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The Billion People Effect: Lessons From China
Rohit Gupta, 30 Oct 04

Keywords: Online uprisings, India & China, internet usage, outsourcing, smart mobs, journalism and blogs, Tehelka Tapes, gaming, Google, Ronald Coase, Agent Orange.

There are only two “billion people” nations in the world – India & China. Together they make up more than a third of the world’s population. They are big governance systems which defy traditional analyses that may apply to smaller countries.

So we must consider that when dealing with extremely large numbers, percentages do not define the phenomenon that emerge. Even minorities matter as much as majorities, at least when it comes to introducing systemic change.

For instance, you can’t say that India has only 1.7% internet penetration in 2004 and therefore it’s not going to affect the immediate future of everything – including governance, law and economy. That small percentage amounts to 18,481,000 individuals and rose by 270% in 2000-2004. By 2005, there will be more internet users in India than the population of Australia.

Signals are coming loud and clear from our neighbour and the world’s oldest continuous civilisation – China. Thanks to a post by Alex Steffen, I’m going to mention a phenomenon that has already started appearing in China, and will soon start showing up in parts of India.

“After eight years of explosive growth, the number of Chinese internet users is rapidly approaching 80 million, surpassing the membership of the Chinese Communist Party.” – Xiao Qiang writes in “Meanwhile: The Great Leap Online That Is Stirring China” (International Herald Tribune).

In fact, because India has a much larger ‘packing fraction’ ( people divided by land available), we will see these phenomenon in a far more intense manner.

Also, recently the cellphone usage in India (45 million) exceeded the landlines (44 million) and the internet is seemingly converging on the handheld devices, so effectively, the number at play by the year 2007 will be well over 100 million. That’s ten percent of the population, and a conservative estimate.

A lot of people who can communicate with each other over common issues, always end up trying to change something. Do they take on the government and try to change the law? Do they try to change policy by putting up petitions and signatures? Not always.

In some cases, since the internet is somewhat independent from traditional jurisdiction, they will form their own parallel systems of control. This is directly related to the participation of the public in the last business it is allowed to make decisions for - ‘public affairs’. Once again, check out what's happening in China:

Ms. Liu is now a major player in an intense tug of war between China's police-state apparatus and a growing number of politically astute Internet users who want to move beyond soccer talk, video games and chat-room flirting. They switch cellphones constantly and use text-messaging to foil police.

Governance & Law

There are more netizens than Communists in China today, reports say. What is being increasingly seen is something they call ‘online uprisings’. In 2003, there were more than a half-dozen of those "online uprising" events. The most famous one involved Sun Zhigang, a 27-year-old college graduate working as a graphic designer in Guangzhou, who died in police custody.

Qiang writes: Sun's parents posted information on his case and a petition letter on the Internet.

His case was picked up by a reporter for the Southern Metropolis News, one of China's most progressive papers, and then the story hit the Net. Within two hours after being posted on China's largest news portal,, this news item generated 4,000 comments from readers.

On May 29, 2003, in an unprecedented appeal to the National People's Congress, four professors, including two from Beijing University Law School, called on the state prosecutor to investigate Sun's death. Three months later, the government abolished the entire ( “custody and repatriation”) system, and the officials responsible for Sun Zhigang's death were convicted in court.

As Sun Zhigang's case demonstrated, the Net has already created a bottom-up force and is constantly negotiating this new space with the old-style, top-down censorship and propaganda regime.

Lee Hsien Loong, who will become Singapore’s Prime Minister next month, said this in an interview:

(former) President Jiang Zemin came up with "The Three Represents." This may sound like just a new Communist slogan, but it is really a profound change. All of a sudden the enemy of the proletariat -- the capitalists -- can join the Communist Party! The Marxist formulation has been turned inside out. Jiang was only being pragmatic. He was trying to find a way forward without losing control.

China's leaders are still ambivalent about the Internet. They want to use it for its economic value, but they are still worried about the political impact. They are still trying to control inflow, blocking Web sites from abroad -- and going about it more intelligently than we had thought possible. But they can't stop the flow totally. Even internally within China, free information is generated and circulated widely over the Net.

Mutiny is not new in India, nor the phenomenon. Only last week farmers in Ganganagar district (Rajasthan) had an uprising due to water-related issues. As the world’s largest democracy, we let policy and term be decided on the basis of adversarial politics, and that’s a serious problem. A nice piece by Aidan Rankin called "Punch and Judy Politics" in The Ecologist (Thanks, Nicole!)says that :

The game of adversarial politics creates artificial divisions that result in individual bitterness and disappointment, and the diversion of progressive movements from their original goals towards self-limiting cultural niches. At a global level, adversarialism assumes a more sinister form, fueling the revival of ethnic and religious conflicts, masking a larger battle for control of the earth’s resources and the rise of fundamentalism, whether religious or economic.

“From competition to collaboration” is the paradigm shift we need to see now. That’s the best thing about the Internet. Can you trust a stranger enough to play a game of online Solitaire? That’s where cooperation begins and slowly becomes Howard Rheingold’s Smart Mobs – ‘the next social revolution’.

Street demonstrators in the 1999 anti-WTO protests used dynamically updated websites, cell-phones, and "swarming" tactics in the "battle of Seattle." A million Filipinos toppled President Estrada through public demonstrations organized through salvos of text messages.

Not all ‘online uprisings’ will be successful, though. Approximately 20 million gallons of herbicides were used in Vietnam between 1962 and 1971 to remove unwanted plant life and leaves which otherwise provided cover for enemy forces during the Vietnam Conflict. A recent online petition to solve the problem of Agent Orange/Dioxin garnered 651,306 signatures when I last saw it, but the problem remains.

Why can’t we see all this happening in India? Why isn’t all this totally obvious? The answer lies in problems that the media is facing. It’s all happening but no one is extracting the signal from the noise. Also, the Indian internet user is maturing only now.

How can you tell the penetration of the internet in a country? Here's the cover story of India Today that says that Indian Porn has arrived.

Media & Blogs

Also, in recent times big media has changed it’s ethics a bit to suit a healthier economic appetite, and this is not just greed. Very few traditional mass-media organisations in India have a sustainable business model that will ensure good business for more than a decade, because technology, and the way information is being dissipated, is changing rapidly. Except maybe, Rediff and MTV - because of blogs.

Cellphones with cameras, now that’s a clue. Suddenly the entire swarm of people toting cameraphones, Panasonic NVDS 65 handycams and webcams, resembles a mega-journalist, watching everything at all times. How will traditional media keep up with that? The Tehelka Tapes were not possible a decade ago, because you could not conceal a camera in a way that it passed undetected. Today, any ten-year old kid can shoot his own Tehelka Tape. No one is protected by those walls of discretion anymore. The real journalist is invisible, and seeking information in a very complex way.

The ‘near, near future’ of this kind of journalism may be multimedia blogs. Glenn Reynolds of, one of the most famous bloggers in the world, writes:

In "Online Uprising," American Journalism Review writer Catherine Seipp noted that, "in general, 'blog' used to mean a personal online diary, typically concerned with boyfriend problems or techie news. But after September 11, a slew of new or refocused media junkie/political sites reshaped the entire Internet media landscape. Blog now refers to a Web journal that comments on the news—often by criticizing the media and usually in rudely clever tones—with links to stories that back up the commentary with evidence."

Youth & Gaming

We think they’re stupid, at least more so than we were at their age. They think we’re so ‘whatever’, and both these points of view are wrong. Looking closely at the cellphone we realise that the younger generation is heavily into two things – gaming and texting.

Gaming is how humans learn, children learn by playing, and people become smart by playing with rules and concepts. Even Snake or Mineweeper can teach you a few things about avoiding trouble. These guys in their spare time go online and play Quake, a simulation environment whose mindboggling complexity was never available to us before – not in a game.

These kids will inevitably attain a maturity level, stop bitching about boyfriends and sex, and start participating the moment some systemic change stimuli like 9/11occurs in India. I think it already happened in Godhra (Gujarat riots), but it remains to be seen.

In Bombay one sees kids using Google to finish their assignments. The thing is, what becomes of education when what you know is no more important because information is universally available? It is a shift that puts the focus on understanding rather than knowledge – the key to a smarter society.

Economy & Outsourcing

There is a lot of debate here in the media about whether the next President of US will promote or curtail outsourcing. They're asking the wrong questions. It really is not his decision. As far as outsourcing is concerned, businessmen have been calling the shots. Bush or Kerry will do what the businessman tells them to do, and the businessman finds it cheaper and better to do business with India, so be it.

Richard Zielinski writes that: Today software engineers in China sell their products worldwide. Loan analysts in India pour over credit histories of U.S. clients and e-mail their findings back to U.S. banks. Investment firms are moving $90,000-a-year research jobs from New York to India because there is no information in Manhattan that can’t be instantly shared with New Delhi over a company intranet. Legal services, designing, computer programming—all of these tasks and more have been outsourced to the benefit of both the sending and the receiving countries.

At the end of the day, outsourcing can be simply seen as a phenomenon that emerges in efficient markets, which themselves emerge out of efficient communication technology. In 1937 Ronald Coase asked a question that won him a Nobel Prize for Economics – “If markets were efficient, why would firms emerge?”. What we’re seeing right now with BPOs and outsourcing is ‘the firm’ breaking up into it’s functional entities which operate autonomously. It’s simply cheaper to outsource than to employ.

The rise of India as a destination for back office processing, coincides with its economic reforms of the early 1990s committed to liberalization, privatization, and globalization. Since liberalization began the country's GDP has doubled and poverty rates have fallen by nearly a third in both rural and urban areas. Business process outsourcing, along with IT and software, are the most open sectors in the country. The early success of British Airways and GE proved to the world that India was a credible option for outsourcing. The presence of foreign firms has made Indian companies reorganize, boost productivity, compete and expand globally (Farrell and Zainulbhai, 2004).

Summary Note

With improved communications in India, minorities will be as important as majorities. Number will matter, not percentages. India will now see a new wave of people communicating and constructing in creative ways. The youth capital is huge, and becoming smarter, not dumber. A new India is not only possible, it’s here.

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just a quick note: Catherine Seipp is wrong in her assertion that blogs began commenting on the news only after 9/11. in fact, the earliest weblogs--starting in 1997--commented on anything interesting they found on the Web, including the news. many of them were focused exclusively on current events.

the introduction of Blogger gave rise to the diaristic form of blogging, but weblogs were about news, politics, and current events long before the warbloggers came onto the scene.

my essay weblogs: a history and perspective details the formation of the original weblog community and the rise of the diary-style blog.

Posted by: rebecca blood on 30 Oct 04



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