During the 1980s and 1990s, one of the most read books in China was The Third Wave by American writer and futurist Alvin Toffler. The biggest takeaway for China was that it could not miss the third wave of transformation of human society, which involves the internet and information technology, after being left behind during the previous wave of industrialisation.

People glued to their smartphones crossing a street in Shanghai. Photo: Reuters

Three decades on, it is fair to say that China is one of the most successful countries in embracing the internet.

Once an economic and technological backwater, China now has the world’s largest population of internet users and leads the world in the adoption of some internet services such as e-commerce and cashless payments.

Behind the popularity of those services is a powerful and effective nationwide network that allows people to be connected anywhere via reliable and affordable systems.

China’s internet development has been a process of learning and adaptation, which shows the true entrepreneurship of the Chinese people. In the beginning, the country had to learn everything from scratch, whether it was hardware or software. Its start-ups had to look to their US peers when designing business models.

Sohu, one of China’s major internet portals, borrowed its page design from Yahoo. The interface of the Baidu search engine, which launched in 2000, resembled Google’s. The first popular service launched by Tencent Holdings, a chat tool introduced in 1999 called OICQ and later renamed QQ, was a thinly veiled clone of AOL’s ICQ.

But Chinese firms quickly proved that they were more than just quick learners. Once they started adapting the internet to the unique demands of Chinese users, their services saw explosive growth, resulting in the birth of tech giants.

For instance, China didn’t invent the QR code, but its application helped the country become a cashless society in a spectacular mobile payments revolution.
WeChat and Alipay QR payment codes seen at a vegetable market in Beijing. Photo: AFP
When Chinese internet firms unleash their services on the global stage, some of them have become formidable players, as in the case of Shein and Temu, which have risen on the back of the country’s manufacturing expertise. TikTok, the international version of ByteDance’s Douyin, has proven extremely capable in grabbing the attention of teenagers and older users.

In short, the internet has accelerated China’s economic rise and offered an arena for the country to shine.

Meanwhile, China has also changed how the internet is perceived and regulated. The country has developed a web of technological and legal barriers, known as the Great Firewall, to keep unwanted online content in check.
While Beijing’s efforts to tame the internet were initially ridiculed as “nailing Jell-O to the wall”, it has pushed ahead with its own model of internet governance.
People played computer games at an internet cafe in Beijing in 2021. Photo: AFP

Around the world, anonymity is regarded as a hallmark of the free internet, but it no longer exists under China’s internet regulation, with the state being able to identify almost every social media account set up in the country, and trace every piece of information and digital avatar to individuals in the real world.

Beijing is also trying to manage the flow of data on the internet across the border, like cargo imports and exports. Its track record of using the internet to foster economic growth while trying to minimise its disruptive effects has made the country confident in promoting its model to other nations.

China’s regulations sound like music to the ears of certain governments that are struggling to contain the impact of social media and generative artificial intelligence.

Still, even as China remains happy about its attempts at taming the internet and turning cyberspace into a walled garden, it should be aware of the potential costs, including the risk of being marginalised in future technological waves.

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