The Chinese Internet in 2014

The beginning of a new year is a good time to look back and reflect upon important events and developments during the past year. Not surprisingly 2014 was an eventful year that kept us doing research on the Chinese Internet on our toes trying to keep up with events, and to understand and analyse their implications. What follows is an attempt to list at least some of these events and developments.

1) A Central Internet Security and Informatization Leading Group was set up in February with President Xi Jinping as its head and Lu Wei as its director. This shows how important the Internet and issues of cybersecurity are for the Chinese leadership.

2) The Chinese Internet turned 20 in April. China was first connected to the world wide web in 1994, and since then the development has been dramatic. Today 632 million Chinese citizens are connected to the Internet, making China home to the largest Internet population in the world in absolute numbers. The Internet penetration rate is 46.9 per cent, which however means that a majority of Chinese citizens still are excluded from the Internet.

00221910dbbd14cad73b01Beijing’s first Internet café in 1997, photo from China Daily. The newspaper published a photo essay illustrating 20 moments in the history of the Chinese Internet.

The 20th anniversary of the Chinese Internet received a lot of attention in both the state media and the more critical commercial media. The Central State Television for example produced a 10-programme series on the age of the Internet, providing viewers with both an account of global Internet history as well as domestic developments. Caijing and many other magazines published special issues outlining the impact of the Internet on Chinese society.

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3) Charges of American surveillance. Cyber-security and charges of hacking and surveillance have been hot issues in Sino-American relations during the past few years. On 26th May, China published a report attacking and denouncing American surveillance, and building on Edgar Snowden’s revelations in 2013. This report came just after the American indictment of five Chinese military officers for hacking into U.S. companies to steal trade secrets.

4) Alibaba, one of China’s Internet giants, started trading on the New York Stock Exchange in September, which shows the global aspirations of Chinese Internet companies.

5) In October Mark Zuckerberg went to China where he gave a talk in Chinese at Qinghua University that was widely circulated on video. While Facebook is blocked in China many Chinese companies and local governments trying to get foreign customers and investors actually use it. However, the future for Facebook in China looks quite uncertain despite this PR trip and Zuckerberg meeting with Lu Wei in the US later during the year. Other international social media sites continue to be blocked in China, including Twitter and Youtube, whereas more international services, including Dropbox, Kakao, and Line also recently have been blocked.

6) The Hong Kong protesters in the fall made good use of the Internet and social media to connect and spread information, amid concerns that the police were tracking their digital footprints, whereas censors on the mainland were busy deleting information and photos of ‘umbrellas’ from the Internet.

7) In November China hosted the World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, a small water town not far from Shanghai. The event gathered some 1000 representatives of Internet companies, officials, and scholars. The conference can be seen as an attempt by China to promote its vision for global Internet governance and become a bigger player, as well as to push its own Internet companies. The international media reports were quite mixed and more critical (see BBC, Bloomberg, and Wall Street Journal).

8) In December Lu Wei, head of the State Internet Information Office since 2013 and director of the leading group under Xi Jinping mentioned above, and thus in charge of China’s Internet policies, went to the US (see this New York Times article) where he met with Mark Zuckerberg and also outlined his views on Internet development and Sino-American relations in Huffington Post. It is obvious that Internet governance and business today is a hot topic in Sino-American relations with Chinese companies like Alibaba going global and China being an important market for American companies such as Apple and others.

9) Crackdown on activists and online speech has continued throughout the year, and according to many human rights organizations worsened with many activists and writers arrested for their writings online. Among those arrested are legal scholar Xu Zhiyong who in April 2014 was sentenced to four years for disturbing order and “public spaces on the internet”. This case and other developments related to freedom of speech is well documented in the Freedom House report , Freedom on the Net 2014, released in December.

10) WeChat (see a short but informative video on Wall Street Journal), discussed also in a previous blog, has continued to dominate the social media landscape in China during 2014. The year has seen even more migration from weibo due to the crack-down in 2013. However, WeChat is not immune to censorship as seen in crack-downs in March and more recently during the Hong Kong protests (see also my briefing for ECRAN). This has meant that public debates have become more muted something the magazine Blog Weekly nicely outlined in its first January issue.

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What is then to be expected in 2015? Well, history teach us that predictions are difficult and best avoided since developments in China often take us with surprise. One prediction that is pretty safe to make is that issues related to global Internet governance, including sovereignty, surveillance and freedom of speech, will continue to be important. In an interesting, and for some perhaps provactive article, in The Guardian, ‘Who’s the true enemy of internet freedom – China, Russia, or the US?’, by Internet scholar Evgeny Morozov, he argues that ‘technological sovereignty is poised to emerge as one of the most important and contentious doctrines of 2015.’ We look ahead to a busy 2015!

 

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