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Special Report: China

Beijing has watchful eye on Internet growth


Cell phones are the rage in many of China’s cities where upward mobility is still a novel term. Home phone installations, which take months or years, have moved many newly affluent Chinese into satellite connections.

It is common to see bicyclists -- men in suits or women in heels -- riding busy streets while talking on their cell phones. Several years back, using a cell phone in a public setting was seen as a status symbol, a “must” for any young Chinese entrepreneur. The uniqueness -- and status -- such a phone brought has apparently worn off, I was told. But only because the number of users has escalated from the tens of thousands to the hundreds of thousands.

One evening while eating at a restaurant, I listened to the ringing of cell phones at three adjacent tables, each seating eight. I counted more than 45 rings during a 45-minute dinner. These Chinese are wired.

China is also getting on the Web -- though the government remains watchful and suspicious.

I carried a laptop to China, thinking I might be able to use it to connect to the World Wide Web. It was unnecessary. All but one of the hotels in which we stayed had designated business centers, rooms with one or two computers and printers -- and Internet access. Sometimes night staff use the computers to run invoices or search databases on Chinese versions of Microsoft Office. Internet is still so new in China that on two occasions I found myself teaching local staff how to make the connections.

The Chinese use 9 million computers, and the number of Internet users rose from 620,000 to over 1 million between February and May 1998, according to the China Daily. All servers must be registered with the government. It is assumed by all that these operations are closely monitored.

One evening I attempted to connect with CNN News at cnn.com, only to find the site blocked. I learned that the CNN site remains blocked in retaliation for CNN’s broadcasts during the Tiananmen Square massacres in 1989. Inexplicably, CNN, the television network, continues to be broadcast via satellite to most hotels that cater to foreigners.

National Catholic Reporter, January 29, 1999