In recent years Internet-based campaigns–efforts that often blossom on bulletin boards and blogs in hours or days–have pressured the Chinese government to release prisoners, launch investigations into scandals such as the kidnapping of boys conscripted into slave labor, and imprison corrupt government officials. “The Internet has empowered the Chinese people more than the combined effects of 30 years of [economic] growth, urbanization, exports, and investments by foreign firms,” says Yasheng Huang, a China expert and professor of international management at MIT’s Sloan School. “China may not have free speech, but it has freer speech, because the Internet has provided a platform for Chinese citizens to communicate with each other.” And that communication can include criticism of the government.
China’s attempts to suppress Internet speech have intensified. But they have intensified partly because there’s so much more material online–maybe overwhelmingly more–for the government to worry about. China’s Internet, like its economy in general, is exploding in size and complexity. The country now has a staggering 384 million Internet users–nearly a quarter of the world total–plus 750 million mobile-phone users, many of whom use those phones to access the Web. That rapid growth of the network, coupled with the remarkable creativity and boldness of its users, is shaping the Chinese Web at least as powerfully as is government repression. “We underestimate the vitality of the Chinese Internet,” says Ethan Zuckerman, cofounder of Global Voices, a blogging advocacy group. “We hear it is censored and therefore assume every page has a red background and text from the central propaganda agency. We badly underestimate how vital and how interesting some of those conversations can end up being. This is now the largest Internet, bigger than that of the United States. Why do we have a blind spot around this? We assume censored means ‘Dead. Lifeless. Artificial.’ What ‘censored’ actually means is ‘really, really complicated.’ “