Is China changing the Internet, or is the Internet changing China?

By 2015, the proportion of Chinese language Internet users is expected to exceed the proportion of English language users.

The rising prominence of China is one of the most important developments shaping the Internet. Once typified primarily by Internet users in the US, there are now more Internet users in China than there are Americans on the planet. By 2015, the proportion of Chinese language Internet users is expected to exceed the proportion of English language users. These are just two aspects of a larger shift in the centre of gravity of Internet use, in which the major growth is increasingly taking place in Asia and the rapidly developing economies of the Global South, and the BRIC nations of Brazil, Russia, India—and China.

The 2013 ICA Preconference “China and the New Internet World” (14 July 2013), organised by the OII in collaboration with many partners at collaborating universities, explored the issues raised by these developments, focusing on two main interrelated questions: how is the rise of China reshaping the global use and societal implications of the Internet? And in turn, how is China itself being reshaped by these regional and global developments?

As China has become more powerful, much attention has been focused on the number of Internet users: China now represents the largest group of Internet users in the world, with over half a billion people online. But how the Internet is used is also important; this group doesn’t just include passive ‘users’, it also includes authors, bloggers, designers and architects—that is, people who shape and design values into the Internet. This input will undoubtedly affect the Internet going forward, as Chinese institutions take on a greater role in shaping the Internet, in terms of policy, such as around freedom of expression and privacy, and practice, such as social and commercial uses, like shopping online.

Most discussion of the Internet tends to emphasise technological change and ignore many aspects of the social changes that accompany the Internet’s evolution, such as this dramatic global shift in the concentration of Internet users. The Internet is not just a technological artefact. In 1988, Deng Xiaoping declared that “science and technology are primary productive forces” that would be active and decisive factors in the new Chinese society. At the time China naturally paid a great deal of attention to technology as a means to lift its people out of poverty, but it may not have occurred to Deng that the Internet would not just impact the national economy, but that it would come to affect a person’s entire life—and society more generally—as well. In China today, users are more apt to shop online, but also to discuss political issues online than most of the other 65 nations across the world surveyed in a recent report [1].

The transformative potential of the Internet has challenged top-down communication patterns in China, by supporting multi-level and multi-directional flows of communication. Of course, communications systems reflect economic and political power to a large extent: the Internet is not a new or separate world, and its rules reflect offline rules and structures. In terms of the large ‘digital divide’ that exists in China (whose Internet penetration currently stands at a bit over 40%, meaning that 700 million people are still not online), we have to remember that this digital divide is likely to reflect other real economic and political divides, such as lack of access to other basic resources.

While there is much discussion about how the Internet is affecting China’s domestic policy (in terms of public administration, ensuring reliable systems of supply and control, the urban-rural divide and migration, and policy on things like anonymity and free speech), less time is spent discussing the geopolitics of the Internet. China certainly has the potential for great influence beyond its own borders, for example affecting communication flows worldwide and the global division of power. For such reasons, it is valuable to move beyond ‘single country studies’ to consider global shifts in attitudes and values shaping the Internet across the world. As a contested and contestable space, the political role of the Internet is likely to be a focal point for traditional discussions of key values, such as freedom of expression and assembly; remember Hilary Clinton’s 2010 ‘Internet freedom’ speech, delivered at Washington’s Newseum Institute. Contemporary debates over privacy and freedom of expression are indeed increasingly focused on Internet policy and practice.

Now is not the first time in the histories of the US and China that their respective foreign policies have been of great interest and importance to the other. However this might also be a period of anxiety-driven (rather than rational) policy making, particularly if increased exposure and access to information around the world leads to efforts to create Berlin walls of the digital age. In this period of national anxieties on the part of governments and citizens—who may feel that “something must be done”—there will inevitably be competition between the US, China, and the EU to drive national Internet policies that assert local control and jurisdiction. Ownership and control of the Internet by countries and companies is certainly becoming an increasingly politicised issue. Instead of supporting technical innovation and the diffusion of the Internet, nations are increasingly focused on controlling the flow of online content and exploiting the Internet as a means for gauging public sentiment and opinion, rather than as a channel to help shape public policy and social accountability.

For researchers, it is time to question a myopic focus on national units of analysis when studying the Internet, since many activities of critical importance take place in smaller regions, such as Silicon Valley, larger regions, such as the global South, and in virtual spaces that are truly global. We tend to think of single places: “the Internet”/”the world”/”China”: but as a number of conference speakers emphasised, there is more than one China, if we consider for example Taiwan, Hong Kong, rural China, and the factory zones—each with their different cultural, legal and economic dynamics. Similarly, there are a multitude of actors, for example corporations, which are shaping the Chinese Internet as surely as Beijing is. As Jack Qui, one of the opening panelists, observed: “There are many Internets, and many worlds.” There are also multiple histories of the Internet in China, and as yet no standard narrative.

The conference certainly made clear that we are learning a lot about China, as a rapidly growing number of Chinese scholars increasingly research and publish on the subject. The vitality of the Chinese Journal of Communication is one sign of this energy, but Internet research is expanding globally as well. Some of the panel topics will be familiar to anyone following the news, even if there is still not much published in the academic literature: smart censorship, trust in online information, human flesh search, political scandal, democratisation. But there were also interesting discussions from new perspectives, or perspectives that are already very familiar in a Western context: social networking, job markets, public administration, and e-commerce.

However, while international conferences and dedicated panels are making these cross-cultural (and cross-topic) discussions and conversations easier, we still lack enough published content about China and the Internet, and it can be difficult to find material, due to its recent diffusion, and major barriers such as language. This is an important point, given how easy it is to oversimplify another culture. A proper comparative analysis is hard and often frustrating to carry out, but important, if we are to see our own frameworks and settings in a different way.

One of the opening panelists remarked that two great transformations had occurred during his academic life: the emergence of the Internet, and the rise of China. The intersection of the two is providing fertile ground for research, and the potential for a whole new, rich research agenda. Of course the challenge for academics is not simply to find new, interesting and important things to say about a subject, but to draw enduring theoretical perspectives that can be applied to other nations and over time.

In returning to the framing question: “is China changing the Internet, or is the Internet changing China?” obviously the answer to both is “yes”, but as the Dean of USC Annenberg School, Ernest Wilson put it, we need to be asking “how?” and “to what degree?” I hope this preconference encouraged more scholars to pursue these questions.


[1] Bolsover, G., Dutton, W.H., Law, G. and Dutta, S. (2013) Social Foundations of the Internet in China and the New Internet World: A Cross-National Comparative Perspective. Presented at “China and the New Internet World”, International Communication Association (ICA) Preconference, Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, June 2013.

The OII’s Founding Director (2002-2011), Professor William H. Dutton is Professor of Internet Studies, University of Oxford, and Fellow of Balliol College. Before coming to Oxford in 2002, he was a Professor in the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California, where he is now an Emeritus Professor. His most recent books include World Wide Research: Reshaping the Sciences and Humanities, co-edited with P. Jeffreys (MIT Press, 2011) and the Oxford Handbook of Internet Studies (Oxford University Press, 2013). Read Bill’s blog.