Guest Post: China: After the Earthquake, Before The Olympics

(Left photo: Paul Denlinger, Elliott Ng visit me at Forrester, Foster City, CA. If you’re interested in China and the internet, subscribe to their blogs)

Jeremiah: This is the second post from Paul Denlinger (read the first here), who’s living in China, an internet expert and reporting back to us. He provides us the perspective that few can and I’m happy to have his input. Coincidentally, Paul cam by my office with Ellliot Ng last Friday, they’re working on some exciting stuff, and I hope to be part of it later this year. Without further ado, Paul shares some key insights that relate to China’s culture and impact on communications.

China: After the Earthquake, Before The Olympics

For many social media analysts, it’s all too easy to think that social media is all new technologies for the Internet which make it possible for people to meet and share real-world experiences. In China though, it’s not so simple because it’s not just the technology which is new and changing, the whole society is changing, and changing very rapidly.

For many observers, and particularly the mainstream western media, there has been a near-obsession with China’s politics, and when it comes to the Internet, the issue of censorship and the GFW, or Great Firewall of China. For most Chinese, as independent issues, these are much less important than the underlying social trends which have become much more important, and much more apparent. Aside from the much greater prosperity of China over the past thirty years, there is a single greater trend, and that is toward greater openness which has been achieved through cheap and easy communications. This greater openness has not been achieved solely with the Internet, but more importantly, through cheap mobile communications offered through China’s mobile network.

Immediately after the Sichuan earthquake of May 12, most Chinese attempted to reach their loved ones in the quake-affected areas through the mobile network. In today’s China, the mobile phone network is the default method of communications, with the Internet as the second most common method of communications. These networks are changing quickly and melding, with a good deal of the change being driven by strong demand for the iPhone, even though Apple does not yet have a carrier agreement in the country. For many increasingly prosperous Chinese, the iPhone is their preferred mobile device for communications. Less than one year ago, the iPhone came as a status symbol; now it is preferred because it is user-friendly. Ten months ago, anyone with an iPhone would have turned heads. Now, it doesn’t even deserve a comment.

Aside from the tragic damage and loss of life, the May 12 Sichuan earthquake started a cascade of events which brought some social changes to the surface. For the first time, the Chinese government mourned at the loss of life of ordinary Chinese, and at the one week anniversary, even Internet users stopped their Google search queries out of respect for the dead. More than US$3 billion was estimated to have been sent to the homeless and injured in Sichuan through various organizations.

But nothing is simple in China. Many questioned whether the many charity organizations could be trusted with their donations, and some went so far as to buy goods, clothing and medicine, then took them to Sichuan to distribute them to the needy themselves. Other strangers organized themselves on the Internet, forming their own rescue missions to Sichuan.

From the government’s perspective, this massive outpouring of support was a double-edged sword. The unprecedented financial goods and support for the victims were good, but when the parents of dead children chose to ask why their childrens’ schools collapsed while government buildings were relatively unaffected, it chose to interpret this as a threat to the government’s authority and in some cases, tried to shut down discussion. The trouble with modern technology though, is that sometimes it is nearly impossible to shut down discussion, even though government entities control different chokepoints of communications. This put the Chinese government on the defensive, organizing online groups to support the government positions.

This became apparent in late June with an incident in Wengan in Guizhou province, where a young teenager died under mysterious circumstances, and in the ensuing chaos, a police station was burned down. While news of this incident was initially suppressed in China, videos quickly made their way to Youtube where they were viewed by those outside China, who then spread the news back to their friends and family in the country. In response, the Chinese government in Beijing swiftly fired the government officials in charge.

The trend toward more openness, transparency and accountability are not just demanded of the government. More and more people are demanding the same from businesses, and if they don’t get it, they complain quite openly about business practices they don’t agree with.

Today, China is standing at a crossroads. While the Chinese have enjoyed an unprecedented growth in wealth and basic human rights, including the basic right to homes and food, they want and expect more. In many respects, the buildings, roads and infrastructure created over the past ten years are newer and more modern than the US’s very dated and poorly maintained infrastructure. China’s rulers are slowly coming to the realization that building the infrastructure hardware is the easy part; the real challenge lies in building the human software and practices which come with managing a first-world country.

The Chinese government is slowly coming to the realization that as the Chinese people become more prosperous, they are demanding more of their government, including transparency and accountability, and if they don’t get it, some of them are prepared to take action. The society is becoming more noisy, and more democratic, and the Internet and mobile communications have played an enabling role for the people.

Paul Denlinger is a China-based Internet analyst and consultant. He publishes his own blog at China Vortex.