Will the Net save China?

A breathless new book predicts that Chinese digerati will revive their nation's glory -- but massive poverty and autocratic rulers won't vanish at the click of a mouse.

By Andrew Leonard

Published March 21, 2002 8:33PM (EST)

In the late 1860s Chinese reformers attempted to stave off Western imperialism by leading the so-called "self-strengthening movement" -- a plan to revitalize China by embracing aspects of the Industrial Revolution, without giving up Chinese sovereignty or Confucian values. The movement failed, a victim of dynastic struggles, and China was carved up by Western powers.

You won't read about the self-strengtheners in "China Dawn," David Sheff's detailed account of China's Internet industry, but for readers predisposed toward taking the long view of China's path to modernity, it's hard to avoid a sense of déjà vu. A commonly expressed view, both on the part of the author and the entrepreneurs that he follows around, is that the Internet and information technology will make China a great nation again; they'll return it to the preeminent world position it once enjoyed. In other words, the dream of the self-strengtheners hasn't died -- it's just gone digital.

The Internet, according to Sheff and his protagonists, will also do a lot of other things. It will revolutionize the education system; undermine the thought control of the Communist Party; raise the standard of living for peasants, workers and intelligentsia alike; and, according to Netscape founder Marc Andreessen's prominent cover blurb, "catalyze massive social change."

But underlying all these hoped-for changes is a strong sense of manifest destiny. In the U.S. the dot-com boom was all about making money, dressed up in a stateless libertarian ideology that said information technology would empower the individual. But Chinese entrepreneurs like Edward Tian and Bo Feng are nationalists: In their view, a great people must rise again, and will, if only enough fiber optic cable is deployed.

Mao once said, "Political power grows from the barrel of a gun." The entrepreneurs in China Dawn seem to want to change the last phrase to "ISP access."

But their enthusiasm betrays a streak of naiveté. As Tiananmen so amply demonstrated, in China today, political power still grows from the barrel of a gun. And the prediction that the rise of the Internet will liberate Chinese from authoritarian rule is far from certain.

Which is not to say that exploring the dynamic interrelationship between China and the Net isn't fascinating, or worthy of a book. China is the ultimate test case for the dream of the Net as a democratizing, empowering influence. The Net, once in place, can't be controlled or censored in the way that other forms of media can be locked down, not even by CCP cadres in the People's Republic. And there's no doubting the fact that the Net is growing extraordinarily fast in China.

But is the Internet really a catalyst, or just a symptom? China won't change, politically, until the Chinese people demand change and the government refrains from rolling tanks over them. The Internet may help citizens of the People's Republic break free of centuries of kowtowing to imperial rule, but it's not going to cause that rupture by itself. "China Dawn" is an arresting read, with a level of detail about China and the Internet unduplicated anywhere else. But it's also a bit breathless. Just ask the self-strengtheners.

One good reason for David Sheff's breathlessness is that he is writing, unabashedly and self-admittedly, about people who are good friends of his. Bo Feng is his Marin County, Calif., neighbor; their children play together. Sheff eats and drinks and drives in fast cars with his subjects -- and ultimately, he shares their dreams of changing China, if not their sense of devotion to the ancestral homeland.

The two key characters are Edward Tian, who has done more to wire China for the Internet than any other single person, and who is now revered as one of the nation's most prominent, and successful, entrepreneurs; and Bo Feng, a mover and shaker who morphs from Marin County Chinese-restaurant busboy to investment banker and venture capitalist. Tian has been written about numerous times, but never with the level of familiarity or detail that Sheff brings. And Bo Feng simply flies off the page, whether he is hurrying from restaurant to bar in Shanghai, battling jet lag as he races back and forth between the Transamerica Building in San Francisco and Beijing's Zhongguancun district, or simply gunning his Porsche along California's Pacific Coast Highway.

China, at the turn of the century, also comes alive. Sheff is a good writer with a keen eye, and his vivid descriptions of Beijing and Shanghai offer dramatic evidence of China's recent economic growth and physical change.

But his closeness to his subjects distracts, because there is very little outside perspective. Rarely do we hear from anyone who is actually using the Net in China, as opposed to building it or struggling to figure out how to profit from it. And we hear almost nothing at all from the hundreds of millions of people for whom broadband access to their favorite Web site is not likely to be a riveting priority.

On Wednesday, Chinese police broke up labor demonstrations involving 10,000 workers or more in cities in China's industrialized northeast. Such unrest has been building for years. But you wouldn't learn that by following Bo Feng and Edward Tian from banquet to banquet, sampling fabulous delicacies and debating how much of an equity stake they can grab in a new start-up desperate for capital.

You could argue that the plight of China's peasantry or rural working class is not exactly relevant to a book specifically about information technology entrepreneurs. Or you could take the approach, as many of the people profiled in the book do, of pointing out that for standards of living to rise in China, you need fast economic growth, and few things might foster such growth as much as an advanced telecommunications infrastructure and state-of-the-art computer technology. Both points would be valid, to a degree.

But if the question is "Will Internet technology catalyze massive social change?" then you have to pay attention to the widening disparities in income between rural and urban China, and the problems of massive unemployment among workers laid off as state enterprises are privatized. And you have to acknowledge that massive social change has been going on in China since well before the first e-mail message was sent in the Middle Kingdom. The very fact that there are Internet entrepreneurs at all in China can be traced to the reforms that Deng Xiaoping introduced after his rise to power in the early 1980s.

Those reforms set in motion their own dynamic -- a kind of recapitulation of trends that have beset every dynasty in Chinese history: New dynasty redistributes land, stabilizes the nation, ushers in peace and prosperity; a couple of hundred years later, social divisions between rich and poor have widened again, and it's time for another revolution (or foreign invasion).

How does the Internet play into this equation? Well, judging from Sheff's description, it has managed to create a lot of wealth for a relatively small number of people. A lot of deals are getting cut in China, but it's hard to see how Web design firms and matchmaking services are going to address the needs of the billion or so people who aren't yet online.

The Net is also a tool, undoubtedly, for fostering the spread and growth of the kind of "civil society" that could offer a true counterweight to authoritarian rule. But it's just one of many tools, and arguably nowhere near as psychologically motivating as television sitcoms beamed in from Taiwan and Hong Kong, as far as the average Chinese person is concerned.

As Bo Feng's father notes during one Shanghai encounter, the key to China's future success will be the emergence of a large middle class. To the extent that the Internet helps achieve the growth of that middle class, it will be a tool for democratizing China. But the impact of technology is likely to be relatively small compared to other factors -- like how well the leaders of China manage both the rising expectations set in motion by Deng Xiaoping's reforms, and the rising tensions expressed by those who aren't getting a piece of the pie.

If China's rulers blow that transition, all hell is going to break loose in China, again, and no amount of bandwidth is going to make the slightest bit of difference.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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