Continental Internet hypothesis: the case of China’s Internet

After discussing the historical hypothesis of maritime Internet, this blog post will discuss the emerging continental Internet and how it is distinctive from the maritime Internet, using China’s Internet as a case.

“Domestic” terrestrial versus “international” submarine cables?

Technologically and thus geographically, continental Internet relies mostly on terrestrial cables. For most parts of the world, terrestrial cables are built later as extension to submarine cables, and sometimes coincidentally, “domestic” terrestrial cables after “international” submarine cables. For Internet development, the US provides probably one exceptional case where the “domestic” terrestrial cables are built and tested before the “international” submarine cables, but this case only highlights the US role as the initial and central node of the early global Internet. For Asian, Arabic and African regions, most of them have “international” submarine cables first and then “domestic” terrestrial cables.

It is the case of China as well. Although not all international cables are submarine and not all terrestrial cables are domestic, overall China’s internet development has a rough geographic distinction of maritime international connections versus terrestrial domestic connections; at least if one consider how China sets up its filtering regime technologically and geographically, these hubs are all located in three major cities close to the coastline of China.

Adding to the historical hypothesis of the maritime Internet, I propose to describe the land-based or land-centric new development of Internet, often by historically continental powers of China, Russia and other parts of the world, as the new forces that shape the global Internet differently from the maritime Internet. Similar to the the maritime hypothesis, researchers need to contextualize the impact of the Internet by considering the recent historical maritime past and rethink the possibilities of the opposing, balancing or complementary continental forces.

Thus, the continental Internet hypothesis can be used to see how certain non-maritime Internet practices are developed to oppose, balance or complement development of the maritime ones. Baidu in China and Yandex in Russia, with their specific geo-linguistic markets, can be seen from this perspective as emerging continental forces. However it should be pointed out these companies can be categorized as examples of continental Internet mostly because of their users and their cultural politics, not because of their founders and their actual flows of capital. For example, Baidu’s founder have been rumored to be have a US passport (Google 李彦宏 美國護照) and Baidu is in fact listed in NASDAQ and incorporated in the Cayman Islands, a point we shall come back later.

China’s Internet as a case

The continental Internet hypothesis in China is best exemplified by the historical growth of Chinese Internet users and its relationship with the Chinese Internet filtering regime. The two figures above show how Chinese and East Asian regions move from low to high Internet penetration rates.

P1997-2012_histogram_only P1997-2012_thumb

First, the histogram on the left shows how the majority of Chinese/East Asian regions are moving with Chinese ones. The highest and fattest shift happens around 2006 to 2007 when the majority of Chinese regions pass the threshold of 12.8% in penetration rates (For the reasons why 12.8% serve as the important threshold value for Internet diffusion, please see previous blog here). I have also shown that this is exactly the time when China experienced the real unprecedented growth. Second, the geographic map on the right also shows two different growth patterns with 2006 as a turning point. Before 2006, the Internet diffusion in Chinese regions were mostly coastal and thus maritime; after 2006, Chinese regions including inland regions began to experience the fastest growth and expansion in history.

If my block-then-diffusion hypothesis is right, then the Chinese censorship and filtering regime can be seen as contributing to the oppression and blocks of the maritime Internet exchanges and influences, mostly among regions such as coastal regions, Hong Kong and Taiwan, and then to the growth of the continental Internet.

China as a development state

It should be noted that the Chinese state has been relatively successful in bringing the Internet to inland areas, which is an achievement when compared to other regions. Such continental development might be contributed by Chinese investment in infrastructure and military deployment of fiber-optic cables. The results are interesting. Now areas such as Xinjiang and Tibet enjoy higher Internet penetration rates than JiangXi. It indicates traces of Chinese developmental state in closing some of the digital gaps. Although the questions remain who are the new Internet users in Xinjiang and Tibet and which languages they use, it is clear that the Chinese state has been making progress in building its national Internet infrastructure, with impressive results when compared to other East Asian regions.

Nonetheless, the fast continental development after 2006 in China raises the question on what happened before 2006. Then my block-then-diffusion hypothesis also tells a story that a continental Chinese Internet is developed by blocking any maritime Chinese Internet influence undesired by Beijing, which includes the media and political practices in Hong Kong and Taiwan that are too “chaotic” for Chinese.

China has been suspicious of any “color revolutions” or “peaceful evolution” activities that will be spread from Hong Kong and Taiwan. The history of Soviet Russia and Eastern Europe has provided materials for Chinese propaganda, including the weird conspiracy that “the Dalai Clique” is “creating solidarity with forces such as China democracy movement, Falun Gong, and the Xinjiang and Taiwan independence movement”.

Again, as historical abstraction rather than precise analytical concepts, the theme of continental versus maritime is not suitable to test hypothesis, but it can be served as conceptual tools to generate hypothesis that goes beyond the usual globalization/nationalization/localization frameworks. Indeed, the continental and maritime development in China’s modern history each includes different dimensions of globalization, nationalization and localization. At the very least, the theme of continental versus maritime is useful to check statements that are based on the dichotomy of globalization versus nationalization framework.

Why Chinese Wikipedia could be more “Chinese” (in maritime sense)

It is then necessary to revisit why the rumor is spreading in Chinese Internet that Baidu’s founder Robin Li has a US passport (Google 李彦宏 美國護照). The expressed sentiment serves an online rebuttal against Baidu’s corporate propaganda that Baidu is better than Google because it knows Chinese better by being a Chinese company run and founded by a Chinese citizen. Thus, the question of “Chineseness” become central.

If we look at the user-generated encyclopedias related to the languages inside China, then the online encyclopedia hosted by Baidu (i.e. Baidu Baike) is in direct contrast to the online encyclopedias hosted by Wikimedia Foundation. Commentators from mainland China and the US often use the globalization versus nationalization framework to explain the difference between Baidu Baike and Chinese Wikipedia. Such comments miss the geo-linguistic dynamics that are best informed by the theme of continental versus maritime China. Baidu Baike has only one language version: simplified Chinese texts that is based on Mandarin Chinese. In contrast, several language versions of Wikipedia exist for various languages in China, including Chinese (zh), Classical Literary Chinese (zh-classical), Cantonese (yue), Wuu (wuu), Min Nan (zh-min-nan), Hakka (hak), Gan (gan), Min Dong (cdo), and non-Han Chinese languages such as Tibetan (bo), Uyghur(ug), Mongolian(mn) and Zhuang (za). Note the majority of the language versions belong to not-mutually-intelligible-with-Mandarin-Chinese southern Chinese languages (Erbaugh, 1995) such as Cantonese and Shanghainese, which happen to be where the maritime China is historically situated and articulated. These geo-linguistic variations of Wikipedia projects cannot be easily explained by the globalization-nationalization framework. The concept of Chineseness cannot be taken for granted.

In conclusion, China’s Internet development provides an interesting test case for using the historical abstraction of maritime-versus-continental concept. In particular, the abstraction may be helpful in providing necessary historical contexts that are often missed by the globalization-nationalization framework. If the maritime Internet hypothesis can be used to generate historical hypothesis on the impact of the US-centric and often US-originated development of global Internet on top of the legacy of submarine cable infrastructures, the continental Internet hypothesis helps us to look for emerging development that may aim to oppose, balance or complement such early maritime development.

Comments (choose your preferred platforms)

Loading Facebook Comments ...