On the one hand, China has the most internet users of any nation on earth by far, most of whom aren’t accessing the web from a fusty old PC, but rather from their smart phones and tablets. Online retail has also taken China by storm, with some estimating that e-commerce could account for 22 percent of China’s annual economic growth by 2025. Some Chinese Internet stocks are surging, and China’s penchant for creating useful and imaginative apps is growing.
On the other hand, you have Dong Rubin.
Dong Rubin began his foray into becoming an online enemy of the state when he vocally criticized the case of 24-year-old Li Qiaoming—who met an untimely end in 2009 in what authorities laughingly said was a particularly raucous game of hide-and-seek with other inmates. For years afterward, Dong has expressed vocal opposition to local corruption, environmental pollution, and injustice. Still, it wasn’t until the 2013 crackdown on “rumors” that police lured him out of his home by telling him his car had been hit, arresting him on the spot, an arrest Dong Rubin predicted online after his offices were raided. This week, he was sentenced to six and a half years in prison.
The storm that social media faced almost a year ago still rages today and will continue; it’s also having some very serious consequences for the Chinese Internet as a whole. For example, during the first half of 2014—after the rumor crackdown ravaged content and arrested dozens—the number of people logging onto social media websites plummeted 7.4 percent. Internet usage in China has been on a steep incline for many years now, but, with the crackdown on outspoken social media personalities, the growth in Internet users slowed to a 2.3 percent increase as of June, the lowest in 8 years.
The world was struck last year when a crackdown on “rumors” started to bring China’s social media rise to a halt. Many expected it to be like the gun crackdowns in Guangdong that ended with photos of replicas being run over by a steam roller or porn crackdowns that feature heavily in newspapers bragging of shuttering tens of thousands of websites and blogs. However, sadly, after almost a year and with so many still awaiting sentencing for their social media crimes, it is no longer a crackdown; it’s policy.
Many thought the worst was over by February, and users started to flock to more private means of communication online, such as the WeChat app. In fact, over 37 percent of those who quit Weibo joined WeChat. But, in mid March, that app fell victim to the long, paranoid arm of the Chinese law as well, with journalists, organizations, and publications getting their public accounts shut down. The censorship even spilled over into Thailand, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Singapore.
But, all these years of hard fought ideological protectionism from the evil West may be giving the Chinese authorities what they wanted all along: legitimacy and sufferance. LinkedIn joined the campaign when it went into the Chinese market by almost joyfully agreeing to silence dissenting voices. simiarly, celebrities censor themselves calmly and without complaint, and recent developments in Russia suggest that China’s Internet censorship is a model for authoritarian nations to follow.
Arrests may have calmed down, but the march toward a completely Chinese Internet continues. Just this month, Instagram fell, Google was turned on and back off, Flickr got the same treatment due to the Hong Kong rally, and messaging app Line took it in the neck thanks yet again to those upstart Hongkongers who want suffrage.
At the moment, the Chinese authorities are trying to make the Chinese Internet a place for development, and in that they are succeeding. However, it is also the frontline of an ideological war. As Fortune commented, “Last year’s crackdown on social media was merely the opening salvo of the CCP’s war on the information revolution. The Chinese government has since escalated its offensive with unprecedented determination.” Indeed, there are calls all around the party for cadres to resist Western influences, and the actual propaganda authorities are as unreasonable and childish as ever—outright banning from the highest echelons of the Communist Party comparisons of Jiang Zemin to an inflatable toad in Beijing.
There’s plenty of evidence to support the proposition that China’s internet access and capabilities are going to continue to increase—touching and changing the commerce of the world. But, for those looking for evidence that China’s online world will actually mature for everyday users, you’re bang out of luck.