On Taobao, China’s eBay, millions of mom-and-pop shops are conducting billions of dollars of transactions per month. On QQ and Sina, the two largest Weibo services, 200 million users are active – expressing their views on anything and everything from sex to official corruption.
Concurrently, a massive government-directed monitoring system combined with self-regulation by hosting companies makes China’s Internet highly controlled by political authority. Facebook and Twitter are banned while their domestic versions flourish. In a well-publicized spat with the government, Google’s search presence was curtailed while its other businesses have continued. When social crises occur, keyword barriers are erected to prevent amplifications that threaten stability.
China’s size and its centralized governance have enabled the creation of a parallel Internet universe connected to and separate from the one outside. There are leaks, and many virtual private networks are available. Minor leaks are ignored. When leaks become important, they are plugged, and sometimes bluntly. When the Jasmine Revolution became an issue, search engines simply blanked out the word “jasmine.” However, it is a mistake to think that all the regulators do is censor.
China is pursuing a distinctive response to the Internet. Nearly half a century ago, at the onset of the information revolution, a pioneering thinker on the cyberspace, Norbert Wiener, authored an influential book entitled “Cybernetics.” Mr. Wiener separated human responses to new challenges into two types: ontogenetic and phylogenetic. Ontogenetic activities are organized and carried out through centrally designed institutions to shape the development of society.