expect to say in China what you can say in the United States. [China] has its own limits."
The anonymity of chat rooms makes people feel free to speak their minds, he said, but it also allows them to avoid responsibility.
Besides news, e-commerce is another selling point for China's Web sites.
"Business-to-business," "on-line bidding" and "e-trade" are buzz words in fashion magazines targeted at young urban professionals, both male and female.
Shrewd businessmen see the Internet as an opportunity to expand business. Chao Wang, a professor at Zhejiang University in southeast China, recently used the Internet to bid successfully on a contract with the General Electric Co.
Mr. Wang leads a university laboratory that specializes in commercial applications of fluorescent materials. His market had been limited to Chinese bulb manufacturers until he discovered on-line bidding, which permits potential suppliers and buyers to connect electronically.
"The Internet is amazing," said Mr. Wang, who was interviewed in Zhejiang by e-mail. "It gives a breakthrough in our market, and we've made ourselves known."
Major Web sites in China also offer services such as on-line shopping, hotel reservations and job searching. Addresses such as 163.net and 263.net promote themselves as e-commerce sites.
Overseas, one of the most popular Chinese-language Web sites is www.Sina.com, a California-based joint enterprise between a U.S. company and a Chinese computer firm.
It has over 7 million registered users worldwide and racks up 34 million page views on an average day, according to Sina.com's statistics.
These and other on-line companies seeking to serve the Chinese market find their greatest obstacle is the lack of financial infrastructure in a country where credit cards and personal checks are alien to most people.
Nationwide bank networks are still under development and are not yet ready to handle large-scale on-line trading.
E-commerce in China "is in an early stage," said Mr. Lin, the U.S. general manager of Sina.com. "But it is important to be the No. 1 player," he said by telephone from California.
Most Chinese still prefer to pay in cash when a product ordered on line arrives at the doorstep, especially when the cost is more than $120, according to a recent survey by the CNNIC.
That, in turn, has limited e-commerce by forcing some companies to restrict sales to an immediate urban area. A note on a site saying, "Only Beijing patrons, please" is not unusual.
The CNNIC reported that only 16 percent of the people it surveyed had ordered products on line and just 8 percent said they had auctioned or bid in cyberspace. Yet the respondents judged on-line shopping to be the most promising service on the Internet.
Mr. Zhang, the spokesman at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, said Chinese are slow to give up the traditional way of transaction.
"It is only in the past couple of years that we have started to see supermarkets and consumer-friendly shopping centers," he said. "E-commerce is very new." For now, the Internet is a luxury in China, used only by an estimated 17 million people in a population of 1.26 billion.
The CNNIC survey also found that Chinese Internet users were overwhelmingly male, young and highly educated.
Many prospective users stay off the Internet or limit their use because of the fees charged by Internet service providers. Computers themselves, at prices of $1,000 and more, cost more than an average citizen's annual income, which ranges from $720 in the cities to $365 in the countryside, according to the China Statistical Abstract compiled by the China's Census Bureau.
China's telecommunications infrastructure also needs development, with just 13 phone lines for every 100 people, according to a report by the Ministry of Information Industry in March. In major cities, the figure is 28.4 phone lines per 100 people.
Regular net users told CNNIC their biggest frustration was lack of speed and high connection fees. Nearly 70 percent said they would prefer to pay no more than $40 a month for Internet service.
Mr. Zhao, the State Council spokesman, identified three problems with China's Internet during his Washington visit.
"One is limited bandwidth," he said, noting that China's capacity is only a tiny fraction of U.S. standards. "Chinese-language content is only about 3.8 percent of what's on the Internet. People's understanding about the Internet is still relatively shallow."
Whatever the problems, many believe there can be no turning back for China from the Internet age.
"There'll be bumps and conservative forces would say it's going too fast," said Mr. Lin at Sina.com. "But the future is bright. More and more people are getting onto the Net. The Net is global, and you can't shut people out of it."

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