View From the Wall

Email and Confucius

During the 1980s, color televisions were targets of envy. A work unit PC had to be “heavily guarded”—no ordinary man was allowed to access it. A cell phone was the ultimate symbol of the superiority of the owner’s social status and wealth in contrast to that of everyday people—even though at that time a cell phone might be half the size of a brick! Now, television is common in every household. PCs—stepped up from 286s to 586s to Pentiums II, III, and IV—have become a basic part of office equipment in every governmental organization, company, and school with even more being privately owned and used by millions. Cell phones are on sale everywhere with people from all walks of life, including produce vendors, milkmen, and garbage haulers, now using them.

This Information Technology (IT) craze is changing the face of China’s culture. Official government statistics show China had 16.9 million Internet subscribers by the end of the first half of 2000 and by 2002, China will surpass Japan and be next only to the US in its number of Internet users. Cell phone owners increased by 17.96 million this year. Car phones, videophones and televisions are becoming popular. The debut of Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) in China now allows cell phones to access the Internet.

For office jobs, the ability to use the computer is as essential as the ability to write Chinese characters. College graduates must secure a certificate indicating their level of computer literacy before sending out resumes. Various levels of government have computer proficiency and email usage as staff training topics. College admissions indicate that computer science and Internet communications remain the top choices as programs of study. Books on Internet communications, computer hardware and software occupy the best display racks of major bookstores while on street corner kiosks computer related magazines and newspapers are increasing “as fast as bamboo shoots after rain.”

Fierce competition has broken out in this field. China Unicom, the new competitor in China’s tele-communication industry, is vehemently challenging the 50 years monopolizing status of government-run China Telecom. In the PC market, Chinese made units now comprise a larger share of all computers sold in China than previously. Almost all the major IT industry players have branches in China; some (Microsoft and Motorola) have built their own research institutes. The latest scene in Beijing’s Zhongguancun neighborhood is a multitude of IT companies run by Chinese graduates with foreign passports or US “green cards.” China, the old dragon, is embracing the mighty IT goddess with unprecedented zeal at the advent of the information age. As millions of Chinese chat on their mobile phones, sit in front of their computers exchanging emails with friends on line or surf the web in search of all kinds of information, they no longer take pride in that “information highway” built two thousand years ago known as the Great Wall. Instead, we find countless new firms, both large and small, along with Zhi Ben Jia (entrepreneurs with knowledge as their capital asset) shining as glittering new lights on the social stage of China.

Though not every Chinese company that ventured onto NASDAQ was a success story, the IT industry has, to some degree, changed China’s economic structure. Statistics from the central government have confirmed that the IT industry has, for the first time, led the national economy in the rate of growth. In a way, this industry growth has narrowed the gap between China and developed countries. It has enlivened the national economy and increased the technological element of China’s products. Without a doubt the growing IT industry has created much business for China. Even the older ladies who are playing the stock market are knowingly purchasing IT shares that to them mean a fortune. As for Chinese shareholders, even the NASDAQ’s fall this year did not cool down their devotion to IT stocks.

Most people, including cell phone vendors and buyers, computer sellers and buyers, stock brokers and shareholders, are pleased with the IT craze. In China’s history, there has never been an industry growth that excited so many people. I, personally, have never heard of anyone publicly opposing the IT craze in China. But, as the folk song says: “The new moon shines on the nine states of China, where some are happy and some are anxious.” In the midst of the joy that the IT craze brings to China, a few, who live inside the Zhongnanhai or central government compound, are anxious. What about? They worry that the rapid growth of information access is making the world smaller and smaller, that news travels faster and faster, that people are more and better informed, that a society is becoming more and more complex and that it is increasingly difficult to monitor what people hear.

Thirty years ago, just a few words from Mao accomplished the following: 12 million students, who were denied schooling, were sent to rural areas to work in the fields; 1,600 million eyes were allowed to watch only eight plays—the yangbanxi (revolutionary theatrical prototype plays); no wage increases were given to anyone for a period of ten years; the disastrous “moving the mountain” movement applied the Dazhai success formula to every corner of China without regard for regional differences; an “ocean of humans” flooded Tiananmen Square as a million “Red Guards” moved into it. Why could those things happen? In addition to the iron hand of the military and police, one reason was the extreme ignorance of the ordinary people. In those days, owning a short wave radio could well result in public humiliation and the charge of “listening to enemy radio stations” with the result of being jailed. Millions of Chinese believed, from the bottom of their hearts, that two-thirds of the human race living in other parts of the world were living in “despair that is ocean deep and pain that is burning hot.” We Chinese were ready to give up all to follow Mao’s direction, to liberate these suffering people and to fly the red flag throughout the globe. NO one was interested in the Western concepts of “democracy” or “freedom;” ordinary people knew nothing and dared not talk about the world outside of China.

Mao died and the gang of four collapsed. Deng opened the door, people came in from the outside and Chinese were allowed to go out. People became more informed. But for those who knew no foreign language and never went overseas, access to outside information remained very limited despite CCTV’s daily five minutes of international news. No one anticipated the coming of email that awoke peoples’ desire to learn about the world outside and think independently. In the beginning, email worked only with Western alphabets; however, soon Chinese email software appeared causing a flood of information. Internet cafes able to host a few dozen people were rapidly set up. Reports on anything happening in the entire world spread all over China. Web pages and websites began to provide news and host forums. Begging for one’s attention, it all forecasts a coming “attention economy” age.

Overwhelmed by so much information, people cannot help but ask: “What makes the principles of one nation, one party, one theory, and one leader legitimate? How long will this structure last? Can we live like people in other parts of the world?” These are troubling questions for China’s authorities who realize that the power of the people lies in the information they receive; nevertheless, it is next to impossible to ban computers, telephones, fax machines, or cell phones. Thus, the government has increased attempts to monitor websites and email.

Recently, the government issued further regulations for controlling the Internet. It’s unclear how much these governmental efforts can resist the information flow. When technology has enabled a person to consume information online via a cellphone, it is difficult to control the content flow.

These same conflicts are reflected in China’s ancestors. The great Confucius, over 2000 years ago, cautioned the ruling class of his time regarding their subordinates by saying: “It would be better to give them freedom that to let them be informed.” Moa simply totally cut off the information flow, allowing his policy of obscurantism to be carried out successfully.

IT development in China brings with it the possibility that China will enter the international information sharing community overnight. While tanks could quell student protestors, and police could overpower Falungong members, the country’s government today can find no effective way to block the growth of IT. Were Confucius to come back to life today, perhaps he too would like “yimei-er.”*

*Pinyin of a commonly used Chinese transliteration of “email” (伊妺儿).

Image credit: Les Whittle
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Huo Shui

Huo Shui (pseudonym) is a former government political analyst who writes from outside China.View Full Bio