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Rise of the dragon: China isn't censoring the Internet. It's making it work.

Beijing recently strengthened Internet regulations, particularly on the popular microblogging site Weibo. Critics warn that more government monitoring and self-censorship by hosting companies further violates freedom of expression. The reality is far more complicated.

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Worshippers mark the first day of the Chinese Lunar New Year – the "Year of the Dragon" – at Longhua Temple in Shanghai early Jan. 23. China has a "parallel" Internet universe to "help maintain social stability despite rapid change," argue writers George Yeo and Eric X. Li.

AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko

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The Chinese government recently issued new rules to strengthen Internet regulations. Most notable is the real-name requirement for Weibo (microblog) accounts – China’s equivalent of Twitter. Some Weibo users have attested to an increase in government monitoring and self-censorship by hosting companies. Many are decrying this as China’s further violation of freedom of expression. The reality is far more complicated.

More than a decade ago, when China’s Internet was in its infancy with a few million users, the government made it clear that it would exercise political oversight on the nascent cyberspace while allowing it to grow. Many experts then predicted that such efforts were doomed to fail. The Internet, they said, was to be a brave new world that could not be controlled. There were only two possible outcomes: a freely expanding Internet beyond the reach of political authority, or an Internet stifled by government control and unable to realize its potential social and economic benefits. Rupert Murdoch famously proclaimed that advances in communications technology posed an “unambiguous threat to totalitarian regimes everywhere.”

Confounding these experts, neither has happened in China. By any standard, the Chinese Internet is one of the most vibrant economic and social cyberspaces in the world. Some 450 million users communicate, transact, and entertain in it. Entrepreneurial companies have created tens of billions of dollars in economic value. China’s search engine, e-commerce, and online video businesses are among the world’s leading companies.

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