Power is often linked to military and economic strength, but technology is a critical component in the process of translating domestic resources into power. Countries must be able to effectively use technology to secure their national security objectives in the information age. The Internet represents one component of a modern nation’s complex communications network. This network can boost private-sector productivity and streamline research and development. It can also enhance government accountability by facilitating the free exchange of information between individuals. The Internet also serves a symbolic function. It has come to represent modernity and is regularly associated with highly developed and successful countries. As such, a dearth of Internet availability or restrictions on Internet content may negatively impact international perceptions of a particular country. In the case of China, it is necessary to consider its growing Internet penetration rate, the quality of China’s Internet relative to other countries, and the effects of the Chinese government’s effort to restrict Internet access to specific content.
Internet Penetration in China
How does China’s web-connectedness compare to other countries?
According to the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC), one of the main Chinese Internet administrative bodies, the first Internet café opened in Beijing in November 1996. Although the People’s Republic of China was slow to adopt the Internet relative to its more developed neighbors, such as South Korea and Japan, the Internet-penetration rate accelerated through the 2000s and now stands at nearly 50 percent nationwide. This statistic may appear low, but China’s Internet-penetration rate is notably higher than that of the world average of 44 percent. In addition, China’s large population means it is the country with the greatest number of Internet users in the world. Additionally, a recent Pew Research Center poll showed that 71 percent of Chinese say they use the internet at least occasionally or own a smartphone. By contrast, the same poll revealed that only 21 percent of Indians claim to use the internet.
China’s Internet penetration patterns illustrate the disparity in economic and infrastructural development within China, which has resulted in uneven access in more disadvantaged areas. As seen in the CNNIC’s 2016 data, in Beijing and Shanghai, the Internet-penetration rate approaches levels found in South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand (between 70 and 80 percent). By contrast, in poorer provinces like Guizhou and Yunnan, under 45 percent of the population consistently uses the Internet daily, a rate that aligns more closely with Bangladesh. The competitive smartphone market is expected to drive expansion in this arena.
As the largest global smartphone market, China boasts domestic giants like Xiaomi and Huawei as well as a host of market entrants, with six new brands emerging in 2014 alone. Of 731 million Internet users reported in 2016, 695 million accessed the internet by phone. Improvement is also expected in fixed broadband: the International Telecommunication Union noted that China Mobile’s 2014 expansion into the fixed broadband market should help boost Internet subscribers. In this regard, disparities in access may be overcome through increasing service-provider competition and the falling cost of smart devices.
How does the Great Firewall affect Internet use in China?
The Great Firewall, a system that prevents access to websites that the Chinese government deems undesirable, has been in development since the early days of the Chinese Internet. Chinese search engines block politically sensitive content, such as links to international human-rights organizations, June 4 (the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre), or the New York Times’ documentation of former premier Wen Jiabao’s family wealth. It also blocks seemingly apolitical content, including profanity, which netizens avoid by using close homophones. It should be noted that the Great Firewall’s existence does not bar all Chinese citizens from accessing banned content. Until recently, many Chinese citizens could easily circumvent or “scale” the Great Firewall through the use of VPNs (Virtual Private Networks); however, beginning in early 2015, many VPNs like Astrill, Golden Frog, or StrongVPN have been disrupted or, in the case of Shadowsocks, Hongxing, or GoAgent, shut down altogether.
The Chinese government has very clearly stated that they believe that internet censorship is critical to their national security and national sovereignty.
The Great Firewall is the most visible component of a larger effort to restrict and shape public opinion. This effort involves the participation of approximately 2 million people employed as censors and the “50 Cent Party” (netizens who are paid .5 yuan for each comment they write to spread the Party view) that write approximately 488 million posts/year. It also includes media outlets and other companies operating within China, which could be at risk of being shut down or denied licenses by the government for releasing sensitive content. Topics falling under “sensitive content” are left intentionally vague, which encourages a variety of organizations, ranging from media outlets to academics to Internet companies publishing online, to take an active role in identifying potential offensive publications.
In addition, government authorities are suspicious of applications that could be used to facilitate collective action. This functionality led to Facebook’s and Twitter’s removal after protests in China’s western city of Urumqi turned violent in 2009; officials worried these sites had been used to organize the protests. This complex environment has become more regulated under Xi Jinping’s administration: Beijing’s diplomatic push for the recognition of countries’ Internet sovereignty has coincided with laws requiring Chinese citizens to register under their legal names on social media and blogging platforms in February 2014. Thus, authorities scramble to keep pace with Internet advances, while netizens adapt to advances and negotiate restrictions as they are implemented.
A Conversation With Denise Zheng
0:05 - If individuals can circumvent the Great Firewall, why does the Chinese government keep it in place?
1:16 - How must technology and social media companies adapt to comply with Chinese law?
2:15 - How has the Internet empowered public opinion and enabled it to exert greater influence on Chinese policy?
3:29 - What is driving Internet expansion in China?
4:39 - Does China’s Internet model appeal to developing countries?
How does the quality of internet in China compare to other countries?
The International Telecommunications Union has developed the ICT Development Index (IDI), an index to rank countries and regions by their level of ICT development. In its 2016 report, the top five ranked political entities in Asia each had a higher IDI than the developed countries average, including South Korea (globally: 1), Hong Kong (globally: 6), Japan (globally: 10), Australia (globally, 14), and Singapore (globally, 20). It ranked Mainland China as 81st globally, with an index score slightly above the world average. For the sake of comparison, the U.S. ranks 15th internationally, behind the top four Asian countries, and India ranks 138th internationally.
The Chinese government has very effectively leveraged online platforms to promote their own message.
ITU Estimates, Indicators from the Measuring the Information Society Report, 2016
|ICT Development Index Rank, 2016||China||81||Japan||10||Korea||1||Hong Kong||6||India||138||Australia||14||U.S.||15|
|Fixed Broadband Price, %GNI/Capita||China||3.12%||Japan||0.51%||Korea||1.29%||Hong Kong||1.53%||India||5.11%||Australia||0.70%||U.S.||0.35%|
|Fixed Broadband Price, PPP$||China||31.81||Japan||19.12||Korea||36.01||Hong Kong||64.2||India||23.39||Australia||32.18||U.S.||16.32|
|Broadband Speed, Entry Level Plan, Mbit/s||China||2||Japan||12||Korea||50||Hong Kong||100||India||2||Australia||8||U.S.||2|
|International Internet Bandwidth, bit/s||China||6,530||Japan||62,618||Korea||46,764||Hong Kong||4,115,651||India||5,725||Australia||81,564||U.S.||99,017|
Why would China’s score fall lower than that of Korea or Japan, or cities like Hong Kong? China’s large population and geographic area create infrastructural challenges and contribute to significant urban-rural divides. Fixed broadband prices as a percentage of gross national income (GNI) per capita are slightly higher in China than in, Hong Kong, Japan, or Korea. These locations also offer very high broadband speed, even for entry-level plans (100 Mbit/s, 12 Mbit/s, 50 Mbit/s, respectively), while China’s broadband speed is 2 Mbit/s. By comparison, the United States also offers a broadband speed of 2 M bit/s, but U.S. prices as a percentage of GNI per capita are lower than those of China. China’s international Internet bandwidth is also quite low, at about 6,530 bit/s per Internet user, compared to Hong Kong at 4,115,651 (and the United States at 99,017).