Happiness on the Chinese Internet

When the global information revolution caught fire in China in 1998, President Bill Clinton was utterly giddy. The Internet, he proclaimed, would be a harbinger of Chinese democracy.

Today, democracy in China still is nowhere in sight. Official and self-censorship, however, lurks in every corner of the Chinese Web: government bureaucrats and dotcom employees dutifully monitor chat rooms, news stories, and e-mails for messages deemed "politically subversive" by the government.

Naturally, American policymakers have demanded to know why the Internet has not delivered all that was promised. But Washington has largely ignored the other benefits of the Internet in China. In fact, most Chinese weren't even expecting freedom and democracy. Rather, they've grown to like it for a simpler reason: It's fun.

China's Internet population ballooned from 2.1 million in early 1999 to over 33.7 million today. Early Chinese Web surfers discovered, much like the early cybergeeks in Silicon Valley, that online life is wonderful. E-mail is fun. Chat rooms are fun, and so is online shopping, real-time news, and instant-messaging. Free stuff, information overload, new friends - everything is so addictive.

The Chinese Internet is not all about freedom, democracy, and politics. It is, ultimately, a vehicle that brings the heartbeat of the local population online. Like the author of "Meet 99," an award-winning Web novelist, who fell in love for the first time online and wrote about it. Or, like recent college graduates who labor online day and night in cramped offices, helping to shape a revolution based on e-commerce, technology, and new business models.

The Internet has come to mean that life in China - democratic or not - does not have to be dull. As a senior executive at Sina.com, a popular website in China, once said, "The Internet is about people's lives."

To be sure, the Internet has the potential to bring much more than electronic thrill to China. Over the past few years, it has liberalized social, if not political, discussion; exposed instances of policy failure and abuse; and pushed business closer to the rule of law. Last March, when dozens of schoolchildren perished in an explosion in rural Jiangxi Province, online comments and rapid Internet reporting exposed how local officials had forced children to make firecrackers at school. Though most of the criticisms were quickly erased from the Web, the government eventually retracted its original statements attributing the incident to a mad bomber.

Today, China's top two portals, Sina.com and Sohu.com, battle over plagiarism in the most highly profiled lawsuit in the Chinese Internet industry. The extensive, heated arguments being tested in court, in the press, and in online chat rooms indicate that Western multinationals are no longer the only ones who care about intellectual property rights.

Regardless of the social and legal liberalization spurred by the Internet, it has not become the goddess of democracy that Americans hoped it would be. But that has not stopped the Chinese people from embracing it. As a chief executive of Sohu.com once explained, "The Internet means more to us than it does to the average Westerner.... People are thirsty for it."

The Web may or may not bring political reform to China. But instead of demanding the Internet immediately transform a repressive, authoritarian regime, Americans should note that the power of global information is already manifest in the joy of the Chinese Internet generation. The pursuit of happiness, after all, is not a frivolous concept but an inalienable right enshrined alongside life and liberty in the Declaration of Independence. Whether or not the Internet speeds up democratization, it has already brought China something no less fundamental, no less precious.

• Ying Ma recently managed international corporate communications for Sina.com.

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