I make no apologies for returning to the subject of China’s economic transformation because the startling news of that country’s embrace of global communications needs reflection.
According to sources within the country the number of internet users in China has risen above 100 million. Only the US now has more web users as young and old Chinese take to the internet in record numbers. By all accounts the figure is expected to grow rapidly over the next few years.
China’s economic boom is behind the dramatic rise as increasing personal wealth means more people are able to buy computers and go online.
Of the 100 million net users, about 30 million have broadband (broadband usage in the UK is currently identified as 40% of our 60 million population). Mobile phone usage is also on the rise, gaining about 60 million new users each year with approximately 360 million mobile phone users currently in China.
These figures are quite staggering. The Chinese government has produced the stimulation for such expansion but they are now trying to control the tiger which they have unleashed. The Chinese authorities make no bones about the fact that they are concerned about the freedom of the Internet, regularly trying to block access to material it considers pornographic or politically subversive.
Recently the authorities threatened to shut down websites and blogs (internet diaries of people’s musings and opinions) that failed to register with regulators in a new campaign to tighten controls on what the public can see online.
The so-called “Great Firewall of China” is constantly being breached as citizens and the authorities play a cat and mouse game with the flow of information.
This freedom of expression and information frightens any authoritarian government and should be viewed as one of the best forms of pro-democratic propaganda. Give people the opportunity to make their own choices and we will see a rise away from despotism and autocracy. For religious fundamentalists of any hue, the internet is seen by many to be the work of the “devil” with its allowance of freedom.
A comparison with internet usage in Iraq, now torn by war and internal strife, is not that surprising. In March 2005 it was calculated that there are less than 150,000 Internet subscribers in Iraq’s population of 26 million. One hopes that the re-building of Iraq will include a massive supply of home computers and communication possibilities throughout the country. Likewise in Africa the provision and manufacture of technology should be at the top of business development priorities throughout the continent.
There have been many opponents to the widespread use of the Internet but they must all now recognise the considerable advantages that technology has brought to so many countries as well as China. With China’s increased wealth and move towards greater democracy the world is a much safer place and the 1.3 billion people in China now have more food and better economic living conditions than they could have hoped for ten years ago.
Freedom of communications is a vital ingredient of democracy. The internet is a great force of communications and has been shown to be a very positive force for economic growth. Those pushing hard to reduce conflict and poverty in many areas of the world would do well to put the installation of electricity and the supply of low cost home computers with internet access high on the list of priorities.