China finally takes a byte

Chinese surfers can access Rupert Murdoch's new Web site, writes Teresa Poole from Peking
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Indy Lifestyle Online
After nearly two years negotiating a host of technical, bureaucratic and political hurdles, Rupert Murdoch's Internet joint venture in China finally went online last week. The "ChinaByte" Web site offers for the first time China's fast-growing number of Internet users easy access to Chinese-language software and the latest information technology news.

ChinaByte has been developed by PDN Xinren Information Technology, a joint venture company set up in June 1995 by Mr Murdoch's News Corporation and the People's Daily, China's Communist Party mouthpiece. The venture was one of Mr Murdoch's attempts to repair his business relationship with China after remarking in 1993 that "advances in the technology of telecommunications [has proved to be] an unambiguous threat to totalitarian regimes everywhere".

The predominance of English language material on the Net has been a hindrance to many mainland computer users. "For Chinese speakers, it meant being relegated to the slow lane," says Bruce Dover, general manger of PDN. Chinabyte has "put them back on an equal footing with their Western counterparts". On the second full day of operation, the Chinabyte Web site was visited by more than 2,000 users.

Those involved in the project like to see PDN as a hopeful sign that the Chinese government is adopting a more positive attitude to the Internet, despite the World Wide Web's ability to bring information into a country where the media is still under strict state control. Last summer, the Chinese authorities blocked access to a large number of Web sites including those run by Western news services such as CNN and The Washington Post. By the end of last year, the blocks on Western media sites were lifted, although dissident and human rights sites remain blocked.

It is difficult to estimate the real number of Chinese Net surfers. There are between 35,000 and 100,000 individual computers logging on to the Internet in China, says Mr Dover, but surveys suggest that up to 30 people sometimes share the same computer and password.

PDN, under the watchful eye of the People's Daily, is an information technology company, and not a media organisation. ChinaByte's six channels include a database of information technology companies in China and the latest product news and reviews. The site will be "advertising driven", says Mr Dover, admitting "it will be two to three years before we can get a full return on the investment". News Corporation has invested about $2.5m in PDN.

Getting the venture up and running has been a challenge. It took seven months to set up an Internet connection, and there was also the technical difficulty of making ChinaByte available in both Chinese characters (as used on the mainland) and traditional Chinese script (as used in Taiwan and Hong Kong).

Although the Chinese government still insists on controlling all the Internet access nodes in China, it is keen to encourage the information technology industry. This month the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications unveiled plans to boost Internet access by 150,000 domestic users this year. The People's Daily itself went online this month. "They are not trying to strangle it [the Internet], as we thought for a while," says Mr Dovern

ChinaByte (http://www.chinabyte.com)

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