A recent report by the Pew Research Center brought to light the fact that, with an estimated 137 million internet users in China (second only to our more than 165 million estimated users) and a growth rate of tens of millions per year (23% growth in 2006 alone) Chinese users will soon outnumber U.S. users on the Internet, possibly signaling a shifting balance of online power.
The report notes that "because the Chinese share a single written language, despite the multiplicity of spoken tongues, it could have a unifying effect on the country’s widely dispersed citizenry. An expanding internet population might also increase domestic tensions that could spill over into China’s relations with the U.S. and other countries while the difference between Chinese and Western approaches to the internet could create additional sore points over human rights and problems with restrictions on non-Chinese companies."
The report also compared the effort of the Chinese government to bring Internet access to rural communities to the successful mobile phone expansion effort by China Mobile, which resulted in 53 million new subscribers in 2006 (I wonder if they all had to sign up for "five year plans"?)
Above and beyond China's rural/urban divide, even those in the cities who work in technology design/build -- those information workers that you would most expect to be online -- don't necessarily have a clue yet as to what the internet is/does.
Case in point: Andrew "Bunnie" Huang, MIT grad/inventor/manufacturer/technologist extraordinaire, has been writing a blog about his experience working with the Chinese factory workers building his newest device. He tells a story of the top QA engineer's total lack of online experience.
"I asked her if she knew what the world wide web was. She said no.
I asked her if she knew what the internet was. She said no.
I was stunned. Here is a girl who is an expert in building and testing computers -- I mean, on some projects she has probably built PCs and booted Windows XP a hundred thousand times over and over again...yet she didn’t know what the internet was. I had taken it for granted that if you touched a computer today, you were also blessed by the bounties of the internet."
Within China, the Pew study says that maintaining control over Internet content through censorship and monitoring already requires tens of thousands of internet police and "many layers of accountability and potential punishment."
For example, those Chinese ISPs convicted of hosting pornographic sites are in principle eligible for the death penalty. (Contrast that with the rest of the world's ISPs, which seemingly have porn and pills spam built into their license agreements.)
Jokes aside, one has to wonder if these trends will erode what has been up until now firm U.S. control of this vital social/commercial space?
And speaking of "firm control", can Chinese authorities really maintain such a tight grasp on the hearts/minds/other body parts of their huge population despite the destabilizing influence of the Internet?