On the surface, the Internet has made great inroads in China. The
country now counts 137 million users who collectively spend two billion hours online each week. Even in cities in the impoverished interior, it is difficult to go a few blocks without encountering an Internet cafe. Not only is China now firmly on the privileged side of the digital divide, it's about to become the world leader in access, likely to overtake the U.S. in number of broadband users this year or next.
Beyond the numbers, most observers agree that the Chinese Internet is plagued by problems. But there is disagreement about what the most pressing ones are. In the Western imagination, the central issue is censorship. Certainly government filtering of Wikipedia or (with corporate assent) of returns on Google.cn and Baidu.com is deplorable. The Great Firewall also makes itself known in
myriad smaller, insidious ways. But most Chinese who regularly use the Internet for information are adept at getting around it. Creative users circumvent the firewall through anonymizers and programs like TOR. In forum discussions, politically minded Chinese bypass filters by using abbreviations. (The most common form involves taking the first letters of Romanized spellings of Chinese characters, so that, for example, the word for "government," zhengfu, becomes zf.) And increasingly, Chinese Internet users have at their disposal innovative projects like Amnesty International's irrepressible.info.
But development workers in China point out that such programs mainly benefit plugged-in techies and professionals -- the sort of people who already use the Internet for blogging or research. To these observers, the bigger issue is the large percentage of the population that goes online for other reasons. Even as China catches up with the U.S. in Internet penetration, very few Chinese use the Internet the way Americans would. A 2005 survey by the Chinese Academy of the Social Sciences found that one-third of Chinese Internet users do not have an email account. Forty-two percent have never used a search engine. Enter Chinese
Internet cafes, and most of the customers are teenagers playing games like World of Warcraft. In this regard, China is not so different from other developing countries. But the number of people going online, and the pace at which the country is developing, make the situation more dramatic.
From this angle, the central challenge is not helping users access banned sites; it's getting them to see the Internet as an information portal in the first place. To that end, the efforts of China's telecenter movement, coordinated from Beijing by French microfinance promoter PlaNetFinance with funding from Microsoft, are notable.
In many developing countries, telecenters are employed in places where Internet access is limited, targeting farmers and other rural workers. In rural China, indeed, PlaNetFinance funds mini-telecenters -- usually one or two computers in the homes of microfinance loan officers. But in China's sprawling cities, where a mobile population has web access but lacks the knowledge to put it to good use, a different model is necessary. At the Zhabei Grassroots Community Association, a telecenter I recently visited in Shanghai, many students have migrated from rural areas to work as construction or domestic workers. Lacking the residency permits that would grant them and their children access to health care and education, they live near the train station in crowded, unsanitary dorms. In addition to comprising one of the country's most disadvantaged populations, they are also instrumental to its development - tens of millions of rural workers will permanently settle in cities in the next two decades. It makes sense to focus educational efforts on them.
At the Zhabei center, Microsoft employees and student volunteers train workers in basic Internet applications, Word, Excel, and PowerPoint on 30 donated PCs. Some program graduates go on to take jobs that require knowledge of simple computer systems, such as grocery store clerks. The more ambitious ones start small online businesses.
Beyond equipping migrants for the changing workplace market, however, the promise of such centers lies in expanding the scope of the Chinese Internet. The Zhabei center once offered separate training in legal rights and environmental actions; after realizing that such knowledge is hardly useful without computer skills, director Guo Binghan now plans to integrate the courses into telecenter work. If students get to the point where they're complaining about censorship, then the center will have
done its job well.