Their Horizons Widening, China’s Web Users Look Abroad — And Want More

Last week, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt urged North Korean leaders to embrace the Internet. Only a small proportion of that country’s 24 million people can access the World Wide Web, and the majority of the 1.5 million mobile phones there belong to political and military elites.

Meanwhile, in China, a country that has embraced the Internet to a much greater extent, the big story was about censorship, both online and off. Reporters and local citizens protested propaganda authorities’ decision to re-write newspaper Southern Weekend’s planned New Year’s editorial on constitutionalism. Discussions about the topic were deleted on China’s microblogs and online forums. As a result, images and wordplay in support of Southern Weekend filled the blogosphere.

In the midst of the hubbub, China Central Television (CCTV), the state-controlled behemoth, filed a report about the state of Internet freedom in North Korea on January 10, and tweeted a summary on Sina Weibo, the leading microblog service provider:

Things that we consider trivial and normal like going online, sending emails, and downloading software on an iPad are considered ‘privileges’ in North Korea. Only a few people are permitted to visit foreign websites because of the needs of their work, and the majority of people can only visit domestic websites. Sending and receiving emails requires an even more complex set of approvals. Even PC tablet devices, which quickly sold out [in North Korea], do not have online capability and cannot download software.

For Chinese social media users, the irony here was too perfect to go unnoticed. @孤翔2012 responded: “In China, too, only the privileged can visit Facebook. Don’t be the ‘pot calling the kettle black.’” In a similar vein, @拉风特产 commented: “Why are we criticizing others when we should be examining ourselves? How many famous global websites are we able to visit? It is embarrassing to say.”

A number of social networking and sharing websites are blocked in China, including Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Wikipedia, and certain Google applications. From time to time, Chinese authorities have also blocked access to news publications in retaliation for unfavorable reporting.

Web users’ responses to the CCTV post comparing China and its Communist neighbor are interesting for two reasons. First, they capture a shifting baseline of comparison, which contribute to peoples’ understanding of themselves and their environment. Second, particularly in the broader context of last week’s Southern Weekend controversy, the responses highlight how patterns of communication are changing. Both have implications for people’s expectations for dialogue and participation.

Shifting Baselines of Comparison

Web users are citizens of the world. They are quick to compare everything from Internet speed to freedom of speech with their international peers. One of the most common complaints in China is about Internet speed. “Damn! Last time I was in the Seoul airport—that was [expletive] fast!” exclaimed @花古朵. “It’s so simple for [other countries’ networks] to exceed China’s Internet speed,” added @亚茉莉. Globalization coupled with the World Wide Web has made the norms of developed countries more apparent than ever to a massive and growing population of Chinese Internet users and, increasingly, to people located in the country’s less developed interior.

The Communist Party and nationalist media take a nuanced approach to international comparisons. The official narrative goes something like this: “China’s progress must be viewed in the context of its unique historical and cultural circumstances. There may be a time and place for unfettered and free flow of ideas, but China has not yet reached that phase of its social development.” This official approach favors selective comparisons. Chinese citizens are urged to take comfort because freedom of expression and the press is relatively greater than it was just decades ago. And, as with CCTV’s report, official media is happy to point out China’s freedom compared to closed societies like North Korea.

Public access to the Internet and social media makes it more difficult for the state to impose this particular perspective. Web users engage with and identify as part of a broader, sometimes international, online community. Although the state would like to measure progress against China’s past—or against less developed, closed countries like North Korea—Chinese gradually have become more critical, more worldly, and more savvy as consumers of information. Instead of looking back and comparing Internet speed or freedom to the China of old, they look around at the state of contemporary global online culture in places like South Korea, Hong Kong, and the U.S.

This is not to say that national identity has weakened. The Chinese government has a propensity to fall back on emotional appeals to nationalism to bolster its message, partly because these appeals often work.

But new media has still shifted citizens’ baseline of comparison. Not surprisingly, social media users essentially refused to compare China and North Korea with a straight face. With biting sarcasm, user @离常草 tweeted, “Whenever you feel frustrated, angry or pained, just look at North Korea, and you’ll find that your lives are full of richness and contentment.” @忧忧秋风 wrote, “CCTV is telling China’s ‘nobodies:’ be satisfied; look at North Korea; you’re experiencing heaven on earth!”

Changing Structures and Modes of Communication

The wit of Chinese social media users deriding the CCTV post on China’s supposed Internet freedom also demonstrates how old patterns of communication are changing. Chinese public preferences are shifting from broadcast media to networked media; with that shift, the expectation for public participation is growing.

Looking back on the events of last week, the mode in which the Southern Weekend scandal was communicated to the Chinese public will likely be considered every bit as important as the content of the New Year’s editorial itself. Knowing well the impact and viral nature of social networking, editors loyal to propaganda authorities took control of the newspaper’s microblogging account not long after the scandal broke. The drama unfolded with dueling tweets. Over the following days, social media users hustled to get ahead of censors and retweet information on the incident, providing a real-time narrative of events.

So perhaps CCTV’s widely-mocked message was not so far off the mark after all. Going online, sending emails, downloading software, and social networking all seem to be morphing into fundamental modes of communication—not “privileges”—for many Chinese.

Over the last several decades, China has realized the market efficiencies that result from joining the global network. With the elimination of its Web controls, it arguably could reap even greater benefits. A Chinese ambassador would doubtless be better positioned than Mr. Schmidt to make the case to North Korea on the positive relationship between economic development and broadband and mobile phone penetration. Before that can happen, however, the disconnect with the Chinese public needs a reboot.