Hogan's Alley

Monday, April 24, 2006

The Internet And The Future Of China

Much has been made lately of Google's kowtowing to the Chinese government's insistence that they be able to block searches for political, religious and other issues the government wants to continue to censor in this brave new medium. The Sunday Times Magazine has an interesting piece on the reality of the internet as it now exists in China, and where it is likely to go.

While much of this article and much of Western focus has been on the inability of Chinese web surfers to access information that might exacerbate hostility to China's authoritarian orthodoxy, the subtle impact of the vast areas of information that remain available has largely been ignored. This point is made at the very end of the article, when the writer, Clive Thompson, reports on a conversation with Ki Fu Lee, Google's man in Beijing:

In the eyes of critics, Google is lying to itself about the desires of Chinese Internet users and collaborating with the Communist Party merely to secure a profitable market. To take Lee at his word is to take a leap of faith: that the Internet, simply through its own inherent properties, will slowly chip away at the government's ability to control speech, seeding a cultural change that strongly favors democracy. In this view, there will be no "great man" revolution in China, no Lech Walesa rallying his oppressed countrymen. Instead, the freedom fighters will be a half-billion mostly apolitical young Chinese, blogging and chatting about their dates, their favorite bands, video games — an entire generation that is growing up with public speech as a regular habit.

At one point in our conversation, Lee talked about the "Super Girl" competition televised in China last year, the country's analogue to "American Idol." Much like the American version of the show, it featured young women belting out covers of mainstream Western pop songs amid a blizzard of corporate branding. (The full title of the show was "Mongolian Cow Sour Yogurt Super Girl Contest," in honor of its sponsor.) In each round, viewers could vote for their favorite competitor via text message from their mobile phones. As the season ran its course, it began to resemble a presidential election campaign, with delirious fans setting up Web sites urging voters to pick their favorite singer. In the final episode, eight million young Chinese used their mobile phones to vote; the winner was Li Yuchun, a 21-year-old who dressed like a schoolgirl and sang "Zombie," by the Irish band the Cranberries.

"If you think about a practice for democracy, this is it," Lee said. "People voted for Super Girls. They loved it — they went out and campaigned." It may not be a revolution, in other words, but it might be a start.

The other big impact of widespread Chinese access to the intenet is the influence of Western culture, but all of it in stolen form. The Chinese users, with no basis for understanding the concept of private property, traffic in pirated versions of Western music, movies and books:

In China, downloading illegal copies of music, movies and software is as normal and accepted as checking the weather online. Baidu's [the leading Chinese search engine] executives discovered early on that many young users were using the Internet to hunt for pirated MP3's, so the company developed an easy-to-use interface specifically for this purpose. When I sat in an Internet cafe in Beijing one afternoon, a teenager with mutton-chop sideburns a few chairs over from me sipped a Coke and watched a samurai movie he'd downloaded free, while his friends used Baidu to find and pull down pirated tracks from the 50 Cent album "Get Rich or Die Tryin'." Almost one-fifth of Baidu's traffic comes from searching for unlicensed MP3's that would be illegal in the United States. Robin Li, Baidu's 37-year-old founder and C.E.O., is unrepentant. "Right now I think that the record companies may not be happy about the service we are offering," he told me recently, "but I think digital music as a trend is unstoppable."
What happens to an ancient authoritarian and socialist culture whose children become used to the anti-authoritarian posture of American rappers who navigate the world in blacked out Esclades? It's not going to be your father's China, that's for sure.