TOPICS: China’s growing control over cyberspace

One of the more intriguing - and under-reported — developments of the week was the announcement that the Brown government plans to boost the teaching of Mandarin in UK schools. Creating the training and support infrastructure to translate this aspiration into reality will not be easy, but the idea is a very good one — and not just because today’s schoolchildren will grow up in a world dominated by Chinese economic power. They will also have to adjust to a world influenced by the ‘soft’ (i.e. cultural) power, an inescapable accompaniment to economic dominance.

In this context, China’s approach to the net raises intriguing questions. The regime is embarked on a massive social experiment: the rulers believe you can have economic liberalisation without political freedom. Conservatives of all stripes believe that this is not possible: in their view, an open society is a prerequisite for a vibrant capitalism. You can’t have the latter without the former, and the Chinese Communist party will have to accept that.

The rest of us are less sanguine. China’s rulers have shown every sign of being able to have their cake and eat it — at least as far as the internet is concerned. Chinese use of the network is growing like crazy, but the government has proved very adept at ensuring that the freedoms regarded by libertarians as intrinsic to cyberspace are not available to the average Chinese user. The country maintains a massive online policing operation and runs the finest firewall that money can buy. It thus provides a daily refutation of the myth that the internet cannot be controlled by governments.

So it’s not surprising that most public discussion in the West about the internet in China has been dominated by civil liberties. But there’s more to Chinese cyberspace than that, which is why the most interesting publication of the week was an essay by Deborah Fallows published by the Pew Internet and American Life project. Entitled ‘China’s Online Population Explosion’, it surveys what’s happening behind the Great Firewall and ponders the implications both for the Chinese and for the rest of us.

First, the numbers. China has 137 million users (compared with about 190 million in the US), but the online population is increasing at such a rate that in about two years

there will be more Chinese than Americans on the net. Fallows thinks that widespread internet use will have a unifying effect on a society currently divided by many spoken languages but which has only one written one.

What will be the impact on the rest of us? Will Chinese become the lingua franca of the web? Hard to say, but major change seems inevitable. The internet was shaped by history and its original demographics: it came from the US and has largely been shaped by American values. Two decades from now, its demographic profile will be radically different. Which is why it makes sense to teach Mandarin to our kids. And if there’s an option to study Chinese culture too, make sure they sign up for it. — The Guardian