When a Quarter of Humanity Joins the Digital Age

China rushes into computer revolution, altering old ways in a land still new to high-tech

During Feng Jun's childhood in the ancient Chinese city of Xian, like most of his 1 billion compatriots, he did not have a phone or a TV, let alone a computer.

When he was born during Mao Zedong's radical Cultural Revolution, selling so much as a potato on the black market or receiving a letter from abroad could lead to arrest.

Today, two decades after China opened its door to the world and to a market economy, Mr. Feng heads his own computer firm, one of many linking this giant nation to the digital global village.

As one of China's new cyber-rich, Feng drives a German-designed sedan, watches American videodiscs, and surfs the Web. "When I was growing up, I could not imagine that China's opening and the forces of globalization could have advanced so quickly," he says.

"Yet now I believe that within the next decade, every urban Chinese family will own a computer, and the countryside will catch up in the first half of the 21st century," he adds.

Already, China's rush to cyberspace has started a computer revolution that is bombarding the great wall of tradition that for ages cut it off from the rest of the world.

Computer chips are changing everything - from the way Chinese children play to how university students see the world - and are linking the country with trends that ricochet around the globe at ever greater speeds.

In the streets of Beijing, the signs of a new Chinese computer age are visible everywhere:

* School-aged children, engrossed in the latest hand-held electronic game, are scolded by parents for ignoring the swirling waves of pedestrians and cars around them.

* Billboard-sized digital displays dot the Avenue of Eternal Peace at the center of the capital, and broadcast everything from Coca-Cola ads to global news.

* Entrepreneurs carrying palm-sized mobile phones casually use a telecommunications web of fiber-optic cables, satellites, and computers to call partners blocks or continents away.

"Computers are changing the ways Chinese communicate, work, and relax," says Qian Ning, who recently returned from an American university and wrote a bestseller on the experience.

"For Chinese who have never gone abroad, the computer and the Internet can expose them to the rest of the world and open their thinking," he says.

Feng Jun's cyber-journey

Feng Jun is planning his first trip abroad next spring, but he is now using the Web to view many of the cities on his tour of Western Europe. He may soon be able to book his tickets by computer.

When he was a child, the only way for ordinary Chinese to leave China was by slipping past heavily armed guards that lined the country's every border. At that time, Western technology and culture were derided as "bourgeois poison," and even during the country's opening in the early 1980s, Chinese citizens were required to report any contacts with foreigners to the police.

"The computer revolution here is reinforcing China's integration with the world, and most Chinese have more freedom than at any time in the past," says Feng.

Fast start to computer age

"Although the cyber-revolution only began in China three or four years ago, it is taking off at a breakneck speed," says Howard Chan, an American law professor at a university in Beijing.

While personal computers started to trickle into China a decade ago, the estimated sales of three million units this year will triple by 2000, says Mao Wei, director of the China Internet Information Center.

Soon after that, China is likely to overtake Japan as Asia's largest computer market, he predicts. Although computer use is now confined to small, urban oases in the vast desert of the low-tech Chinese countryside, the pockets of the computer-savvy are expected to rapidly expand.

Mr. Mao says the 10,000 Chinese pioneers of cyberspace who used the Internet after its introduction here in 1994 have since grown to half a million. Although that means only 1 in 2,000 Chinese have to date surfed the Web, the rate of growth is enormous.

Other experts here say the computer's infiltration into ever-deeper layers of Chinese society is being fueled by the prosperity that has followed Beijing's abandonment of Marx in favor of free markets.

Feng's unusual start

Just as the computer revolution began creating overnight millionaires in California's Silicon Valley more than a decade ago, China is now giving birth to a new breed of wealthy hi-tech wizards.

When Feng Jun graduated from prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing, many of his classmates thought he was crazy to pass up a job offer at a state-run firm, with guaranteed lifetime benefits, to "dive into the stormy sea" of commerce, he recalls.

Yet five years after staking his future on the fledgling private sector, Feng heads a freewheeling computer firm that scored 30 million yuan (about $3.5 million) in sales this year.

"When I started selling computer keyboards and monitors in 1992, I peddled samples from door to door around the handful of computer companies in Beijing," he says.

Today, Feng's Huaqi Information Technology is just one of the thousands of privately run computer companies that populate the university district of Beijing that is called "China's Silicon Valley."

Feng and others here say the computer revolution is fundamentally changing the role of university graduates on China's social stage.

"For 2,000 years, educated Chinese refused to engage in commerce, and believed that traders belonged in the lowest rungs of society," says Feng.

During Mao's Cultural Revolution, most Confucian ideas and beliefs were wiped out, and many intellectuals were branded the outcasts of communist society, along with evil landlords and traders. China's post-Mao reforms, in turn, initially benefited the country's 800 million peasants, and are only now economically enfranchising the educated elite.

"The rapid rise of computer millionaires in the US, and now in China, is healing this split between learning and profits," says Feng. "For the first time in Chinese history, scholars have the freedom to open private enterprises, and computers are providing the perfect channel for us to excel in the market."

"Not only in China, but across the world," he adds, "it seems we are at the dawn of a new age where scientists can climb to the very peak of society."

Beijing, meanwhile, has used stop-gap measures to slow the advance of computer technology in some areas of society by banning electronic toys from classrooms and blocking some foreign news sites on the Web.

Yet China's technocratic leaders - many of them, like Feng, graduates of Tsinghua - seem to be resigned to the idea that China's growth as a world trading power relies on open access to all types of information.

One professor at Tsinghua says: "While some [Communist] party officials seem to fear increased contacts with the West, others are actively promoting the trend so that China can take its place in the family of great nations."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.