The Race to Consolidate Power and Stave Off Disaster
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.
LOVE AT FIRST SITE
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.
As in the United States and Europe, companies in China have been wearing ".com" (or ".com.cn") behind their names as a badge of modernity. Although the Chinese Web is still relatively small (30,000 sites, according to some official estimates), more than half a million domain names are registered, and new sites come on-line continuously, offering content nearly as diverse and unpredictable as that on the English-language Web. In Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong, Web-related advertising plasters every visible surface: buses, billboards, and stadium walls. And Internet cafes flourish in all the major cities.
Contrary to many Western media portrayals, factions of the Chinese government at the central, provincial, and local levels are actually encouraging much of this activity. The CCP-controlled media tout the Internet, and leaders routinely emphasize the importance of the "knowledge economy."
And the government practices what it preaches. The "Government On-line" initiative, launched in 1998, aimed to ensure that 80 percent of all government agencies -- local and national -- had Web sites by the end of 2000. The Ministry of Information Industry (MII), China's powerful network regulator, has insisted that the major telecom provider, state-owned China Telecom, lower its access charges, which have dropped to less than a third of 1997 prices. China Telecom is also adding two million new lines each month to meet the surging demand for network access. Moreover, officials are encouraging the competing state-owned telecommunications providers, China Unicom, China Mobile, China Netcom, JiTong, and China Railway Telecom, to build their own networks. Government-funded technology parks provide low-cost homes for Internet start-ups, and Beijing offers tax breaks for high-tech firms.
Why, given the political risks, is the government promoting the Internet? Its decision originated in 1978, when, in leading China's opening to the West, Deng Xiaoping replaced ideology with economic growth as the cornerstone of future party legitimacy. Since then, Western influences have multiplied, the grip of communist dogma has weakened, and growing numbers of citizens have learned about the higher quality of life in other countries. The continued power of the CCP thus depends heavily on its ability to improve standards of living.
China's leaders have witnessed the Internet's impact on American, European, and other Asian economies and realize that no other economic model offers a more promising future. As the country's exposure to the global economy grows, soon to be accelerated by membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO), Chinese businesses must embrace new technologies simply to stay competitive. They need access to market information and, if not wired, risk being shut out of the increasingly Internet-based supply chains of foreign buyers such as American retail giant Wal-Mart. The Internet sector also promises to attract valuable foreign capital and accompanying technology. Initial public offerings (IPOS) of Chinese Web companies on nasdaq raised more than $400 million between July 1999 and July 2000, though recent market volatility has slowed this trend. The potential efficiencies of e-commerce are also compelling. And industries once practically nonexistent in China, such as the travel industry, are developing directly on-line.
So far, then, the economic evidence only reinforces the wisdom of China's decision to welcome the Internet. China's information technology (IT) sector has been growing at three times the rate of the overall economy, and faster than any other industry.
Beijing even hopes the Internet will reform bloated state-owned enterprises (SOES). The government has pushed soes toward e-commerce, sponsoring Web sites that sell excess inventory and equipment. Beijing's "Enterprise On-line" initiative, launched in July 2000, aims to put seven million Chinese businesses, including many soes, on the Web by the end of 2002. The most formidable challenge will be bringing the Internet to small and medium-sized enterprises -- 99 percent of China's companies -- half of which do not even own a computer.
Officials are also encouraging the it industry because they see an opportunity to enrich both themselves and the state. Telecommunications revenues, which increased by more than 20 times in the 1990s, flowed almost exclusively to the state. Money from IPOS of state-owned telecommunications providers pours into state coffers as well. The success of China Unicom's debut, which raised a record $4.9 billion on the Hong Kong and New York stock exchanges, may be dwarfed by China Telecom's listing planned for later this year.
Though official policy dictates a formal separation of regulators from the regulated, many government entities invest directly or indirectly in the it sector. New state-invested Web sites are announced regularly. Private companies seek government partnerships because they provide political cover and make it easier to pry capital from state-owned banks.
Finally, the Internet is essential to realizing the leadership's -- and the Chinese people's -- desire for China to retake its proper world standing as a modern, advanced, powerful nation. As one senior government official put it, "we in the government think we missed a lot of the industrial revolution. And we don't want to miss this revolution." China is determined not to be left behind by neighbors India, South Korea, Japan, and Singapore, which are working diligently to integrate it into their economies.
A SUCCESSFUL COURTSHIP
In the near term, the Internet affair will not jeopardize CCP rule. First, network technology is not yet widely affordable or available. Only slightly more than one and a half percent of the Chinese population use the Internet, fewer than two percent own computers, and only about ten percent even have telephones. Even in cities, Internet accounts are an expensive luxury and access is slow. And WAP technology will bring only an anemic version of the Internet to cell phones, at least in the near future.
More important, the CCP's three-part network-control strategy is working. The first goal is to ensure a pacified populace by meeting citizens' desires for economic growth and some personal freedoms. China's leaders are wagering that people buying their first cars or hoping to list start-ups on the NASDAQ will not tolerate the chaos that has historically accompanied forced political transition. And in fact, surveys have shown that over the 20 years since Deng began emphasizing the economy along with ideology, average Chinese have become more concerned with their own families' well-being and less interested in politics. To nurture a market economy the CCP must allow its citizens the autonomy necessary to expand private enterprise. These days, most people can work, travel, speak privately, and surf the Web with relative freedom. In turn, this personal latitude may give citizens fewer incentives to challenge the government.
Second, Beijing is taking active steps to manage the potential negative consequences of the Internet. Many government entities are involved in Internet regulation. Because the Internet defies the neat categories that the Chinese bureaucracy needs to assign problems to one department or another (implicating security, the economy, society, and culture) and because it is a potential source of revenue for ministries, a turf battle has grown among and within government bodies. The coming convergence of Internet, wireless, and cable technologies will only exacerbate such tensions. Perceptions of the Internet also vary. Predictably, the security forces view the Internet as a major threat. Others in government, including members of the leadership, would prefer to cultivate the industry, especially domestic players, subject to constraints.
These intragovernmental squabbles are producing a growing thicket of regulations. To take just a few, last year the Ministry of Culture barred foreign-invested Web sites from selling audio or video products, the Ministry of Education required preauthorization of on-line schools and education portals, and the State Press and Publishing Bureau demanded that book retailers obtain licenses to operate on-line. The substantial body of laws that has resulted -- many of which are either never enforced, enforced selectively, or actually in conflict with one another -- is inconsistent with China's stated desire to promote the rule of law and creates a nebulous legal environment that scares off investors. But the uncoordinated rush to regulation does serve the government's control agenda: the resulting rules create the maximum possible scope of official authority.
The Chinese government's nearly unlimited legal discretion allows it to take specific steps to manage the Internet's potential risks. Foremost, officials are working to ensure a large Chinese-language Web with "safe" content. A physical measure they take is to place blocks on some pornographic and political sites hosted overseas. Though these barriers have proven leaky, they remain useful in deterring casual surfers.
However, the self-censorship that the regime promotes among individuals and domestic Internet content providers (ICPS) is the primary way officials control what Chinese viewers see. Regulations released in January 2000 prohibiting the on-line transmission of "state secrets" serve as a useful catchall for limiting content, as do extensive regulations issued in October prohibiting content that subverts state power, "disturbs social order," undermines reunification efforts with Taiwan, spreads rumors, "preaches the teachings of evil cults," distributes "salacious materials," dispenses pornography, slanders others, or harms the "honor" of China. On-line news is strictly corralled as well: November regulations emphasize that sites publishing news must obtain special licenses, may never generate their own content, and instead may only republish stories from official sources.
If aggressively enforced, Internet regulations could span virtually the full breadth of ICP activity, and the ICPS are aware that security forces can shut them down for some offense at any time. Thus they carefully comply with content standards so as not to draw the attention of authorities. "There are some issues the government has no sense of humor about," one Web developer remarked, "and we just stay away from those." Some sites hosting chat rooms employ monitors known as "big mamas" to delete explosive content; others run software that deletes key terms. The October regulations formalized a requirement that ICPS save content from their sites for 60 days to turn it over to investigators if asked. Well-publicized arrests reinforce self-censorship.
The government's policy of regulating the Internet by encouraging Chinese ICPS to censor themselves is effective, as these ICPS largely dominate the mainland China Web. Because they advertise in China, are praised in the traditional media, and cater to mainland customers, their sites remain more popular than those of offshore providers. In addition, connections to the China-only Intranet -- created in part to isolate users from spiritual pollution -- are often cheaper. Two recent surveys showed that eight or nine of the ten most popular Web sites among mainland Chinese are mainland-based.
Beijing is also flooding the Internet with its own content. "Government On-line" has put more than 3,000 government departments on the Web, giving the government nearly one-tenth of all mainland sites. Even small rural counties maintain home pages to attract foreign investment. State funding of many commercial Web sites, including those of official news agencies, ensures additional sanctioned content. Chinese dissidents claim they are regular targets of government disinformation campaigns on the Net, and e-mail could provide officials a new channel to communicate nationalist or pro-CCP messages.
Moreover, when subversive messages do sneak on-line, the CCP's tight control over traditional media can help dilute or contradict them. For instance, despite ample evidence on Western and Asian news sites about Slobodan Milosevic's aggression against the Kosovars, the official press helped to persuade most Chinese that NATO's 1998 bombing campaign unfairly targeted innocent Serbs.
Beijing is also engaged in a delicate dance with foreign investors, the in-laws of the Internet marriage. On the one hand, foreign ownership erodes state authority over business and allows profits to migrate abroad. On the other hand, the Internet industry is promising precisely because it attracts economy-fueling foreign direct investment, some $150 million to date, which is especially welcome because China lacks a venture-capital tradition.
Not surprisingly, then, the government has tolerated foreign investment but retains the regulatory power to nullify arrangements at will. Though all foreign investment in ICPS has been officially prohibited, the ban was enforced only when foreign-invested Chinese ICPS applied for permission to list themselves on foreign stock exchanges. To obtain permission to go public, established portals had to restructure, but dollars continued to flow to young firms. The October regulations specifically require ICPS to obtain MII permission before striking deals with foreign investors. China has, however, pledged that once it accedes to the WTO, it will allow foreign investment of up to 49 percent in "basic" telecommunications services and 50 percent in "value added" services, including Internet content. Protectionist impulses and security concerns, however, will keep the parameters of investment muddy for some time.
Along with self-censorship and regulation, physical force and intimidation also play a continuing role in Internet management in China. Force both induces self-policing and backs up the regime's pacification strategy for those who openly challenge the party. The spiritual group Falun Gong and others can organize by e-mail, but that does not make adherents invisible at police checkpoints or impervious to beatings and imprisonment when they arrive to protest.
Security forces are also expanding and honing their high-tech capabilities. All levels of government are training cyber-police, and experts report that Ministry of Public Security (MPS) "computer supervision and monitoring units," based in every provincial capital and most large cities, now number in the hundreds. The October regulations require ISPS (most of which are part of China Telecom anyway) to keep records of all subscribers' names, account numbers, and the phone numbers from which they dialed into the Internet. As more powerful e-mail filters such as the FBI's Carnivore develop, police will be better equipped to detect subversive activity. But for now, because digital communication is too massive and anonymity remains easy, security forces tend to rely on traditional investigative methods and usually monitor on-line activity only after a suspect is targeted.
Over the past three years, as Internet users have multiplied, cyber-police have stepped up their prosecution of Internet content violations. Democracy organizers, human-rights activists, Falun Gong members, scholars, and other dissidents have been arrested for on-line crimes. In October, for example, writer Qi Yanchen was sentenced to a four-year prison term for "subversion" in his print and on-line articles advocating political reform.
Security forces find targets abroad as well. Computer operators traced to the mps have attacked and crashed foreign Falun Gong Web sites in several countries. And when then Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui announced in 1999 that Taipei should deal with Beijing on a "state-to-state" basis, 20 Taiwanese government Web sites came under attack. Taiwanese military analysts claimed the hackers were both Chinese civilians and People's Liberation Army specialists.
MARRIAGE OF CONVENIENCE
Although they recognize and try to manage the risks of the Internet, "officials in Beijing believe that an adequately designed network will serve first and foremost the interests of the central government," according to consultant Peter Lovelock of Madeforchina, a company that provides interactive marketing and consulting services to clients in China. Indeed, the central government is using the Internet's infrastructure to improve its own administrative control over provincial and local officials, and thus over the economic growth that the Internet and an open economy will generate. In 1994, it launched 13 "Golden Projects" to meet this aim. "Golden Card" will establish a national banking exchange to tie all banks to the People's Bank of China, enable a national ATM and credit card system, and provide Beijing with information about the activities of local branches. Premier Zhou Enlai recently urged government operatives to speed up implementation of "Golden Customs," which will automate customs procedures for maritime imports, and "Golden Tax," a system designed to make local tax bureaus more accountable by electronically connecting their value-added tax records to the State Administration of Taxation. Reports suggest that Beijing is also now investing in "Golden Shield," a computer network linking national and local police agencies nationwide. Even simple e-mail could help eliminate the once persistent problem of provincial ministry offices claiming central directives were lost in the mail.
In the near term, these measures -- fostering a network economy, regulating Internet content and punishing violators, mediating ownership, and harnessing the network for government use -- will enable Beijing both to capitalize on the Internet's economic benefits and to counter its risks. As long as control efforts are directed at political content and not on-line commercial activity, they are unlikely to dampen the enthusiasm of entrepreneurs and investors. But total control of today's vast, borderless, redundant cyber-architecture is not possible. In the long run, therefore, the Internet has the potential to aid those who would challenge the CCP.
To a large degree, the Chinese government cannot direct how willful surfers use the Internet. Although self-censorship is largely effective for mainland sites, the government cannot stop someone determined to explore cyberspace beyond China's borders. And once connections to the Web are permitted, blocks of foreign sites must be piecemeal because information is stored without order, and without central control, in computers around the world. The Web is like a train carrying millions of passengers -- scientists, porn stars, doctors, dissidents -- sitting randomly throughout the cars. The only way to sort them is to stop the train, have inspectors climb aboard while everyone waits, and throw the undesirables off one by one. With more than four million individual Web sites globally and some estimated two billion Web pages in the world, blocking just the most egregious content is an overwhelming task. Even during last year's crackdown on the Falun Gong, a Waco, Texas, site carrying Falun Gong material remained accessible in China. On a given day, "savetibet.org" is blocked but "freetibet.org" is not. Comprehensive monitoring of the more than 20 million e-mail messages sent per day in China is also unfeasible. The best authorities can do is target certain individuals or keywords.
Because the Internet offers multiple paths to any destination, surfers can circumvent the barriers even when the Chinese government does block individual sites. In 1999, a Chinese newspaper's report on how to use proxy servers for "faster" connections taught readers how to reach banned material. (Proxy servers allow access to blacklisted sites by laundering requests for blocked Web sites through available ones.) Many computers in Beijing Internet cafes are preconfigured to use proxies. Furthermore, much illicit material is available on "innocent" sites: articles from The New York Times, the site of which is blocked, are carried on other mainstream U.S. sites that are not. Finally, people overseas can always copy information from banned Web sites and send it via e-mail into China.
The more difficult problem of Internet management is that the additional steps Beijing could take to control content would dampen the very commercial benefits that the government hopes for. Forbidding access to Web sites hosted outside China would sharply reduce China's access to global market information and capital flows. Also, speed is critical to business, and blocks on sites slow down the network. Thus, the government's 1996 attempt to build a massive firewall had to be abandoned because it hobbled the whole system. Furthermore, since privacy of financial information is essential for e-commerce, strict regulations on the use of encryption software enacted in late 1999 could not have lasted long and were "reinterpreted" shortly after being introduced. The attributes of the Internet that promote commercial growth -- speed, breadth, and privacy -- improve the Net as a tool for noncommercial purposes as well.
FOR BETTER AND FOR WORSE
These days, as the Chinese economy expands and the political regime remains stable, the lack of total control over the Internet does not pose a critical problem for China's government. The vast majority of Web surfers do not seek to make use of its subversive potential. But that potential exists nonetheless. And if Internet use continues to grow in China, and an economic or political crisis occurs, the Internet will suddenly become both a field and a tool of battle.
The Net cannot create rebellious social forces, of course, but it can nurture and empower those that exist. In any nation, the Internet lowers the costs of information retrieval, duplication, and exchange. But in China -- where information is often impossibly expensive and rights to group communication largely unestablished -- the changes wrought by the information age will be seismic. Control over information will slowly shift from the state to networked citizens, and virtual public spaces will allow many to communicate at once.
The Internet's ability to provide a flood of new ideas makes it the most formidable challenge yet to a key source of power, one practiced by Chinese governments for centuries: the power to shape public opinion in a way that leads citizens to accept the CCP's political legitimacy. The Internet continues the pluralizing process that other mass media -- radio, TV, phones, and fax machines -- started. These technological advances have all been slowly making it more difficult to control public discourse and thought through a consistent barrage of state propaganda and a complete intolerance of alternative viewpoints.
More readily than previous technologies, the Internet offers probing viewers access to particular kinds of information that the CCP finds threatening. Though censored, both dissident messages and scholarly material critical of the regime increasingly find at least a temporary home in Web pages, e-mails, and on-line bulletin boards. More and more publications offering "subversive" ideas are developing electronic editions. The government is aware of the Internet's broadcast effect: for example, it did not censure Li Shenzhi, a respected intellectual, when he published a critical paper in an academic journal; it took action only after the paper appeared on-line.
Even the spread of simple news stories can be problematic for the party. Once-obscure local tales of scandal are now nationally known because mainland portals pull interesting stories from the only sanctioned source: local, official newspapers. Information about events affecting China is also readily available on Asian and Western news sites. Many in China were able to read the text of Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian's conciliatory inaugural speech, which did not appear in any official publication, on the Internet. Even excerpts from The Tiananmen Papers, which describe the debate among China's leaders over how to address the pro-democracy demonstrations in 1989, were posted on on-line bulletin boards and discussed in chat rooms in China within days, perhaps hours, of their release in the United States. An Associated Press story quoted one Chinese Web surfer's posting -- later deleted -- which said, "To know whether the Tiananmen Papers are true or not, just look at them on an overseas Web site and judge for yourself."
The Internet offers powerful communication channels through which ideas can spread and citizens can mobilize more easily. Hostility toward the government collects and builds in public cyberspace as it cannot in physical China. In chat rooms, many Chinese denounced Beijing's attempts to reduce support for the more pro-independence candidate in the March 2000 Taiwan elections as either too strong or not strong enough. Criticism of China's environmental policy and of corrupt officials also appears regularly in the chat room of the official People's Daily and on university bulletin boards on-line. On-line conversations can be very politically charged, most likely because censors are overwhelmed and unable to delete sensitive content quickly enough. Yet police rarely shut down such chat rooms -- perhaps because they offer officials who lack the benefit of a free media a way to discover what citizens are thinking or because they give elites a sanctioned place for fairly free speech.
The anonymous, fast, and relatively inexpensive communication allowed by the Internet places an unprecedented tool in the hands of the few Chinese now dedicated to political change. E-mail was critical to the growth of the now-outlawed China Democracy Party, for example. Today, anyone in Beijing can anonymously buy a prepaid Internet card and log in with a laptop or surf anonymously at an Internet cafe, and use hard-to-trace, Web-based e-mail under an assumed name. Readily available "anonymizer" and encryption programs offer additional protection. E-mails can replace dangerous personal meetings among dissenters. Furthermore, the instant dissemination of information about a political event to thousands of people can build momentum behind a cause faster than past media ever could.
The borderless nature of Internet technology can also place activists out of the reach of Chinese law enforcement. Many have noted that the Falun Gong organized its April 25, 1999, silent protest of 10,000 people in front of Beijing's Zhongnanhai leadership compound through e-mail, taking authorities completely by surprise. Less reported, but just as crucial, the sect's leaders, now in New York, still organize protests and send e-mail alerts to reporters in Beijing. Activists at the underground dissident journals The Tunnel and VIP Reference forward their reports to hundreds of thousands of Chinese e-mail accounts from the safety of the United States.
In addition to facilitating political dissidence, Internet communication may be slowly helping to cultivate China's nascent civil society. Statistics about this trend are unavailable, but it is clear that China's small number of advocacy groups are increasingly plugging into the network of activists thriving on the Web. Those with niche or discouraged interests, such as the gay community, also coalesce through specialized Web pages and discussion groups. Eventually, these groups, even if informal or apolitical, may begin to serve as counterpoints to government authority.
Finally, the Internet contributes to the people's growing economic independence from the state by expanding the it sector. Salaries are high for the average dot-com employee, never mind the few millionaire entrepreneurs.
In the near term, the Internet's effects will not threaten the CCP's power because the party's management tactics are effective, because only a small proportion of the population is on-line, and because few care to challenge the ruling regime during the present period of economic and political stability. But perhaps five years hence, when one in ten Chinese citizens will have Internet access and virtually everyone will know someone with an account, the shift in information control and communication will have the potential to undermine CCP rule. Exposure to new ideas, new perspectives on government actions, and events in China will have grown. Economic independence from the state will have increased. Connections between citizens will have multiplied. A political or economic crisis in this wired China of the future would unfold differently than it would today.
Consider a hypothetical scenario. The economy hums along, and private businesses flourish. The Internet eventually reaches ten percent of the population. As always, officials at every level take bites of everyone's fortune through taxes, corruption, excessive regulations, and local protectionism. Then the economy dives. Perhaps a crisis over Taiwan or leadership succession shakes people's confidence in the regime and prompts a bank run. Panic spreads quickly, and government measures fail to contain the damage.
To avoid further disrupting the economy -- now heavily reliant on electronic communication -- authorities do not shut down the Internet. Concerned citizens visit foreign Web sites by the millions and exchange e-mails with the diaspora and each other. Officials cannot obscure the truth of events as they once could, and citizens learn about the depth of the crisis, its mismanagement, and the hardship pervading the country. They are emboldened when they learn, as they could not before, that many others share their long-standing resentment of the government, now exacerbated because financial tolls hit harder. With easy organizing on the Internet, encouragement from dissidents and others abroad, and a sensed opportunity, shared frustration and anger turn to protest. Peasants and workers, who already stage regular protests in the thousands, coordinate their efforts and join elites. Citizens monitor how the government responds to those demonstrations as they could not during the protests in Tiananmen Square; they see photographs and video clips posted by ordinary Chinese. News about a violent crackdown travels quickly, triggering protests that eventually grow so large that the party cannot contain them.
This scenario does not describe a certain future and may sound far-fetched because the party's containment strategies are currently working. But it illustrates how the Internet could, during a crisis, unleash discontent in a way never before possible.
Although critics of the CCP may advocate action, the U.S. government should do nothing to boost the pluralizing potential of the Internet in China. The flip side of China's quandary over the Internet is the United States' fortune -- because the Internet is a commercial vehicle, U.S. and other foreign businesses will push for its expansion in China without added incentives. And any suspicion that the United States wants to use the Internet in China for political gain or is working to thwart Chinese domestic government controls will feed conspiracy theories about a U.S. cyber-invasion and generate mistrust. Washington should therefore only continue to do what it is doing already: pushing for high ceilings on foreign investment, assisting in the implementation of WTO rules, and encouraging China to cooperate with the international development of Internet regulatory standards.
A useful measure that a private group could undertake would be to sponsor an Internet commission made up of American, Chinese, and other foreign regulators, industry representatives, and experts. The commission would discuss how to regulate (or, more important, not regulate) the Internet industry in a way that creates an environment supportive of rapid Internet growth and compliant with WTO rules. Its sessions should be framed as mutual problem-solving forums, not as lectures to the Chinese.
The United States should not harbor hopes for Internet-led democratization in China. Even if the Internet does amplify a crisis that leads to the demise of the CCP, democracy -- or even a more tolerant autocracy -- is not a guaranteed or likely outcome in a country with no organized opposition party.
In sum, until a serious political or economic crisis galvanizes antiparty sentiment on a large scale, the CCP leadership's three-pronged strategy of pacifying the populace, managing the negative influences of the Internet, and yoking the power of networking will maintain CCP authority. If those societal pressures do develop, the Internet will unleash them in a way never before possible. But perhaps the CCP will forestall that eventuality by introducing the real political reform that only it, and not the Internet, can offer.
Note: Numbers are end-of-year totals.
Sources: China Internet Network Information Center, BDA China Ltd.