The Chinese Internet (CI) may make a major contribution to the transformation of global society in the 21st century. China is the most populous nation, it has or will very soon have the world’s second largest economy, it has massive cultural and political influences throughout Asia and increasingly in the rest of the world (Hunter 2006). Historically China has been a centre for innovation in new technologies: compass, rudder, porcelain, ink, matches, gunpowder to name a few; and it is the heart of a culture that still pervades Korea, Japan, Vietnam and the hugely successful Chinese diaspora. By spring 2010, about 400 million people in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) were using the Internet. Some 75% of them were under the age of 35; 12% held a BA or higher degree; the average user spends some three hours per day online. The CI is thus by far the biggest young people’s network in the world, in the second or third most powerful nation.
This paper offers a broad perspective on relations between state actors in the PRC and the (mostly young) people active on the CI. Coming from a ‘Chinese Studies’ background, I am particularly concerned with specifically Chinese aspects to the relations, rather than a generic: ‘authoritarian government versus rebellious netizens’ kind of approach; though I would not deny the significance of political systems analysis. I also argue later that terms such as ‘managed pluralism’ and ‘boundary-spanning contention’ are more helpful that the dictatorship/censorship line often taken by journalists (Balzer 2004) (O'Brien 2004).