Often restrained in its enthusiasm for Western suitors, China has fallen in love with the Internet. Not only is the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) hailing the Internet's vast commercial potential, but it is also successfully exerting state control over the Chinese Web and its use. Recognizing that an unregulated network would shift power from the state to citizens by providing an extensive forum for discussion and collaboration, Beijing has taken care to prevent this commercial gold mine from becoming political quicksand. But a victory over cyberspace cannot be decisive, because the Internet cannot deliver its full commercial benefits under strict political control.
It will be some time, however, before the Internet becomes a political threat in China. In the near term, the Internet may in fact strengthen the party. The CCP's popularity now so depends on economic growth that its leaders are safer with the Internet than without it. And their three-part strategy for maintaining authority in a networked society -- by providing economic growth and some personal freedoms, managing the Internet's risks, and harnessing its potential -- will be effective for some time. The power shifts wrought by the Internet will surface clearly only during an economic or political crisis in a future China where the Internet is far more pervasive. At that time, the Internet will fuel discontent and could be the linchpin to a successful challenge to party rule.
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China embraced the Internet later than did most developed nations, but it is quickly catching up. According to the state-affiliated China Internet Network Information Center, China's on-line population has mushroomed from fewer than one million users in 1997 to more than 22 million today, and some predict that number will rise to more than 120 million by 2004. Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) technology could rapidly boost the on-line population by bringing the Internet to China's nearly 70 million cellular phone users; connections through cable to the 100 million cable TV customers are also currently in trials.
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