China's government has long controlled the information its citizens receive through official media, but that may end as the Internet burrows deeper into the fast-changing communist country, a Chinese Internet expert says.
"I won't say China is democratic, but you no longer can control information," says Guo Liang, deputy director of the Research Center for Social Development at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government-supported think tank in Beijing.
"SARS is a good example of that," he said in a recent interview in New York. "Even 10 years ago, people could hardly criticize anything. The government could easily hide something and people would hardly dare to expose anything."
Special filters block Web surfers in China from seeing sites run by overseas Chinese dissidents, human rights groups and some news organizations, though the enforcement is spotty and often inexplicably random. Guo and others dispute the filters' effectiveness and don't think they have much effect.
"You cannot control Internet. That is my basic theory," said Guo, who recently completed a survey on Internet use in 12 smaller Chinese cities. "People can receive all sorts of information. The filters cannot scan a graphic."
As an example, he cites communications by Falun Gong, the spiritual movement banned by the Chinese government as an "evil cult."
"I still receive once a week some message from Falun Gong," Guo said. "It is Chinese characters but is like a photo. How can you filter that? No way."
Guo's survey, funded by the New York-based Markle Foundation, queried 4,100 people aged 17 to 60 in 12 Chinese cities.
Although that sample is not considered representative of the overall population, the survey's findings offer an unusual window into how the Internet is transforming politics in China -- providing citizens with a platform to express opinions and a window on the outside world.
For example, 72 percent of the Internet users surveyed agreed that "by using the Internet, people have more opportunities to express their political views." Sixty-one percent think the Internet gives them more opportunity to criticize government policies and 73 percent said government officials "will learn the common people's views better" because of the Net.
Only 13 percent said they favor controlling political content.
China has about 68 million Internet users among its 1.3 billion people, according to figures provided in July by the China Internet Network Information Center.
Internet usage is highest in China's largest cities, such as Beijing and Shanghai, with about 30 percent of residents going online.
But a similar percentage -- about 27 percent -- of the people surveyed in 12 of China's smaller cities go online, too.
"I did not expect that," Guo said.
In Guo's survey, 63 percent said they have home access, while 41 percent, mostly in outlying areas, use Internet cafes. Smaller numbers can access the Net from work or school.
Fifty-seven percent of the Chinese Internet users questioned said they go online to browse Web sites, while 51 percent use e-mail and 49 percent download music.
Only 5.3 percent of those surveyed used the Net for online shopping. Those who do spend a yearly average of US$50 on small items such as books, magazines and CDs.
One reason for the low number of online purchases is that credit cards are not widely used in China, though debit cards are becoming popular, and delivery systems are not well developed.