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Interconnected: China’s Youth and the Internet

"My parents grew up in the 60s during the Cultural Revolution. During their youth, their communication was based on their small community. They would speak with people in their village or danwei (work unit)," a student said. The Cultural Revolution was a time of political and social upheaval in China. Under the leadership of Mao Zedong, fervent Chinese youth destroyed Buddhist and other religious temples, sought to bring to justice anti-Communist perpetrators and changed the social fabric of everyday life. Any symbols or speech contrary to the Communist ideology of Mao Zedong was considered sacrilege and violators were punished with humiliating exercises and torturous executions.

From a time of social upheaval and instability, China has entered an era of material prosperity and social progress. The Chinese youth are at the forefront of China's dynamic evolution. With greater economic liberalization, Chinese society has become more open to foreign cultures but also more open within itself. One student said, "My parents would not speak on certain topics, especially politics. Young people now have much more freedom to speak on topics they want to talk about. There are more ways to communicate with the internet, QQ (Chinese Instant Messaging), and Skype." Communication now travels over longer distances and is faster than ever before with China's youth taking advantage of new technologies like cell phones and computers.

"I lived in post-reform China and had the opportunity to go to college so my network is much bigger. I even have the opportunity to meet with foreign students," a student added. Chinese under Mao lived under strict controls. Movement between cities or towns was limited and even marriage was determined by one's danwei (work unit). Individual freedoms and personal property were limited. Now, Chinese youth have better prospects for working in other cities. Moving from China's smaller cities to bigger and more affluent cities such as Shanghai and Beijing is now more common. "The people I knew when I was small were within my community in my hometown. Then I went to college and then graduate school. My network becomes larger as I move on in life," declared another.

However, there are certain drawbacks for China's new generation. "There is much less face-to-face communication nowadays. Technology cannot help certain problems. For example, with text messaging, sometimes you are not able to completely understand the other person's emotions or meanings. Some emotions cannot be communicated through technology," was one student's observation. Although China's youth have enlarged their social networks, relationships are weaker than they were in previous generations. To a great degree, due to the greater physical and social mobility within Chinese society, some Chinese youth find it difficult to maintain close relationships. Text messaging and instant messaging take precedence over social interaction in the lives of many young Chinese.

"People spend a lot of time on the internet but not much time with other people. Also, many people are reliant on technology. Sometimes people develop virtual relationships which could be dangerous," noted one young person. Regarding the statement that, "It's perfectly possible to have real relationships purely online with no face-to-face contact," about a fifth of Americans agree (21%), while almost two-thirds of Chinese do (63%). As somewhat of a paradox, the flourishing and ease of modern communication has brought about less communication and interaction between young people. The liberation of the individual has brought about a decline of collective unity.

China, at 384 million, now has more internet users than the entire population of the United States. The China Network Information Centre reports that about half of China's internet users are between the age of 18 and 30. The vast majority of these "netizens" (an internet citizen) are youth in their teens and 20s. The impact of the internet has affected nearly every major aspect of living for Chinese youth, from how they communicate with each other to what things they buy. The internet has changed everything.

Many youth spend their free time in wangbas (or internet cafes), and surfing the net has become an addiction. In 2009, over 24 million youth were reported to be addicted to the internet. China is one of the first countries to classify internet addiction as a clinical disorder and is due to report it to the World Health Organization.

Over seventy percent of internet addicts are males, who are often obsessed with computer games such as "World of Warcraft." These games allow them to create virtual avatars through which they live a dual lifestyle, one real, and the other online. In such games, players fight enemies and gain levels and respect from other players. As these virtual worlds encapsulate entire landscapes and friends, players become preoccupied with their standing and achievements in the virtual world, not their real one. As a result, many internet addicts drop out of school and have severe social problems. Many also suffer from depression and some are even suicidal.

The government has recently advocated campaigns to stem unhealthy internet use. In Anhui province, primary schools are teaching young students the benefits and dangers of internet use. Particular attention is focused on the potential of internet addiction. Government Official Li Yuling said: "The internet is a double edged sword. While fulfilling the curiosity and knowledge of students, the internet can also badly influence the health of youth." In Gedong, Shanxi, the government banned all wangba operations because of the detrimental effects on youth. Nationwide, internet cafes are not allowed to host minors under the age of 18, but this rule is violated more often than not.

Because of the severity of internet addiction in China, many internet addiction treatment centers have flourished in the past few years. The industry is now a billion yuan industry with over 400 institutions around the country. There has been recent criticism of the treatment centers given the violent and abusive nature of some of the treatments. Many camps employed the use of beatings and electric shock in order to "cure" patients of their addictions. (The use of electric shock was banned in 2009.)

In Southwest Sichuan, an internet camp was accused of abusive behavior last year. Pu Liang, a teenage internet addict, attended the internet addiction camp and was reportedly hospitalized with water in his lungs and kidney failure because of the beatings he sustained from camp counselors and fellow students. Reportedly, eighty percent of those who attend these camps become rehabilitated from their addictions but there are growing questions about the methods used to produce these results.

Although there is much talk about the dangers of internet use such as its role in alienating youth and debilitating social skills, the internet, through the use of social networking, may create more cohesive networks among youth. Xiaonei, a copy of Facebook (the look is exactly the same), has caught on like wildfire among college students in China. On Xiaonei, you are able to message friends instantly, upload photos from your cell phone wherever you are in the world and even do tasks like buying virtual pets or play a game of cards with your friends. Students are now able to keep their vast network of friends as they move from college to work or even abroad. Other websites allow users to make online avatars but Xiaonei requires users to use their actual names and encourages real profile pictures. Xiaonei-ers post real world information like the schools that they attend, books they like and friends that they know personally.

One major difference between American and Chinese internet users is the proliferation of forums, called BBS in China. BBS forums affect internet use ranging from discussions on the latest fashion to people directly buying items from other netizens through BBS to the influence of criminal court cases. Official news is often communicated through BBS. Nanjing University, one of the most prestigious universities in China, uses BBS to communicate to students. According to a report produced by iResearch Consulting Group in 2007, around 36.3 percent of users in China spend one to three hours per day on BBS sites; about 44.7 percent of users spend three to eight hours, and even 15.1 percent of users are on BBS sites for more than eight hours each day. Over sixty percent of users will log in to at least three BBS sites more than three times each week. Registered BBS users run over three billion, and eighty percent of Chinese websites utilize the BBS format. BBS forums are an integral part of Chinese internet use.

Internet blogs now allow Chinese youth to access information and opinions not found in state-controlled mainstream media. One student said: "Influential blogs are written by people who have a social conscience. It definitely involves more people. Information is spread fast." Han Han is China's most popular internet blogger. He has more than 306 million hits on his blog, thanks in large part to his direct and confrontational style. He does not have any reservations about his criticisms of the government or of other literary figures. He wrote on his blog: "I believe China has the world's biggest sex and gambling industries [both are banned in China], their biggest customers may be our Communist party members." As a race car driver, a best-selling author and a high school dropout, Han Han has lived a life that would be unimaginable without his influence on the internet. Now at age 27, Han Han continues to influence young Chinese net surfers through his opinions on his blogs. With three of these censored, he simply continues to open up new ones.

There is much talk about the future of the internet in China, especially with the recent Google retreat from the mainland. Although the internet has allowed greater access to information, this has not necessarily translated into substantial political change. What has changed is youth culture, the demographic most affected by China's leap into the digital world. The future of China is perhaps in the fingertips of bloggers like Han Han or an ordinary member of Xiaonei now that China's youth have more ways to connect with one another than ever before. It will be interesting to see how they utilize this potential for future social and political change. As one student said, "Technology opens up the world."

Image credit:  Social Media by Nimfolb, on Flickr

Jonathan Hwang

Jonathan Hwang is a Charles B. Rangel International Affairs Fellow and a staff writer for US-China Today.View Full Bio