SCMP Monday, July 23, 2001

China's future caught in the Web


Speculation over the political effects of the Internet on the mainland seems to be growing, with policymakers, politicians, reporters and analysts all offering their own two-cents' worth.
Some argue the Internet will dramatically shift power to the Chinese people by allowing them to organise and by channelling information from outside, especially about democracy and better standards of living.
Others say that because the Chinese Government can control aspects of Internet use and content, because few mainland citizens have Internet access, and because even fewer are interested in subversive information, the Internet is unlikely to have any significant effect.
Yet others argue the Internet's most important impact will be its delivery of information to Chinese about events within China, especially during crises.
Although all of these arguments are plausible, there has been little quantitative data to support any of them. Only the China Internet Network Information Centre, whose methods have been criticised, and market-research firms, whose interest is commercial, have conducted user surveys.
But now, academic institutions based in China and many other countries are undertaking quantitative research that will add meat to the bones of these arguments. A new study by Guo Liang and Bu Wei, researchers at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) in Beijing, is one of the first to try to assess the Internet's effects on Chinese society and politics.
The CASS study, which carefully analyses Internet users in five cities on the mainland, confirms the demographic findings of market-research surveys that Net users tend to be relatively young, educated, wealthy, single and male. But the study reaches beyond this basic data and, taken as a whole, seems to suggest the Internet might play a role in China's political dynamics.
The study found that users regard the Internet as a political instrument. Sixty-seven per cent of adult users agree the Internet allows people the opportunity to comment on government policies. Moreover, more than 70 per cent agree the Internet allows people to "express their political views" and to learn about politics. Not surprisingly, the Internet won out over other media as a forum to express opinions of any kind.
The study showed that users also rely on the Net as a primary source of information. More than half those surveyed said they used the Net to find news. It is fair to conclude that many Chinese are getting a different point of view on current events than what the state-controlled media presents, given that users spend significant portions of online time, 24 per cent for adults and 40 per cent for teenagers, visiting sites based outside the mainland, including those in Hong Kong, Taiwan and English-language sites in the United States and elsewhere.
How much users trust new points of view is a different matter. News Web sites scored lower than the traditional state-controlled CCTV and newspapers, and foreign news sites scored lower than state-media Web sites when users were asked how much they trusted the sources. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that in particular cases, state-media accounts can be discredited.
For example, in the case of the school blast in Jiangxi province in March, which killed 38 children, local officials and media blamed a suicide bomber. But regional journals and Web sites printed the account of parents who claimed the real cause was firecrackers their children were forced to make to supplement the school's income. Because they read, believed and discussed these alternative accounts in Internet chat rooms, Chinese citizens were able to generate enough publicity that Premier Zhu Rongji issued a rare apology, promising to investigate.
The most ambitious portion of the CASS study tries to measure "openness". Will an "open technology", as the researchers have described the Internet, make people more open? Their results found a clear correlation between Internet users and open-mindedness as they defined it.
Users were far more likely than non-users, for example, to want to get to know people from different backgrounds, to want to have discussions with those who hold different views and learn new things. They were more likely to disagree with the statement that "I only want to be friends with those who share my ideas", and agree with the proposition that "I can understand those who have sex-change operations".
Only with data from future years will the CASS study be able to assess whether using the Internet causes people to be open-minded or whether open-minded people seek out the Internet, but either way, the study suggests that citizens using the Web are relatively receptive to new ideas and points of view. This research supports the anecdotal evidence from the Jiangxi incident that the Internet could empower people politically by giving them access to new points of view on important events in China, as well as a forum in which to discuss and learn about politics.
We need further research before we can draw any real conclusions about the political effects of the Internet on the mainland, but it is encouraging to see that among all the speculation the serious work has begun.
Nina Hachigian is a senior fellow at the Pacific Council on International Policy in Los Angeles and will become the director of the Centre for Asia Pacific Policy at the Rand Corporation next month.