Will the Chinese authorities weave a Web of oppression?

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The received wisdom about the internet is that it is one of the great democratic channels of communication. It places increased power in the hands of individuals, challenges authority and gives a voice to the common man. Not so in China. Far from being an instrument of democratisation and the devolution of power, the internet is being treated in Beijing as a means of reasserting control over the masses.

The received wisdom about the internet is that it is one of the great democratic channels of communication. It places increased power in the hands of individuals, challenges authority and gives a voice to the common man. Not so in China. Far from being an instrument of democratisation and the devolution of power, the internet is being treated in Beijing as a means of reasserting control over the masses.

These are the findings of a new study from the Economist Business Unit called "Who's in Charge.cn - the orchestration of China's internet". The study says that after two decades of rapid economic growth and liberalisation, the Chinese authorities have seized upon the internet as a means of re-asserting their control over decentralised government in the provinces and the regions. We may worry about a few e-mail snooping directives here in the UK and fret about whether our credit cards are safe online. But for the Chinese the internet is Big Brother writ large.

According to the EIU report the internet will be used to link disparate local governments to Beijing, allowing central authorities to issue directives and collect information more efficiently than in the past. Nothing wrong with that, you might think. But the government also plans to keep tight control of the gateways to the World Wide Web. Internet users in China cannot access certain foreign websites and all domestic sites are censored at source.

Is this a case of China using a sledgehammer to crack a nut? China is still in the early stages of domestic take-up but the market is growing rapidly. According to the EIU there are currently around 17 million Chinese internet users compared with just 2 million a year ago. Usage is doubling every few months.

But though Net use is growing rapidly, e-commerce remains at a very early stage. A key stumbling block is low credit card ownership, though e-tailers are offering a cash-on-delivery service. Another issue is fulfilment where the prospect of delivering a book a thousand miles to the middle of a paddy field is clearly a non-starter. For this reason most e-commerce services in China are so far concentrated in the major cities. E-fulfilment has proved a problem there as well, however. Indeed, the oft-quoted joke about delivering Chinese e-parcels by rickshaw is not that far from the truth.

In Scotland, a member of the family behind the Christian Salvesen logistics empire is wooing the corporate gifts market with his groovychocolate.com idea. Jeremy Salvesen has developed a business which uses new technology to produce personalised chocolate bars for sale online. The business started in October as a result of brainstorming sessions within Duncan's Chocolate, the upmarket chocolate maker which Mr Salvesen bought a few years ago.

Groovychocolate enables customers to print any image, such as a picture of their mum or a corporate logo, on to a bar of chocolate for £9.95.

The company has enjoyed great success in the corporate market. Lexus cars bought a load for a party, apparently. Groovychocolate is also in talks with two Premiership football clubs to develop chocolate featuring the club's logo or pictures of their star players.

Mr Salvesen is now taking the idea on to the high street. He has signed a deal with Edinburgh Woollen Mills and is in talks with two major high street chains including Clinton Cards. Next stop is edible crosswords, Mr Salvesen says. The benefit here is that even if you can't finish the crossword at least you get to eat it.

n.cope@independent.co.uk

Comments