As China began to go online, observers made brash predictions that the Internet would pry the country open. Cyberspace, the thinking went, would prove too vast and wild for Beijing to keep under its thumb.
Now these early assumptions are being sharply revised. Under an authoritarian government determined to control information, China has grown a new version of the Internet. As former US President Bill Clinton noted recently, China's Internet is very unlike the cauldron of dissenting voices that is the hallmark of the Internet familiar to Americans. Instead, it's heavily filtered, monitored, censored, and most of all, focused on making money.
The success of Beijing's strategy - to harness the network's business potential while minimizing it as a conduit for free speech - has some concerned that it has established a medium and new censoring tools that other countries can adopt.
"The biggest danger is that China creates a very large market and testing ground for surveillance and filtering software," says Danny O'Brien with the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco.
As Chinese Web companies seek to enlarge their markets particularly in developing countries, the question looms about whether they will export their values as well. Chinese tech firms have an eye on emerging markets in Africa, South America, and India. These firms are probably peddling censorship tools, says the free-speech advocacy group Reporters Without Borders.
The Paris-based organization releases a new report Thursday filled with tips for bloggers and others to avoid censorship and monitoring. The report available on the group's website, which is blocked here, crowns China the "world champion" of Internet censorship.
"China was one of the first countries to realize it couldn't do without the Internet and so it had to be brought under control," reads the report. "It's one of the few countries that've managed to block all material that criticizes the regime while expanding Internet facilities."
All this was done, the report adds, through "a clever mix of investment, technology and diplomacy."
Part of the Chinese success has been co-opting American tech companies with the lure of its lucrative consumer market. Microsoft blocks bloggers from posting politically sensitive words in Chinese; Google shuts down for several minutes when a user in China looks too many times for forbidden words like "Falun Gong;" and Yahoo recently admitted turning over private e-mail information that helped lead to the jailing of a Chinese journalist.
"I do not like the outcome," Yahoo chief Jerry Yang said of incident. But it's a decision he said he had to make when he decided to do business here.
Unlike other authoritarian regimes, notably North Korea and Cuba, which depend on keeping the Web away from the people, China has promoted access - a fact that initially surprised observers. Chinese leaders, says Julien Pain of Reporters Without Borders, knew they needed the Internet to attract global business and trade. Access is abundant and cheap, and those who cannot afford a home computer rely on more than 2 million Cybercafes nationwide. An estimated 134 million Chinese will be online by the end of this year, according to the Beijing-based research firm Analysys International, and nearly one-quarter use broadband.
"When you invest enough in technology and you buy technology from the best companies abroad, you are certainly able to create a new kind of Internet, not based on the free circulation of information but on market information," says Mr. Pain.
China's booming Internet content companies practice strict self-censorship when it comes to politics and other controversial matters, knowing they must to stay in business. The country's Internet Service Providers remain controlled by state-run companies, giving the government a window on every user's connection. It's an open secret that around 30,000 telecom workers are dedicated to policing the net as part of the country's "Great Firewall."
However, less developed nations that may be attracted to the Chinese model are unlikely to have the same resources as Beijing to put into policing the net. And gaps do remain in China's "Great Firewall" for those with enough technical savvy and energy to exploit them. The use of proxies and e-mail encryption can help safeguard communications for the truly determined.
But much of China's Web talent is focused on making money. China's best-known e-commerce guru, Jack Ma, is blunt about his approach to industry over free expression. Plenty of other people are concerned with political issues, Mr. Ma says. He's just doing business.
"We follow the rules and respect the local laws," says Ma, chief of Alibaba, Inc., the e-commerce Web giant that last month sold 40 percent of its shares to Yahoo Inc. for a reported $1 billion.
Ma's contemporaries speak in more subtle ways about their self-censorship, saying it's a necessary to build a booming business. During the Alibaba-sponsored conference in Hangzhou, where Mr. Clinton also spoke, executives from China's most popular search engines and Web portals agreed they need to monitor content around the clock and quickly remove that which doesn't conform. They referred to "false" information and said Chinese net users must use the Web responsibly.
Mickey Spiegel, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch in New York, said it's unlikely Western democracies would adopt China's Internet model. But "it's certainly possible it will creep into places where there is a real anxiousness by leaders to control information."
On an optimistic note, Mr. O'Brien says he does believe the Web's populist roots will win out globally. "For every centralized attempt to censor and filter, there are hundreds, thousands, of others working to circumvent it," he says. "And the further a particular approach spreads, the more people there are who are working to defeat it."