Block-then-Diffusion: a hypothesis for the internet development in China

As the visualization of internet user growth in East Asian and Chinese regions indicate, the internet development in China experienced better-than-history growth after 2006. Based on further examination of the data using innovation diffusion theory, I further argue that the internet development in China was actually “suppressed” significantly in the early 2000s. Since there is no plausible hypothesis to account for such patterns of first-suppressed-then-released growth around 2006, I propose a hypothesis of block-then-diffusion to explain such historical turn. In short, the internet diffusion processes in China is blocked and suppressed in the early 2000s, and then its growth took off around 2006 when *domestic* websites provide good enough services that are more compatible with Chinese government’s demands.

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Note in the following graphs, a clear contrast exists in the comparison of the historical internet penetration rates between East Asian (EA) regions and Chinese (CN) regions. These figures clearly show that before 2006, the internet penetration rates were suppressed below East Asian trends. Chinese regions only make a huge come-back after 2006.

Note [Figures].

Based on previous post and East Asian development history, I have prepared the following East Asian statistics for meaningful comparison

  • EA.avg1 represents the arithmetic mean of internet penetration rates of all East Asian regions.
  • EA.avg2 represents the arithmetic mean of internet penetration rates of all East Asian regions except Japan.
  • EA.avg3 represents the arithmetic mean of internet penetration rates of all East Asian regions except Japan and Four Asian Dragons (South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore).
  • CN.avg2 represents the arithmetic mean of internet penetration rates of all Chinese regions.
  • CN2 represents the internet penetration rates for China.

My previous research on the competition history between Baidu Baike and Chinese Wikipedia has lead me to find this anomaly. It is unexpected because the diffusion rates for Chinese regions not only depart from the theoretical S-curve of innovation diffusion theory, but also depart from their East Asian counterparts. In particular, the contrast between Chinese regions and East Asian regions without more advanced Japan and four Asian dragons ( represented by EA.avg3 curve) clearly indicates that China was lagging behind other East Asian regions before 2006, a trend that is only reversed after 2006 with real rapid growth in internet penetration rates. The contrasting rates between Shanghai and Malaysia and between Beijing and Taiwan also confirm the historical pattern identified above (Note the relatively flat rates of diffusion for Beijing and Shanghai from 2002 to 2006).

For all possible reasons, the actual internet penetration rates may depart from the standard S-curve of innovation diffusion, but the fact that other East Asian regions roughly follow the standard S-curve of innovation diffusion respectively and generally (as shown by the arithmetic means here) present a mystery for the internet development in China. Why the internet penetration rates were suppressed before 2006 and, whatever the contributing factors are, why don’t they prohibit the rapid growth after 2006?

Again, my previous research on the competition history between Baidu Baike and Chinese Wikipedia has suggested one hypothesis: they are suppressed in the early 2000s for various internet governance issues but they are released from prior constraints when domestic websites were made ready.

  1. In the early 2000s, the internet diffusion rates in mainland Chinese regions were suppressed because of the blocks of foreign websites, lack of mature/sophisticated domestic service and content providers, not-yet-stable filtering technologies and fluctuating censorship measures. Indeed, major internet regulations are released in 2000 and 2002 (Lee, 2009). The major technological update on Chinese filtering technologies, commonly known as the “Great Firewall of China”, was in place also in September 2002 (Eastwood, 2008). Thus, although many observers claim that mainland Chinese regions have already experienced “rapid growth” in the early 2000s, such statements may be misleadingly false. It could be that in absolute values,the growth in the sheer number of Chinese internet users was impressive enough for some. However, as the above data clearly shows, the early 2000s were by no means a rapid growth period for Chinese regions, not even when compared with other East Asian regions.
  2. If my hypothesis is true for the early 2000s, then it is also true for the late 2000s. Whatever has suppressed the growth before 2006 seem to be gone. Of course I do not mean that internet filtering and censorship were gone after 2006, they have stayed. *Domestic* service and content providers had become mature and sophisticate enough to satisfy its users. Filtering technologies, after years of *testing* and *tuning*, had become effective and stable enough. Censorship *Standard Operating Procedures* had settled into mundane routines. The most important social segment of innovation diffusion process, *the early majority* group of new internet users, began to enter the front stage of the internet development history for Chinese regions, exactly around the years of 2006-2008, just before the Beijing Olympic Games.

Thus I have this tentative block-then-diffusion hypothesis to explain why and how internet diffusion rates were “suppressed” in the early 2000s and then “released” after 2006 when the domestic websites (and internet filtering regime) are ready. There might be other plausible causes for such historical shift. I have considered other external social factors such as urbanization or data factors such as shifting operational definition of “internet users”. However, the urbanization data is relatively steady throughout 2000s without any sudden change that can explain the sudden change of internet penetration rates around 2006. I have also checked the operational definition of “internet users”, particularly around the years of 2005, 2006 an 2007, and finds no such shift in definition.

What else may have contributed to the suppressed growth before 2006 and released rapid growth after that? Please share your thoughts!


Lee Yonggang (李永刚). 2009. Our great firewall : expression and governance in the era of the internet (我们的防火墙: 网络时代的表达与监管). Guangxi Normal University Press 广西师范大学出版社. 
Eastwood, Lindsay. 2008. “Don’t Be Evil: Google Faces the Chinese Internet Market and the Global Online Freedom Act of 2007.” Minn. JL Sci. & Tech. 9: 287.

List of Figures




Note: Citing this

Since the materials and arguments here in this post will be part of the thesis and will seek publication in the near future, please contact me for latest citation or simply cite the following work. For machine-readable export, please click right-click to save: bibtex | bookmarks | mods | refer | rdf_bibliontology | rdf_dc | rdf_zotero | ris | wikipedia
Liao, H.-T. (2014). The Cultural Politics of User-Generated Encyclopedias: Comparing Chinese Wikipedia and Baidu Baike (DPhil thesis). University of Oxford, Oxford, UK.

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