Maritime Internet hypothesis: beyond the North Atlantic

Because of the central role of submarine cable in the global Internet infrastructure, the locality of the Internet development is historically embedded in the maritime history of the world, with its geopolitical, cultural and political implications.

The previous research has indicated a clear shift to Asia in submarine cables development, and Bill’s recent research on “a new Internet world” consisting new Internet users from different corners of the world (see “Emerging Contours of a New Internet World“) has also suggested “a shifting centre of gravity in those who use the Internet”. I have also demonstrated in my previous blog post how the Internet diffusion in East Asian and Chinese regions can be visualized in part to show one important piece of the shift in China (and thus East Asia). Putting these maps together, it becomes clear that for many regions in the world, the Internet development has reinforced or created a development pattern that can be described as tilting towards certain maritime development beyond the North Atlantic.  Lack of better phrases, I will tentatively call it a hypothesis of the maritime Internet: for many people and regions in the world, the Internet development may be reinforcing the historical legacies (or burdens) of their Maritime past, which must be contextualized and historicized for understanding the impact of the Internet.

I further argue that the maritime Internet hypothesis is of great importance to Chinese Internet research and Chinese studies because of the following reasons. First, as historians on modern China  have attempted, the abstraction of a “Maritime China” is, while a relatively minor tradition of the long Chinese history, an essential piece for understanding modern China. Fairbank has used the abstractions of Maritime China versus Continental China to introduce readers to the overall modern history of China, explaining major themes of foreign presence, revolutions and Chinese politics, particularly for late Qing to early Republican China . Wang has further updated the theme of Maritime China versus Continental China by describing the more recent Chinese economic reform (or Gǎigé kāifàng; literally “Reform and Opening up”), and the related tensions that define the national morality from different cultural political mindsets .

So how maritime it is for the Internet development in China?  If we go back to the historical facts on the geographic shift to Asia in submarine cables development, it becomes clear that there is a reason why the Internet development in China grows much faster than that in India. China is geographically much closer to Japan and other four Asian dragons, not to mention the actual economic integration with these regions in manufacturing ICT products that include i-phones now. The maritime side of the Chinese economic and Internet development is probably best described by Jack Qiu in his book chapter on China’s Internet development :

Han Chinese population in the world
Han Chinese population in the world

Yet what percentage of China’s FDI is actually foreign? Who is investing in China’s Internet? These questions suggest a key but little publicized factor in the success of the Chinese developmental state – the networks of global Chinese diaspora that connect the Mainland with Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and Chinese communities around the world. (p.108)

Are Wanwan using QQ too?

… Although the role of returning expatriates is more prominent in manufacturing  and trade than in Internet ventures, they have been critical to the globalization of China’s economy and the dramatic increase in China’s global informational links. While older generation sojourners are returning to their ancestral home towns, a new school of Chinese engineers, business managers, and financial analysts are landing in the new airports of Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou to form “the nucleus of a talented new generation of information technology entrepreneurs that is forging commercial links with China” (Gilley, 1999: 50).(p.109)

Submarine cables linking Asia: 1979, 1989, 1999 and 2005
Submarine cables linking Asia: 1979, 1989, 1999 and 2005

Thus, the maritime Internet hypothesis not only partially explains why China is historically, geographically and socio-culturally better positioned than India, Russia or even Brazil in adopting the Internet, but also explains why Chinese Internet development itself favours its coastal regions.

Another outcome of such maritime Internet on China is the recent rise of Cantonese and Wuu (that includes Shanghainese) for digital communication, which are all Southern Chinese languages that are not mutually intelligible with Mandarin .


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