China is a vast country with its internal and external geopolitical complexity. As China has the largest internet population under Beijing’s governance, the historical process of the Internet diffusion in China, i.e. the growing proportions of Internet population, holds the key to our understanding of the progression of both the Internet development and control in the region.
The Economist’s Special Report on China and the Internet on April 6th, 2013 did use a choropleth map (see page 2) to tell a story of “a giant cage”. Although it managed to show the internal differences across different provinces for the Internet penetration rates in 2011-2012, it failed to show and describe the historical shifts across Chinese provinces. Although it managed to compare China’s Internet population against that of (a)the United States, (a)the European Union and (c)the rest of the world, with a bar chart showing the 1995, 2000, 2005, 2010, 2012 data points, it failed to contextualize China’s Internet development in East Asian context.
To amend the situation, I gathered a set of more complete data points that cover the time period from 1997 to 2012, not just for Chinese individual provinces but also for all other East Asian countries/regions, including Hong Kong and Taiwan over which China claims sovereignty. It should be noted that both Hong Kong and Taiwan are outside Beijing’s filtering and censorship regime, and they played important historical roles in reconnecting (mainland China) to the world’s global capitalist system.
By doing so, not only did I break China up (not politically of course, but analytically) so as to compare between Chinese regions (i.e. provinces), but also I put China in the context of East Asia, including countries that are more *Internet advanced of developed* such as Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan and those that are less so.
As one can see from the series of infographics below, we gain more insights into the China’s development this way:
For individual images with higher resolution, please click on this link.
Each choropleth map shows regions with lowest to highest penetration of Internet in different colors. When the color shifts from purple to green, it means the internet penetration rates are growing from 0% to near 100%
The histogram at the lower-left corner also shows how the population moves from mostly internet non users (in purple color) to internet users (in green color).
Thus, the infographics show how Chinese Internet population grows across time and space, and also in relation to other neighboring regions such as Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and of course Taiwan, where I come from.
These infographics helped me to develop several observations and hypotheses for the historical development of the China’s filtering regime and the maritime aspect of the Internet diffusion in East Asia. They include:
- Block-then-Diffusion hypothesis. Note the critical “growth” years of 2006-2008 for mainland Chinese regions
- “Maritime” Internet hypothesis and “Maritime” Chinese hypothesis. Note the “maritime” nature of the Internet development in East Asia and how China pushes the internet diffusion from the coastal regions inwards.
Thus, I would prefer a story of “recentering” Chinese Internet to the Economist’s story of “a giant cage”. The Chinese regime wants its Internet population has its cultural and political center (of sources and focus) within mainland China (particularly Beijing), and thus the cultural and political effects of China’s filtering and censorship regime are not so much about keeping its users isolated from the world, but rather about disciplining them using the “recentered” information sources and Internet services hosted behind the Great Firewall.
The story of “recentering” can thus better explain and contextualize why the Internet penetration rates were indeed depressed before 2005, mostly because of the initial set up of the filtering and censorship regime did have negative impacts on the adoption of Internet. However, after 2005, especially during the time period of late 2005-2008, not only the filtering and censorship regime became more *established* as everyday practice by censors and users alike, but also the domestic services and sources (mainland Chinese ones of course) began to marginalize the *foreign* ones.
The English word “to analyze” has its Latin/Greek origin, meaning “breaking up”. Thus, the infographics here demonstrate the analytical power to break up data points. It is up to analysts to tell a story by synthesizing data points that have been broken down first. As the Web increasingly allow both researchers and users to design and use infographics, it may help us to think outside the box. Let us keep breaking things up for better understanding.