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Rise of the dragon: China isn't censoring the Internet. It's making it work.

Beijing recently strengthened Internet regulations, particularly on the popular microblogging site Weibo. Critics warn that more government monitoring and self-censorship by hosting companies further violates freedom of expression. The reality is far more complicated.

By George Yeo and Eric X. Li / January 23, 2012

Worshippers mark the first day of the Chinese Lunar New Year – the "Year of the Dragon" – at Longhua Temple in Shanghai early Jan. 23. China has a "parallel" Internet universe to "help maintain social stability despite rapid change," argue writers George Yeo and Eric X. Li.

AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko

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Beijing

The Chinese government recently issued new rules to strengthen Internet regulations. Most notable is the real-name requirement for Weibo (microblog) accounts – China’s equivalent of Twitter. Some Weibo users have attested to an increase in government monitoring and self-censorship by hosting companies. Many are decrying this as China’s further violation of freedom of expression. The reality is far more complicated.

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More than a decade ago, when China’s Internet was in its infancy with a few million users, the government made it clear that it would exercise political oversight on the nascent cyberspace while allowing it to grow. Many experts then predicted that such efforts were doomed to fail. The Internet, they said, was to be a brave new world that could not be controlled. There were only two possible outcomes: a freely expanding Internet beyond the reach of political authority, or an Internet stifled by government control and unable to realize its potential social and economic benefits. Rupert Murdoch famously proclaimed that advances in communications technology posed an “unambiguous threat to totalitarian regimes everywhere.”

Confounding these experts, neither has happened in China. By any standard, the Chinese Internet is one of the most vibrant economic and social cyberspaces in the world. Some 450 million users communicate, transact, and entertain in it. Entrepreneurial companies have created tens of billions of dollars in economic value. China’s search engine, e-commerce, and online video businesses are among the world’s leading companies.

On Taobao, China’s eBay, millions of mom-and-pop shops are conducting billions of dollars of transactions per month. On QQ and Sina, the two largest Weibo services, 200 million users are active – expressing their views on anything and everything from sex to official corruption.

Concurrently, a massive government-directed monitoring system combined with self-regulation by hosting companies makes China’s Internet highly controlled by political authority. Facebook and Twitter are banned while their domestic versions flourish. In a well-publicized spat with the government, Google’s search presence was curtailed while its other businesses have continued. When social crises occur, keyword barriers are erected to prevent amplifications that threaten stability.

China’s size and its centralized governance have enabled the creation of a parallel Internet universe connected to and separate from the one outside. There are leaks, and many virtual private networks are available. Minor leaks are ignored. When leaks become important, they are plugged, and sometimes bluntly. When the Jasmine Revolution became an issue, search engines simply blanked out the word “jasmine.” However, it is a mistake to think that all the regulators do is censor.

China is pursuing a distinctive response to the Internet. Nearly half a century ago, at the onset of the information revolution, a pioneering thinker on the cyberspace, Norbert Wiener, authored an influential book entitled “Cybernetics.” Mr. Wiener separated human responses to new challenges into two types: ontogenetic and phylogenetic. Ontogenetic activities are organized and carried out through centrally designed institutions to shape the development of society.

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