Set to surpass every other country in Internet users, China now has 485 million citizens capable of accessing the Web, the China Internet Network Information Center reported on July 19. This figure reflects growth of over 27 million people since the end of 2010 and a growth spurt of 36 percent in the past 12 months.
“The 28th Statistical Report on Internet Development in China,” also estimated that 500 million Chinese will be online by the end of 2011, making it number one globally.
Weibo, for example, has become the favorite site of Chinese netizens. And, although users are subject to a slew of censorship restrictions, in the first half of 2011 its users increased from 63 to 195 million, an increase of 208 percent in six months. The overall percentage of netizens who use Weibo rose from 13.8 to 40 percent.
Other areas of rapid growth were: 318 million who now have mobile access and 195 million who use microblogs.
Yet China’s Internet remains heavily censored. The most recent example is this month’s deliberate lid put on news of former Party boss Jiang Zemin’s apparent death. Online searches for his name, which is the character for “River,” or for the mere numeral “301,” which designates a military hospital for Party officials, turn up empty on Weibo.
Statements by Chinese and US officials over the past two years have highlighted the stark difference between the two countries’ approaches to the Web.
America sees the Internet as a resource for innovation and free expression, while the Chinese regime believes that heavily policing and deleting content is necessary to its rule. Common agreement cannot even be reached on the simple phrase “protecting computer networks,” given that sharing information in China is often a political question, and “protecting” networks can be another euphemism for censorship.
Simultaneously, while the Communist Party has developed a heavy-handed approach to containing and controlling the domestic Internet, they have also incubated an environment where Chinese hackers readily reach out to strike at other countries—particularly the United States. Many analysts suspect that the attacks from China are led and organized by the state, because of their sophistication and persistent nature.
On July 14, a US Deputy Defense Secretary speaking on cyber-security stated that cyber-attacks have risen sharply this past decade. In March alone, a foreign intelligence service was able to steal 24,000 files from a US defense contractor; the US did not say which country stole the materials, but in every other major case of its kind it has been China.
Analysts in the field believe that the Communist Party has a branch of its military dedicated to launching these cyberespionage operations.
A Sky News reporter went to China in May and discovered that China employs a large army of computer hackers, as a paramilitary resource capable of generating over a billion cyberattacks monthly, with the US Defense Department fending off several million every day.
A recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal places China front and center in concerns over cyberattacks against the United States. Richard Clarke, the author, writes: “…the government of China is systematically attacking the computer networks of the U.S. government and American corporations. Beijing is successfully stealing research and development, software source code, manufacturing know-how and government plans.”
He referred to “systematic penetrations of one industry after another” by Chinese hackers, and suggests that hackers from China—undoubtedly with the backing of, or perhaps under the aegis of the state—have planted “digital bombs” in the American electrical grid.