The daily Web habits of a typical 18-year-old college student named Li Yufei show why American Internet companies, one after another, have had trouble penetrating what is now the world’s most wired nation.
He writes a blog, downloads Korean television shows, manages two Web sites devoted to music and plays an online game called Rongguang Hospital at Baidu.com.
“I started doing a lot of this when I was about 11 years old,” says Li, a freshman at Shanghai Maritime University. “Now, I spend most of my leisure time on the Internet. There’s nowhere else to go.”
Google’s decision last month to remove some of its operations from China has overshadowed a startling dynamic at work in this country, a place where young people complain that there is not a lot to do: The Internet, already a potent social force here, has become the country’s prime entertainment service.
Frustrated with media censorship, bland programming on state-run television and limits on the number of foreign films allowed to be shown in China each year, young people are logging onto the Web and downloading alternatives.
Homegrown Web sites like Baidu, Tencent and Sina.com have captured millions of Chinese youths obsessed with online games, pirated movies and music, the raising of virtual vegetables, microblogging and instant messaging.
Even though Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are blocked by censors here, Chinese social networking sites like QQ Zone, Tianya.cn and Kaixin001.com are flourishing in surprisingly inventive ways.
A study conducted by the Boston Consulting Group found that people in China (which now has nearly 400 million Internet users) are far more connected than Americans, and that globally only the Japanese spend more time on the Web.
Analysts say Google struggled to gain market share in China partly because the company had failed to build a big enough online community around its search engine, unlike its chief rival here, Baidu.com.
The surprising power of online communities in China has Communist Party leaders worried about the ability of online social networks to spread viral messages that could ignite social movements and pose a challenge to the party and its leaders. They saw what happened to Han Feng (韓峰), a mid-level party official in southern China, when his private diary was recently online.
In the diary, Han catalogued not just the hefty bribes he was taking, but detailed his sexual escapades with co-workers and mistresses. The ensuing online uproar led to his sacking and a criminal investigation.
“For the government, the scary part of the Internet is the unpredictable power of its organization,” said Yang Guobin (楊國斌), an associate professor at Barnard College and author of The Power of the Internet in China.
“Although people are there socializing, it can provide a platform for lots of other activities, and even turn political,” he said.
Young people in China say they are excited about the Web not because it offers a means to rebellion, however, but because it gives them a wide variety of social and entertainment options.
One of the more remarkable developments in the Internet in recent years has been the informal network of young people who volunteer to produce Chinese subtitles for popular American television series like Prison Break and Gossip Girl.
The Chinese subtitles are often translated within hours of the program’s showing in the US and then attached to the video and made freely available on Chinese file-sharing sites.