There were more than 600 million Internet users in China at the end of 2013. And by the end of 2014 it is predicted that China will be home to the largest e-commerce market on the planet. On November 11, 2013, Alibaba, the Chinese Internet giant which created the Double 11 e-fest and is about to launch an historic IPO in the U.S., rang up $5.75 billion in sales in just one 24-hour period.
Beyond its massive scope and reach, however, there are a couple of fundamental differences between Internet China and the Western World Wide Web. And both, not surprisingly, mirror the fundamental difference between the deductively grounded worldview of the West and the inductively holistic worldview of the Middle Kingdom.
The first relates to e-commerce and reflects the importance of relationship in Chinese culture. While much of Chinese culture turns on personal obligation, all relationships are personal. And because the Chinese cannot personalize institutions to the extent that Westerners often do, there is a natural suspicion of all commercial institutions.
As a result, Amazon, which is synonymous with e-tailing in the U.S., is a distant laggard here to industry leaders JD.com and Alibaba (Tmall & Taobao), which together account for close to 90% of the massive e-tail market in China. The Amazon model is a brand model built on the strength and credibility of the company’s core brand – itself. JD.com and Alibaba, by contrast, employ e-tail models that serve to facilitate peer review to the point of actual shopper branding through a complex system of peer endorsement that ultimately rates both the product and the reviewer, resulting in a community of virtual personal relationships that ultimately drive buying behavior.
The second difference between Internet China and the Western WWW, of course, is a little more obvious and a lot more controversial – at least in the West. While the U.S. and other Western countries have resisted any temptation to regulate or otherwise limit the use of the Internet, the Chinese Internet is highly regulated.
The Chinese, as a result, cannot access Facebook or Twitter or YouTube or any of the other Western social media outlets that have been virtually woven into the fabric of Western culture. (There are Chinese versions of each, but they are not simply translated copies. They are Chinese in both style and social structure.) Nor can they access pornography – in any form. (Some estimate that as much as 30% of all Internet traffic in the West is porn.) There are actually laws on the books that prohibit using the Internet to spread false rumors or malicious lies. And, yes, there is censorship of political content determined to be offensive or inappropriate.
And, for the most part, the Chinese abide. Not out of fear or ignorance or even the sense of powerlessness to do anything about it. They abide because, in their worldview, everything must be evaluated in context.
While the rational foundation of all liberal democracy is that political legitimacy flows from the individual, the source of all political legitimacy in China flows from the government’s collective obligation to protect and sustain the larger Chinese family – the common good. And while it is the fundamental belief that individual rights are the very foundation of common good that gave rise to Western democracy, it is the more holistic, outcome-oriented worldview of common good that defines the roles of the governing and the governed in the Confucian worldview of rites and obligation.
There are, of course, pros and cons to both political systems and the polar worldviews on which they are built. Within the liberal democracies of the West the dangers of rogue government behavior is minimized by the fundamental expectation of government transparency and the empowerment of the individual to demand accountability at the ballot box. On the other side of the ledger, however, individuals with money and power can bend the political agenda in ways that potentially compromise the common good. (Take your pick of special interests that control the political agenda of the West today.)
Under the one party socialist system (There are actually 8 officially recognized political parties in China, although one calls all the shots.), on the other hand, the government can act swiftly and decisively in the interest of social advancement. Airports, rail lines, and highways can be completed in a fraction of the time it would take such projects to wind their way through the courts in the U.S. And the government can act swiftly to halt the dissemination of false rumor or spiteful content that might otherwise harm innocent netizens or institutions. With such power, however, comes the risk of silencing constructive dissent and productive political dialogue. The line between promoting the common good and oppressing the common good can, of course, be a matter of perspective.
To the Western mind political censorship is never defensible. As deductive reasoners we believe in absolutes; absolute morality, absolute truth, the absolute belief that all men are created equal and the absolute source of all government legitimacy. Through such an absolute lens, context is merely oppressive rationalization.
In the world of inductive reasoning that is at the heart of the Chinese worldview, however, context is everything. Outcome trumps process. Achievement trumps language. Rights are both situational and relative.
To the average Chinese person, therefore, the question is not whether the government should censor or not. (They will point out that while the U.S. government doesn’t censor, it does snoop, and the end result isn’t all that different when it comes to personal rights.) To them it is a question of context. Why? And how does this one piece fit into the larger puzzle?
There is a rational justification for regulation. Like the printing press before it, the Internet is an extrapolator. It is a lever of influence. And levers, through leverage, extrapolate impact. A modestly strong man, with leverage, can move boulders many times his size and mass.
And so it is with the Internet. Individual voices with no established audience can be broadcast across the world. Tiny companies, whose products would be lost in the crushing swells of traditional commerce, can build global markets with little more than an idea and a keyboard. And dreamers, once confined to their own thoughts, can inspire a legion of followers.
But with every great benefit comes a potential curse. Extrapolation begets exaggeration, and since the Internet is itself a neutral, unassuming lever, veracity is not a prerequisite to its impact. Rumors and myths are disseminated at the same speed as truth and facts. Commercial fraud and products of no redeeming social value (e.g. porn) are granted the same access to potential customers that legitimate commercial providers and worthy causes are. Those who mean us harm are given the same power to organize as those who wish to celebrate our success.
As Yogi Berra once said, “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice but in practice there is.” What the Chinese that I know want is not to post political dissent on the Internet but a better environment, better medical care, and a better life for their children.
And that, ultimately, is the context within which all governments are measured – the context of hope. When people have hope for themselves and their children, as the Chinese currently do, everything else is mere ideology.
In the end, the Chinese, as they so often do, have taken a less absolute, more holistic approach to managing their virtual community. It is the Internet with Chinese characteristics – characteristics of realism and balance with an eye toward achieving the best outcome for all. In short, individual rights within the context of hope for a better life.
Copyright © 2014 Glassmaker in China
Notice: The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity. They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.