MAY 29, 2014
Kaiser Kuo, Director, International Communications
China celebrates 20 years of Internet, what are your most memorable(s) souvenir(s) of the early stages ?
Kaiser Kuo: I first went online in China in 1996, shortly after moving here. Dial-up connection was of course agonizingly slow and it would take a long time for any web page, especially anything outside of China, to load. Within three years though I was already working for an Internet company, and the explosion of interest was astonishing. I think there’s little surprise that Chinese people would take to the Internet so quickly: There’s always been a keen interest among young Chinese people in all things technological; socializing online was in many ways an easier alternative to meeting in real life for a people who, at the time, were really still quite shy; and there were obvious business opportunities for people who had embraced entrepreneurship and the market so ardently. It took almost no time before the Internet was already clearly having an impact on culture, on language, and even on politics in China.
If you had to sum up those two decades, what would be the highlights ?
Kaiser Kuo: The first five years (1994-1998) the Internet was still very much marginal—only people in academic research, or people with strong foreign connections, were much interested in network technologies and aware of their transformational potential. The next few years, say 1999 to 2003, were the Age of the Portals, when very quickly, important portals like Sina, Sohu, and Netease became overnight success stories. They very much colored the character of the Internet. The years 2004 to 2008 saw the rise of Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent to dominance in the Internet: Baidu connecting people to information, Alibaba connecting people to businesses, and Tencent connecting people to each other. 2009 marked the beginning of the social media age, when you saw especially the rise of Weibo as the most significant thing happening. And soon after that, we saw the shift to the Mobile Internet begin, especially after 2011.
How would you best describe the “Chineseness of internet” ?
Kaiser Kuo: I don’t actually think there are too many major differences: I think, on balance, user behavior on the Chinese Internet is quite similar to that of younger demographics of US users. Like younger American users, there’s more use of messaging apps and of instant messaging; there’s more interest in online games; and there’s more entertainment focus. I would say that the weave of social networks tends to be “tighter” in a sense; there’s less diversity, fewer distinct subcultures, so a meme or a news story or an idea seems to traverse the Chinese Internet more quickly and reaches every corner more thoroughly than in the US. I think the Chinese Internet user—and this is becoming less true as it becomes more ubiquitous—originally was more conscious of belonging to a special subset of society in being an Internet user. Look at the word “netizen,” for example, which was coined in English but is rarely used by Anglophones, whereas its exact Chinese translation, 网民 (wangmin), is used very commonly. If you Google the word “netizen” you’ll see that even in English use a disproportionate percentage of references are to Chinese Internet users.
For more about 20 Years of the Chinese Internet,