Guest Post: China: After the Earthquake, Before The Olympics

(Left photo: Paul Denlinger, Elliott Ng visit me at Forrester, Foster City, CA. If you’re interested in China and the internet, subscribe to their blogs)

Jeremiah: This is the second post from Paul Denlinger (read the first here), who’s living in China, an internet expert and reporting back to us. He provides us the perspective that few can and I’m happy to have his input. Coincidentally, Paul cam by my office with Ellliot Ng last Friday, they’re working on some exciting stuff, and I hope to be part of it later this year. Without further ado, Paul shares some key insights that relate to China’s culture and impact on communications.


China: After the Earthquake, Before The Olympics

For many social media analysts, it’s all too easy to think that social media is all new technologies for the Internet which make it possible for people to meet and share real-world experiences. In China though, it’s not so simple because it’s not just the technology which is new and changing, the whole society is changing, and changing very rapidly.

For many observers, and particularly the mainstream western media, there has been a near-obsession with China’s politics, and when it comes to the Internet, the issue of censorship and the GFW, or Great Firewall of China. For most Chinese, as independent issues, these are much less important than the underlying social trends which have become much more important, and much more apparent. Aside from the much greater prosperity of China over the past thirty years, there is a single greater trend, and that is toward greater openness which has been achieved through cheap and easy communications. This greater openness has not been achieved solely with the Internet, but more importantly, through cheap mobile communications offered through China’s mobile network.

Immediately after the Sichuan earthquake of May 12, most Chinese attempted to reach their loved ones in the quake-affected areas through the mobile network. In today’s China, the mobile phone network is the default method of communications, with the Internet as the second most common method of communications. These networks are changing quickly and melding, with a good deal of the change being driven by strong demand for the iPhone, even though Apple does not yet have a carrier agreement in the country. For many increasingly prosperous Chinese, the iPhone is their preferred mobile device for communications. Less than one year ago, the iPhone came as a status symbol; now it is preferred because it is user-friendly. Ten months ago, anyone with an iPhone would have turned heads. Now, it doesn’t even deserve a comment.

Aside from the tragic damage and loss of life, the May 12 Sichuan earthquake started a cascade of events which brought some social changes to the surface. For the first time, the Chinese government mourned at the loss of life of ordinary Chinese, and at the one week anniversary, even Internet users stopped their Google search queries out of respect for the dead. More than US$3 billion was estimated to have been sent to the homeless and injured in Sichuan through various organizations.

But nothing is simple in China. Many questioned whether the many charity organizations could be trusted with their donations, and some went so far as to buy goods, clothing and medicine, then took them to Sichuan to distribute them to the needy themselves. Other strangers organized themselves on the Internet, forming their own rescue missions to Sichuan.

From the government’s perspective, this massive outpouring of support was a double-edged sword. The unprecedented financial goods and support for the victims were good, but when the parents of dead children chose to ask why their childrens’ schools collapsed while government buildings were relatively unaffected, it chose to interpret this as a threat to the government’s authority and in some cases, tried to shut down discussion. The trouble with modern technology though, is that sometimes it is nearly impossible to shut down discussion, even though government entities control different chokepoints of communications. This put the Chinese government on the defensive, organizing online groups to support the government positions.

This became apparent in late June with an incident in Wengan in Guizhou province, where a young teenager died under mysterious circumstances, and in the ensuing chaos, a police station was burned down. While news of this incident was initially suppressed in China, videos quickly made their way to Youtube where they were viewed by those outside China, who then spread the news back to their friends and family in the country. In response, the Chinese government in Beijing swiftly fired the government officials in charge.

The trend toward more openness, transparency and accountability are not just demanded of the government. More and more people are demanding the same from businesses, and if they don’t get it, they complain quite openly about business practices they don’t agree with.

Today, China is standing at a crossroads. While the Chinese have enjoyed an unprecedented growth in wealth and basic human rights, including the basic right to homes and food, they want and expect more. In many respects, the buildings, roads and infrastructure created over the past ten years are newer and more modern than the US’s very dated and poorly maintained infrastructure. China’s rulers are slowly coming to the realization that building the infrastructure hardware is the easy part; the real challenge lies in building the human software and practices which come with managing a first-world country.

The Chinese government is slowly coming to the realization that as the Chinese people become more prosperous, they are demanding more of their government, including transparency and accountability, and if they don’t get it, some of them are prepared to take action. The society is becoming more noisy, and more democratic, and the Internet and mobile communications have played an enabling role for the people.

Paul Denlinger is a China-based Internet analyst and consultant. He publishes his own blog at China Vortex.

  • Jeremiah, thanks for sharing Paul’s thoughts via the Web-Strategist community and look forward to hearing comments. Through the lens of mainstream media, the American people see China as:
    – huge economic growth, 1 billion customers
    – China rising, and not playing ball with multilateral organizations (like the UN) on important foreign relations issues (like Darfur/Sudan)
    – environmental disaster in the making; toxic toys
    – suppression of Tibet self-determination
    – “Communist” government suppressing free speech and free press

    These are all important aspects of what is probably the biggest story of our time. But what mainstream media delivers is often a black-and-white picture that lacks nuance, and fails to prepare us in the US to be “responsible stakeholders” in the world in dealing with important issues like globalization, free trade/protectionism, and the environment.

    The Web Strategist community–indeed, all of us–can play a role. I look forward to the dialogue here, and connecting with anyone who is interested in this topic.

    – Twitter: elliottng

  • deter3

    Unfortunately , Paul is simplly talking about some facts happening in China recently .

  • deter3

    Unfortunately , Paul is simplly talking about some facts happening in China recently . The key point he did not ever point out in the blog above is how important role those post 80&90 generation ( those who was born after 1980 and 1990 ) are playing in the recent incidents . Those people start utilizing internet social media ( blog , video blog , BBS , IMs etc ) and mobile phones to communicate and express their thoughts . There’s no particular indications about more democracy but more energy and power from new generations in China . They are already playing significant role in current China society .

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  • deter3–You make a very good point about the 80s, 90s generations. They are truly digital generations who have grown up with mobile phones, the Internet and online gaming and know nothing else, and take cheap instant communications for granted, even though it is a relatively closed society monitored by the government. They also introduce a highly volatile and unpredictable element into Chinese society, one which the Chinese government has very ambiguous feelings about and about which it has not yet reached a policy consensus.

    I will talk more about this in the future.

  • kim

    Show your solidarity for Chinese bloggers who risk censure, arrest, torture and even imprisonment for peacefully expressing speaking out online.

    Help them by taking part in Amnesty International’s online Day of Protest against Internet censorship. Check it out – http://action.uncensor.com.au/dop/

    The Internet should be a medium for the freedom of expression, not repression.

    Internet censorship helps the Chinese authorities to hide the true extent of human rights abuses – like their use of the death penalty, torture and detention without trial and the persecution of human rights defenders.

    Support Chinese bloggers’ right to freedom of expression and speech.

  • Hey-ho J.O.,

    Righteous!

    Thanks for the choice guest post. While I dig your material very much, it would be fun to have more of guest contributions in the future.

    I see two advantages for J.O. and Web-Strategist, more generally, in doing so:

    1) It would give you a much-needed respite so you can continue to do what you do best, which is report on the things we all need to know about in two-oh space.

    and…

    2) Give a chance for some key contributors in your network to avail themselves of your brisk global traffic, perhaps even bootstrapping their nascent blogging efforts or other entrepreneurial/Web2.0 initiatives. Give ’em a leg up, in other words.

    Please don’t take this in the wrong way — but like Nelson Mandela, I’d like to see you around for 90 years+ as well. You’re my second favourite person in California. 😉 Do you want to know who the first is?

    –ADM in Prague, CR

  • Adam

    Thanks, glad you like the guest posts, I’ll keep this in mind as I add more varied content. It would certainly be great to have a guest poster that covers the European internet market as well as Latin America.

  • Nuance understood…my thinking cap has been firmly affixed as of right now. 🙂

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