Making Internet Chinese

‘Why We Want to Make the Internet Chinese’

Guangming Daily (government-owned), Beijing, China, Sept. 3, 2003

Zhou Hongyi, CEO of 3721, demonstrates his company’s flagship
product, software that allows users to type Chinese characters
directly on the Internet (Photo: Mark Ralston/AFP-Getty Images).
The latest buzzword in the ever-changing world of the Chinese
Internet is “thorough sinicization.” But what does this mean? Zhou
Hongyi, chief executive officer of the computer firm 3721, a Chinese
Internet pioneer and an outspoken champion of the sinicization of the
Internet, talks to Guangming Daily.

Internet sinicization, explained Zhou Hongyi, is simply adding new
applications to the World Wide Web as it exists now to allow Chinese
users to make better use of the Web by using their native language.
Chinese e-mail address services and the navigation by Chinese keyword
both reflect the gradual development of this process. Now Chinese
people can register their e-mail addresses entirely in Chinese
characters. The Chinese keyword service, which was launched a few
years ago, enables Internet users to navigate the Web and search for
relevant online information using real-world names and familiar terms
in the Chinese language. Chinese users no longer must remember
English-language domain names and URLs.

Still, Zhou says, “I don’t think a ‘thorough sinicization’ of the
Internet will ever be realized. Talking as though it could be might
be misleading; it suggests the infrastructure of the Internet could
be sinicized as well.” Zhou believes the sinicization of the Internet
should focus only on developing applications and on maximizing the
use of the Chinese language on the Internet.

“As new applications of the Internet sprout up everyday, ‘Internet
sinicization’ will experience a sustained development,” Zhou
predicts. “In a sense, all major domestic portals have been working
to sinicize the Internet. Five years ago, Chinese-language
information available online made up less than one percent of Web
pages on the Internet. Chinese Internet users had no choice but to
visit overseas Web sites. They constantly complained about the slow
speed and limited bandwidth. Five years later, those frustrations and
disappointments are gone. Five years from now, things will be that
much more changed,” he said.

Internet 101 for Small and Medium-Sized Businesses

Chinese keyword service received a lukewarm welcome when it was
launched in 1998. A popular argument against it was: “Chinese
Internet users are not accustomed to typing Chinese characters in the
Web browser address bar.” Currently China has 68 million Internet
users, and the number is still growing exponentially.

“If everyone in this country must know English to be able to use the
Internet, it will not only undermine the practical use of the
Internet but will gradually eat away our culture and tradition,” Zhou
says.

When the personal computer was first introduced to China, many in the
country believed it was necessary to Romanize the Chinese language in
order to master advanced foreign technology and to be better
integrated in the international system. The idea sounds rather
ludicrous today because displaying and processing Chinese on
computers is no longer an issue.

Sinicization, Zhou argues, will make Western technology like the
personal computer or the Internet easier for the Chinese to use. “I
have always believed that traditional industry will eventually become
a major user of the Internet,” Zhou explains. “Why did the Internet
give the U.S. economy such a great boost in the 1990s? Because
virtually every American company is online. Today, those that do not
have a Web presence are considered marginal companies in the United
States.”

“In China, we have more than 10 million small and medium-sized
businesses, but not even 5 percent of them say they have a Web site.
Why? Language is a big problem. In the United States, a company’s
domain name is usually the name of the company plus dot-com. English
is their native language so it is not difficult for people to
remember or even guess the URLs. But most Chinese companies’ domain
names are impossible to guess. Sometimes they put up an advertisement
for their Web site — ‘Please do visit our Web site, wwwÖ’ — but the URL
is usually so long and foreign- sounding that people can hardly
remember anything. And if few people visit or even know about
companies’ Web sites, no wonder Chinese companies have little
interest in building them. I personally believe sinicization will
help those small and medium-sized companies make their first step
toward building a Web presence and seeking opportunities through the
Web. It is extremely important for Chinese companies, especially
those located in the western hinterland, to use the Internet to reach
out to the outside world.”

Internet Sinicization and Internet Security

Some people argue that sinicization is not a solution. They argue the
only reason that people are so concerned about the language issue is
because China’s software industry is too weak.

Zhou agrees that the Chinese information-technology (IT) industry has
always yearned to have its own core technology, but he argues that
the priority right now is not to produce an operating system to
challenge Microsoft’s but to fully utilize advanced Western
technology and advance China’s own development in IT. More
specifically, China’s IT industry should work toward helping more
people get online and provide domestic businesses with information
products and services of real value. “The truth is,” Zhou adds, “our
only niche is in these areas. Because we understand the demands of
our local market better than the foreign firms do.”

Some analysts have questioned whether as yet unknown “security
tumors” might exist in the future sinicized Internet since its
underpinnings would still be in English. Zhou has an answer for that:

“The Internet is an open system, and information about its
infrastructure can be obtained through open channels. There is
nothing secretive about it, which is why the Internet has been able
to grow so rapidly all over the world. The Internet has always had
security issues; they are out there, but that has little to do with
sinicization. The United States alone suffers billions of dollars of
losses because of Internet security loopholes. To replace the
programming language with Chinese would almost be like taking all the
Roman letters out of the mathematics or physics equations. It would
be completely unnecessary. Programming languages are just symbols,
and coding with Roman letters is, hands-down, the most efficient
option. I imagine that if the Chinese had invented the operating
system or the Internet, the underlying code would probably have been
written in English, too!”

“I believe,” Zhou says, “that some day China will become an Internet
superpower and that Chinese will become a dominant language of the
Internet. It is because of this belief that I have continued working
on the sinicization project for the past five years, against all
odds. I am not saying that we should export the Chinese language and
make Internet users all over the world communicate in Chinese. What I
really mean is that as the Internet develops, its content and
applications will be further localized. Internet users in France will
be communicating primarily in the French language, the Russians in
Russian, and the Chinese in Chinese. And that’s when the Internet
will really come down from the ivory tower to enter ordinary people’s
everyday lives.”

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