In the late 1990s, the Chinese government undertook two initiatives that would tie the country more closely to the rest of the world. It opened internet access to significant numbers of Chinese people, and it forged a path for China to join the World Trade Organization (WTO).
China was coming out of a long period of relative isolation. The country still bore the marks of the destructive Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. A period of opening in the 1980s was capped by widespread demands for political reform and deadly repression at Tiananmen Square—violence that cooled ties between the Chinese Communist Party and foreign governments.
But in the 1990s, Chinese leaders grew determined to deepen their country’s integration with the world. They saw the value in greater access to global markets and technologies like the internet, even at the cost of sacrificing a degree of authority. If the People’s Republic was to survive and flourish, they believed, it could no longer stand apart.
US thinkers generally welcomed these moves, expecting them to erode the power of the Chinese Communist Party. In March 2000, after the United States reached a deal with China that would lead to WTO accession, President Bill Clinton said Chinese leaders “realize that if they open China's markets to global competition, they risk unleashing forces beyond their control… But they also know that, without competition from the outside, China will not be able to attract the investment necessary to build a modern, successful economy.” American officials believed that greater integration with global markets had the potential to push China toward political liberalization.
They believed that the internet would have a similar effect. In the same March 2000 speech, Clinton famously quipped that trying to crack down on the internet was “like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.” “We know how much the internet has changed America, and we are already an open society,” Clinton observed. “Imagine how much it could change China.”
China, of course, was not an open society, and its government would go on to develop powerful, carefully calibrated methods to control the way the internet operated there. Over the past twenty years, Chinese officials have been remarkably successful in reaping the economic benefits of both the internet and global markets—with significant costs to workers and the environment—while managing the threats to domestic stability and continued Communist Party rule.
More recently, however, the Chinese government has moved to assert even greater control. Since Xi Jinping’s ascendency to the Communist Party leadership in 2012, it has become clear that Chinese leaders perceive some forms of international economic entanglement as risks to the political system, and that they see closer state supervision of the internet as essential to preserving their power.
Despite American idealism about the liberating power of free trade, free markets, and the internet’s open architecture, neither joining the WTO nor getting online created a free society in China. It’s easy to understand why. China’s government, market, and society were not passive recipients of influence from external rules and principles. Instead, they actively adapted the structures of international connectivity to serve their own purposes. Life in China is indelibly transformed by the links forged in the late 1990s, but not in the ways that Americans observers expected.
When looking back on China’s life with the internet, five distinct eras emerge:
The Late 1990s: Booting Up
In the late 1990s, the Chinese internet grows fast. Starting from a small user base centered around major universities and research institutions, it rapidly becomes popular among a population that skews urban, well-off, well-educated, and young.
Mid-1995 – There are 40,000 internet users in China, up from only 3,000 earlier that year.
1997 – NetEase is founded. One of China’s foundational internet companies, it provides games, news, communications, and a good old-fashioned internet portal.
Feb 1999 – Tencent QQ is released. A simple, lightweight chat app adopted widely by individuals and businesses. Users are identified by simple numbers that are still widely used in advertisements.
April 1999 – Alibaba is founded. A business-to-business e-commerce company that develops into a consumer and financial goliath.
The Early 2000s: Awaiting Scale
In the early 2000s, Chinese tech companies, especially Alibaba, lay the foundations for the pervasive urban e-commerce environment that would emerge fifteen years later. They’re waiting for one thing: scale. State control is relatively light and lags innovation, although online monitoring and censorship are already underway.
January 2000 – Baidu is founded. China’s top search engine, and now a company with great AI ambitions.
March 2000 – Bill Clinton thinks trying to crack down on the internet is like “trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.” But the internet in China develops within the context of a political regime finding mechanisms to ensure continued control—not a government sleepwalking into a digitally driven revolution.
December 2000 – There are 22.5 million internet users in China.
May 2003 – Alibaba launches Taobao, bringing everyday online shopping to consumers and connecting small shops to a broader market. Alibaba, with its intense focus on China’s specific needs, out-competes eBay, which eventually leaves the Chinese market.
2003 – Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak. The spread of SARS news online, combined with the government’s efforts to cover up the severity of the outbreak, demonstrated the ability of internet and mobile phone networks to break the propaganda authorities’ hold on a major story.
2004 – Alipay launches, facilitating online payments. By holding payment in escrow until a buyer is satisfied with the product, Alipay gives buyers confidence in online platforms.
2004 – Journalist Shi Tao is arrested for leaking state secrets after Yahoo gives data to Chinese authorities that link him to an email account.
The Late 2000s: Cat and Mouse Era
In the late 2000s, China’s online censorship apparatus becomes more sophisticated. Censors suppress search results, block entire websites or specific pages within them, or give users a “connection reset” error when a restricted keyword appears in a URL.
At the same time, patriotic fervor around the Olympics and related controversies in 2008, as well as a thriving culture of euphemisms and ironic references, signal the explosion of China’s digital public sphere. It appears that, just maybe, the scale and dynamism of the internet could prove too hard for the government to control.
2005 — Yahoo China turns over control of its services to Alibaba after middling market performance and high political costs abroad after the Shi Tao case in 2004.
December 2005 — There are 111 million internet users in China.
2008 — Major international platforms, especially YouTube, are blocked for a few hours or days at a time, and then unblocked. The government shuts down access when it deems necessary—but not permanently.
8/8/08 — The 2008 Olympics in Beijing opens at 8:08 p.m. on August 8, 2008, in a country where the number eight is considered lucky. When protests against Chinese practices in Tibet and elsewhere greet the Olympic Torch Relay around the world, nationalism surges online around slogans like “Red Heart China,” signaling both love of country and communist red.
2009 – Users are blocked from using profanity or discussing politically sensitive topics online, so they use clever homophones to circumvent censorship. One popular homophone is “grass-mud-horse” (草泥马 cǎonímǎ), which sounds like “fuck your mother“ (肏你妈 càonǐmā). The coinage is popularized in a viral video that uses alpacas to illustrate the invented grass-mud-horse, and pictures of alpacas become a symbolic f-you to government censors.
July 2009 – Internet access is shut down in Xinjiang for months following violence in the region.
August 2009 – Sina Weibo launches. Weibo means “microblog,” and the site offers a Twitter-like service for sharing short posts with followers.
The Early 2010s: Nailing Jell-O to the Wall
Opening with the exuberance of Sina Weibo’s heyday and ending with the consolidation of internet authorities in the Cyberspace Administration of China, the early 2010s marks a transition from the free-wheeling aughts to the present era of tight control. As Sina Weibo rises in prominence, enabling millions of people to reach enormous audiences quickly, business titans and individual bloggers alike criticize the government. This dynamic chills precipitously after Chinese authorities crack down on the so-called “Big Vs”—verified accounts with large followings.
Meanwhile, Chinese officials are increasingly aware of the security risks posed by the internet after the eruption of the Arab Spring in 2011 and Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations of US spying practices. Through technical means, as well as by creating an atmosphere of fear among the most influential online voices, the Chinese government nails Jell-O to the wall.
January 2010 – Google shuts down its mainland China search engine, which had controversially implemented Chinese government censorship orders. Google’s market share was never large, but its products had a devoted following.
December 2010 – There are 547 million internet users in China.
January 2011 – Tencent WeChat launches. WeChat is a robust chat platform offering text, voice, and video, from the same company behind the ubiquitous QQ chat app.
2010–2011 – Arab Spring. A series of so-called “Twitter revolutions” unleash instability in several authoritarian states. For Chinese authorities, these events underline the risk of unfettered online communication.
November 2012 – Xi Jinping becomes General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party.
March 2013 – Xi Jinping becomes President of China.
June 2013 – Edward Snowden leaks files on US spying, revealing US intelligence capabilities to Chinese officials and people around the world.
2013 – Crackdown on the Big Vs. The golden age of Sina Weibo ends as authorities target several prominent users with strong-arm tactics.
2014 – The Cyberspace Administration of China is founded, reflecting the administrative challenge of coordinating internet regulation among authorities focused on high-tech development, public security, and propaganda.
Late 2010s: China’s Own Innovations
By the late 2010s, more than half of the population is using the internet, predominantly through mobile phones. But this means that the other half still aren’t online—a divide that is increasingly relevant as mobile apps become essential tools for personal finance, commerce, and transportation.
There is no significant loosening of government controls over speech and political mobilization since 2013. At the same time, services driven by mobile technologies and machine learning algorithms are proliferating. Tech companies handle so many types of transactions that their systems have reordered the streetscape, where workers move goods bought and sold online and people hop on and off of shared bikes. Despite China’s particularities and Communist Party censorship and controls, some Chinese internet innovations go big abroad—including those dockless shared bikes now seen around the world, pioneered by Chinese companies like Mobike and Ofo.
December 2015 – There are 688 million internet users in China.
January 2017 – WeChat introduces mini-programs, which run inside the app and allow users to interact with other services. By the next year, mini-programs will number more than 1 million.
June 2017 – China’s Cybersecurity Law goes into effect, laying the groundwork for one of the world’s most comprehensive internet regulatory regimes.
July 2017 – The New Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan is released, drawing international attention for its ambitions to make China a world-leading AI developer by 2030.
December 2017 – Official statistics report that 527 million Chinese use mobile payments, and the top services—AliPay and WeChat Pay—report rapid user and volume growth.
January 2018 – Ant Financial, an affiliate of Alibaba, is fined and publicly apologizes for an app that pre-checks the opt-in box for its Sesame Credit service, which provides credit scores. Greater public awareness of the risks around personal data begins to take hold.
March 2018 – The main interagency regulator, the Cyberspace Administration of China, gains greater political clout when its bureaucratic parent organization is upgraded.
April 2018 – As the US government escalates its economic confrontation with China, Xi Jinping emphasizes the need for “indigenous innovation” in “core technologies” such as semiconductors, especially in the face of US threats to block the flow of crucial components to Chinese telecommunications giant ZTE.
Early 2019 — The U.S. government, concerned about China-based companies such as Huawei and ZTE growing their presence in global IT infrastructure, charges Huawei with sanctions and intellectual property violations while urging friendly governments to block the company's products from next-generation 5G wireless networks.
Early 2020s and Beyond: What’s Next?
Back in the 1990s, both Chinese officials concerned about retaining control and American observers hoping for liberalization believed that the internet would change China. Now that the fourth and fifth eras of China’s internet development have cultivated a largely separate online ecosystem, the question becomes whether China will change the rest of the world.
Efforts by Chinese companies to sell their technology overseas mean that products designed for China’s authoritarian context could form the backbone of connectivity in a wide range of societies. Assuming that China’s politics will travel with its machines, however, is a lot like assuming that US democracy would travel with the internet. Beware of confident predictions.
The coming years will present a profusion of automated and autonomous technologies, the deep integration of networks into physical space, and profound challenges surrounding privacy and accountability. How China’s state and society meet this moment will shape not only China’s future, but the rest of the world’s.