Friday, November 18, 2005

Fun-driven Internet in China may become powerful political tool

The Internet in China is heavily driven by entertainment but has the potential of becoming a powerful political weapon, according to a poll.

 

The survey, directed by a Chinese professor and funded by a US foundation, showed that 84 percent of Internet users sought information on the Web, mostly pertaining to entertainment.

 

As many as 65 percent of Internet users believed that the Web was a key entertainment source, said the poll, conducted in five cities -- Beijing, Chengdu, Changsha, Shanghai and Guangzhou -- in February-March 2005, covering 2,376 people, over half of them Internet users.

 

"The Internet is supposed to be the information highway but according to our survey, for many Internet users in China, it is an entertainment highway," said Professor Guo Liang of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences of Beijing.

 

"Mainland Chinese use the Internet more for entertainment and chatting than for seeking information or news or for working or studying," he said, releasing the survey findings at a briefing at Brookings Institution in Washington.

 

Guo Liang, whose study was supported by New York-based philanthrophy Markle Foundation, said entertainment-linked items were most popular among online shoppers while leisure and entertainment topics were the most sought after in Internet search engines.

 

But he stressed that the Internet in China -- now second only to the United States in the number of people online, with over 103 million Internet users -- had not replaced television as the principal source of entertainment.

 

Yet, Internet users spend an average 2.7 hours a day online -- more than the time spent on television by people who do not use the Internet, according to the findings by Guo Liang, a philosopher by training described by the respected Brookings Institution as a "pre-eminent" observer of the Internet in China.

 

Amid increasing charges that the Chinese government was stifling online free expression, only 7.6 percent of those polled believed that political content on the Internet should be controlled.

 

But survey respondents had "strong expectations" that the Internet would change politics in China, which is today -- according to global media watchdog Reporters without Borders -- the "world's biggest prison for cyber-dissidents."

 

Some 62.8 percent of those surveyed agreed that by using the Internet, people would be well versed in politics, while 60.4 percent felt that top officials would better understand public views through the Internet.

 

In addition, 55.3 percent felt that by using the Internet, the Chinese communist leadership could better serve the people, and 54.2 percent agreed that people had more opportunities to criticize the government online.

 

In the survey, 45.1 percent also agreed that more opportunities would be available to express their political views via the Web.

 

"The trend is, more people agree with that than disagree, and I think partly because people are not satisfied with the current situation -- the traditional way to deal with the government -- (and) they expect the Internet can help," Guo Liang said.

 

The survey findings showed that the "political impact of the Internet is more significant in China than it is in other countries.

 

"Thus we can predict that as Internet use becomes more popular in China, its impact on politics will be stronger."

 

When asked to comment on rigid state controls over the Internet, Guo Liang asked, "If Internet control is very serious and if such control is very successful, why are so many people spending so much time and money on the Net?

 

"The problem is not political controls, my feeling is that most of the younger people in China, they don't care about politics. They care about how to make money and how to have fun. They want to enjoy life," he said.

 

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