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Observations and meditations: cultural diffusion through Internet
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By Xiong Chengyu

We are now living in an information society, thanks to abundant information and instant communication. New media technology based on computer information processing connects people around the world through intangible networks and tangible terminals, thus realizing the "global village" theory raised by the Canadian media luminary Marshal McLuhan some 40 years ago.

In 2002, I wrote a book entitled Information Society 4.0. The four points in the book constitute that the Internet communication is a kind of technology based on computer technology; it is an industry focusing on content; it is an integrated media; and it constitutes a society combining virtual reality and actual reality.

When I came back from the Unites States in 1994, I asked only one thing from the Chinese Embassy in the U.S. I wanted to have an e-mail account of my own. At that time, only a few senior professors at Tsinghua University possessed e-mail accounts. Today, however, the Internet has become one of the most popular ways for Chinese citizens to communicate with others, to acquire information and to entertain themselves.

In big cities and institutions of higher learning, words like Google, MSN, blog, Youtube are a part of life rather than just imaginary concepts. University students start their new semesters by selecting courses on the Internet. Company employees begin everyday work by checking their e-mails. In their spare time, their lives spent interacting on the Internet are also colorful. People shop online. They chat with their friends through MSN, and QQ. They find new friends through a BBS or SNS. They relax by playing games online. They book tickets, hotels and dinner reservations online. It is hard to imagine what life would look like today without the Internet.

A 2007 survey showed that communication functions, especially the instant messenger function, are extremely popular in China. About 69.8 percent of Chinese Internet users rely on instant communication tools like QQ or MSN, surpassing the 39 percent that use these applications in the U.S., and 47.7 percent in South Korea. The survey also shows 76.3 percent of Chinese netizens derive information from the Internet and usually get their first taste of major news directly through the Internet.

Online entertainment functions are also well received by Chinese citizens. Online music, audio and visual programs, and online games are very popular among netizens. About 68.5 percent of netizens have downloaded or listened to music through the Internet. Around 61.1 percent have watched or downloaded online programs. Nearly half of them have played online games. Meanwhile, 51.1 percent believe their lives would be very dull if not for the Internet.

With the advance of technology and society, "social software," which combines personal features and initiatives, has worked its way into the daily lives of many people. The gap between the "digital elites" and the "digital masses" is narrowing. The 2007 survey I referred to before shows that the proportion of netizens with backgrounds in higher learning has dropped to 43.9 percent from a mark of 58 percent in 2002. More and more senior citizens, non-urban residents, and people with lower education have become users and even creators of Internet culture. With the help of his son, 80-year-old Wang Yayi created a blog online called "Just Turned 80." Now he is a well-known figure on the Internet.

China has a vast land area of over 9.6 million square kilometers. The differences between urban and rural areas, eastern and western regions, big cities and small towns, developed regions and underdeveloped regions are very great. At present, the majority of the Chinese population has had no personal experience with the Internet. Many people still rely on traditional media, such as television, to get their information. However, with the rapid development and increasing influence of the Internet, many TV stations and newspapers have started to select and process news through their websites, then broadcast or print these stories through traditional media. Popular figures and events created on the Internet will soon become the focuses of traditional media. Traditional media helps spread the influence of the Internet to people who have never ever logged on.

Entitled Mouse Loves Rice, it has been a popular song in China in recent years. Nearly all netizens or non-netizens can sing a few lines from the song. The song was first composed by a talented but unknown netizen and then posted online. The popular melody and lines quickly won the hearts of netizens, pulling the singer into the spotlight. Since then, the singer has developed from a web star into a real star. He issued his album and sold over one million CDs in just two months, ranking third in sales in the country. The song was once downloaded 6 million times in one month as a cell phone ring tone.

Following the same track, many web figures, web literature, and web programs are exerting huge influence on Chinese citizens and have become important parts of people's lives.

The Internet helps Chinese education institutions improve education conditions and break the boundaries of time and space. The Ministry of Education of China has approved the establishment of 68 online institutes, which provide higher learning programs to those who cannot study as full-time students for whatever reasons. These online institutes carry out distance learning through Internet platforms by relying on the resources of key universities. Currently, there are about 2.8 million registered students of these online universities. Some universities in China also hold international seminars on the Internet and share their research results with other professionals throughout the world.

Three years ago, I hosted a research program for the Ministry of Education, called "Research of the Development Strategy of Chinese Distance Education." In the research report, we put forward the notion of transforming education from "teaching" to "learning." We proposed that the traditional education model be changed to encourage initiatives in learning by using computer technology. Now, we are happy to see that students can freely download hundreds of lectures by well-known professors on various subjects through, a public welfare learning website.

I have also participated in drafting blueprints for the development of ways to apply information technology to national culture. In the blueprint, one of our major arguments was to strengthen the construction of online content resources. With the maturing technology of building larger databases, we have made obvious achievements in terms of building online publications, digital libraries, virtual museums, and so on.

At present, over 450 publishers in China publish e-books with over 300,000 titles, creating the largest single-language e-bookstore in the world. The total sales revenue of online publications has surpassed 13 billion yuan.

The General Collection of Online Publications of Chinese Academic Periodicals is a model program for online publications. It contains 6,642 types of research periodicals covering nearly all disciplines and subjects, accounting for 93 percent of all periodicals in the same category. Among them, 4,600 key academic periodicals have been collected since their inaugural issues, and some have a history of over 100 years.

The General Collection is now distributed in over 30 countries and regions in the world including the United States, Germany, Australia and Japan. In 2005, it was downloaded 1.2 billion times and served the need of about 26 million people.

Chinese digital museum construction started in the 1990s and is now experiencing fast development. At present, 145 cultural institutions and museums have established departments to help apply information technology advancements to their collections. Some digital museums collect and manage the cultural relic information through digital means and share the museum information online. They provide necessary services for users through the Internet. When the website of the National Palace Museum (the Forbidden City) was set up in July 2001, the number of daily clicks was about 700,000. That number reached 3.6 million at its peak. It is now known as the biggest public welfare cultural website in the world. It launches one keynote display each month so that audiences can get to know the collections and cultural relics that are housed in the museum through online means.

For a developing country like China, Internet communication enables citizens to experience the advance of society in a tangible way. The Internet, as a new productive force, not only helps accelerate social development in terms of consumption and business operations, but also changes people's mentality, behavior, relationship to production and the social structure.

Newspapers, radio and television broadcasting are traditional means of providing information to the public. The traditional way of communication from one source to many receivers is important to China, a country with a large population and many ethnic groups, in helping individuals to integrate into the collective and collectives into a whole nation. The emergence of Internet makes it possible for information to flow from multiple sources to multiple receivers. Internet communication admits differences, respects individuality, promotes common development, and has become a mainstream communications tool. It is a feature of this era and a trend of social development

Internet communication has broken national boundaries and enables people to share achievements of their respective civilizations on a larger scale. Internet communication has stimulated social development in various ways. The positive results of new media are obvious, but at the same time, problems also arise. Just like the United States, China also has many urgent problems in terms of Internet communication, for instance, the digital divide, online piracy, immoral content, the protection of children, virus prevention and anti-social behavior. We'd like to work with our counterparts in the United States based on the exchange of information to promote the sound development of China-US Internet communications. In this way, we can work shoulder-to-shoulder and mature together in the way we use this valuable communication tool.


Profile of Mr. Xiong Chengyu

Professor, Tsinghua University

Xiong assumes concurrently the posts of Director of Center for New Media Communication Studies at Tsinghua University, Member of the Advisory Committee for State Informatizaion (ACSI), Director of the National Research Center for Cultural Industry, Advisor for General Administration of Press & Publication, Vice Chair of China Communication Association. Professor Xiong received his Ph.D from BYU in the US. He is the first professor of media studies to be invited to deliver a lecture to members of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee. His main academic books include Information Society 4.0, Cultural Industry Research: Strategies and Policies, New Media and Innovative Thinking, and Strategic Research of Modern Chinese Distance Education.

( November 30, 2007)

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