Sprouting Online Democracy

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China is becoming known for its swift and effective spread of hi-tech applications. The freshest evidence is that Internet users are mushrooming and discussions in cyberspace are unprecedentedly dynamic. More than 103 million Chinese people, who form the second largest online group in the world, surf the Web. Meanwhile, e-mails, chat rooms, instant messaging services and wireless short text messaging are ubiquitous. It’s only a matter of time before the country becomes the world’s Internet champion in terms of number of users.

Considering China’s total population of 1.3 billion, the ratio of Web users is still low. Nevertheless, the fundamental effect of the Internet has already set the country on an irreversible course toward democracy and public participation in political, economic and social life. There seems no doubt that the advance of technology is precipitating the democratic progress of the country, and even helps create further social changes.

It is estimated that 20 percent of China’s Internet users, or some 20.6 million, regularly make use of online bulletin boards. As a result, discussion of state affairs and public concerns is actively carried out. Little did many analysts expect that the rising tide of online opinion would become an indispensable part of Chinese social life.

Online topics have turned out to be all-embracing–from environmental protection to official corruption, from traffic accidents to AIDS prevention, from the Iraq war to UN reforms. The subject matter is as multifarious and fantastic as one can imagine. To a certain extent, online observers and bloggers are trying to play the watchdog role, making the Internet a unique and irreplaceable channel for public opinion. Their role and function should not be underestimated.

All of this couldn’t have happened two decades ago. Fundamentally speaking, it is mighty and miraculous science that makes it happen now. The most dynamic and progressive ingredient of human society, science, which the Chinese call “the first productive force,” acts as a colossal engine for social progress. From a social point of view, however, science and its applicative form, technology, can hardly push society forward without open-minded people, and without their desire for a freer, more just, democratic, peaceful and prosperous society.

It is true that many Chinese Internet users, like those in other countries, are quite squeamish about government policies and performances. But they have never been regarded as a dissentient force by the government. After all, criticisms and suggestions are conducive to better governance. Actually, a large number of officials, including top leaders, are themselves Internet users. It’s common for a minister to surf the Net every day to know the public comments on what he has done and will do. And for those officials who have made their e-mail addresses available to their subordinates and the public, reading e-opinion is part of their daily routine.

The essence of democracy is the same everywhere. But its form is always different in accordance with national and cultural conditions. The Internet era may help establish an experimental plot for democracy in China. It’s the beginning of something positive and significant. And it’s just a small part of another big story that this country is offering to the world.


Reprinted from BEIJING REVIEW, 24 Baiwanzhuang Lu, Beijing 100037, China

LII HAIBO is Editor-in-Chief of BEIJING REVIEW, and was a featured speaker at our Parallax Views 2005 conference in Banff last October.

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