Charles Leadbeater: The real war for democracy is on the web

A large protest in Xiamen forced the authorities to reconsider plans for a new chemical factory

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The Chinese Communist party is slowly being pulled into a vortex created by the web from which it will find it hard to extract itself. It is in our interests that it fails to do so.

China is about to become the world's largest web society, overtaking the US with more than 210 million users and six million more logging on every month. The Government cannot afford to turn off the tap. Chinese internet users are younger than their counterparts in the US, more likely to be addicted to the web – because there are fewer other distractions – and more likely to go online together in net cafes. The web is becoming part of the fabric of Chinese society.

The growth of the Chinese internet has fuelled a web nationalism not seen anywhere else. Chinese imitators of US web services are national virility symbols. Alibaba has trumped eBay; Baidu is bigger in Mandarin search than Google.

A prime exponent of this web nationalism is Timothy Chen. In 1999 Chen left his job as a government adviser to start his own business, Shanda, providing massive multi-player games.

Now Shanda claims 60 per cent of the booming Chinese online games market and tens of millions of registered users. Shanda distributes its content by giving away the game's software so it can be copied millions of times over.

However, before someone can start playing a Shanda game, they have to activate it, which means providing a credit card or a PIN from a pre-paid card purchased from a newsagent. The games are huge social events: the more players there are, the more action there is.

When a player runs into payment difficulties, he loses the character he has developed. He could buy a new character quite cheaply, but that would mean starting from scratch. The alternative is to go to Shanghai to reclaim the original character. That costs ten times more. Nevertheless, every morning hundreds of people line up outside the Shanda headquarters to reclaim their characters, such is the strength of their attachment to their online identities. Chen's newest game is called World Hegemony. The Chinese government likes Shanda and the other home-grown web companies because they keep the web safe. Shanda has 9,000 servers but only 2,300 staff organising millions of games players. The Chinese web is nothing like the freewheeling, open, peer-to-peer network for sharing ideas devised in the Bay Area in the 1960s.

Yet the Chinese government has the web under control only thanks to a system of censorship which is testimony to the web's disruptive potential.

Every website in China has to be registered with the authorities. Cyber café owners are enlisted as informants. It is rumoured 54,000 Chinese police are working in cyberspace. Internet service providers have to comply with state regulations on content. Access to websites using words like democracy and freedom is restricted. Logging onto the BBC is pointless.

At some point soon, however, these restrictions on collaboration and sharing will start to limit the web's economic impact, which rests on its being open to a mass of decentralised participation from many sources.

The sheer size, spread and inventiveness of the Chinese internet could create a new civic space with enormous potential. The protesters in Tiananmen Square could be boxed in by tanks. That is harder to achieve on the web. In December 2005, for example, news filtered out through the internet that Chinese police had killed villagers in Guangdong province protesting against a wind farm that threatened their livelihoods. To suppress news of the protests, the authorities shut down cybercafés in neighbouring areas, cut off internet access to residents, impeded queries for the town's name on search engines and erased blog mentions of the incident. Despite all that, a human-rights group investigated the incident and posted its report online.

Thousands of local struggles like that are breaking out across China. The web works well for people who want to organise without having the trappings of a traditional organisation, especially when it is combined with the mobile phone.

In Asia, possession of a mobile phone and connection to the internet are symbols of modernity, just as fridges and televisions were in the US in the 1950s. The difference is that the mobile phone and the internet are not dumb consumer goods; they can become tools for democracy.

In the Philippines in January 2001, four days of popular protests in Manila involving thousands of mobile phone-touting demonstrators, led to the removal of President Estrada, who was facing corruption charges. Gossip about Estrada's corruption had accumulated from 1998 in online forums. By 2001, there were 200 websites devoted to the subject and more than 100 email discussion groups.

Gloria Arroyo, a Harvard-trained economist, replaced Estrada, but was herself hounded from office thanks to a 17-second mobile phone ringtone that was a recording of her arranging to rig the forthcoming election. The ringtone was downloaded one million times from the website of Txtpower.org, which has become a political force in its own right in the Philippines. President Roh Moo-Hyun won the December 2002 elections in South Korea largely thanks to his online supporters' group Nosamo. On election day, 800,000 emails were sent to mobile phones urging people to vote, swinging the election in Roh's direction. That kind of mobile web politics is starting to emerge in China.

A large protest in Xiamen, in Fujian province last year, forced the authorities to reconsider plans for a new chemical factory. An outcry by bloggers forced the authorities to arrest four suspects in the killing of Wei Wenhua, who had used his mobile phone to film municipal officials fighting villagers.

The net is slowly changing US politics: the internet is home territory for Barack Obama. But its biggest impact on democracy will be in China. That is why it so vital for us in the West to preserve the internet as an open global commons for the exchange of information and ideas and to resist it being controlled either by corporations or governments.

Or put it this way: by mid-2007, the US government had spent perhaps $650bn on the war to bring democracy to Iraq and then to the rest of the Middle East. Yet only four per cent of people in the Arab world have broadband access. The most potent way to promote a civilian surge for democracy in the Middle East would be to get that figure above 50 per cent. The web is now the most potent tool we have for promoting the soft power of democracy.

Charles Leadbeater's new book 'We Think: Mass innovation, not mass production' is published by Profile.

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