With an estimated 400 million Internet users and 50 million bloggers, China has become a major cyber power. The Internet has brought China great benefits by spreading knowledge, shrinking the huge distances that hindered economic development, and making available a wide range of leisure activities.
The Internet has had an important political impact on society, changing in a quite fundamental way the nature of dialogue between the authorities and the public. China's "netizens" have become a de facto civil society. They use the Net to collect and disseminate information and mobilize public opinion against injustice and maladministration.
In ancient and medieval times, China's rulers used to disguise themselves as ordinary citizens and move around in cities and villages to find out what was really happening outside the walls of their palaces. Today, they just have to log on.
Not all outsiders welcome China's emergence as a global cyber power. Over the past decade, the Western media have carried many stories against the Chinese government and private-sector networks.
One senior US government official has said terabytes of information is being lost to such activities (to give an idea of what this means, the US Library of Congress is estimated to hold 160 terabytes of data). And private-sector companies such as Google have complained about covert efforts to access their proprietary software.
The Chinese government has responded by highlighting the extent to which the country, too, has been a victim of such attacks, which is more than likely true. The Internet offers users the opportunity to engage in covert collection of information or spying on networks to find their weaknesses. It is all but impossible to know from where an attack was launched or what its purpose was. Many players are engaged in such activities, both state and non-state, and the boundaries between them are blurred.
One key aspect of the Net, which concerns Chinese authorities, is that of soft power. To put it simply, most of the hardware and software which make up the Internet has been developed in the West. Even the most widely used systems for word-processing in Chinese have been developed by Western firms such as Microsoft. The way in which the Internet functions and most of the ideas transmitted on it have been shaped almost entirely by the West.
As Minister of State Security Meng Jianzhu said in January 2009, "The Internet has become a major vehicle through which anti-Chinese forces are perpetuating their work of infiltration and sabotage and magnifying their ability to disrupt the socialist order".