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.
Hao Xiaolei says she sometimes lets her fingers do the shopping from her Beijing residence, buying mostly small items and paying in cash.
"I have an account with my address and after confirmation of my purchase, their account service person would deliver it in person," she said via e-mail. "When I receive it, I pay for it. They promise a maximum of 48-hour delivery delay."
According to 62 percent of the people surveyed, the primary problem with using the Internet in China is that their connection is too slow. Connection speeds are affected, many say, by the censors the government uses to block tens of thousands of sites.
Forty-five percent think their connection fees -- which can be as low as about a dollar for eight hours of access -- are too high, while 34 percent complain about their connections being dropped.
China has closed more than 3,300 Internet cafes in what it calls a safety crackdown since a fire in June last year at a Beijing cafe killed 25 people. The government says nearly 12,000 other Internet cafes closed temporarily while they made improvements.
The crackdown added to efforts by the communist government to control how Chinese use the Internet, even as it encourages the spread of online activity for business and education.
Under new rules that took effect last year, minors are banned from many Internet cafes. Managers are required to keep records of customers' identities and to close by midnight.
But Guo said many Internet cafes are unlicensed and do not track their customers or check their ages.
"One reason that young people like the Internet cafes is that after work they don't have lots of entertainment or night life, so they don't know what to do," Guo said. "Young people like Internet as a fashion thing. They can tell their friends, `I can play games on Internet.' Young people like to show off."
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