But the Chinese leadership is signaling that it does not intend to let this new world of information overwhelm the strict controls traditionally maintained over the media.
It has tens of thousands of cyberpolice combing through the web to eliminate unwanted sites. Some may deal with pornography and violence. But others may offer information on sensitive political and social issues -- such as Chinese policies in Tibet, and views of relations with Taiwan -- which differ from the official line.
Technology And Censorship
Despite the size of the task, technical control of the web is to a large extent possible, says China expert Alexander Neill, of the Royal United Services Institute in London.
"It's relatively easy for the authorities to monitor Internet cafes and the like," Neill says, adding that, in a wider context, "if you have the right technology, it is possible to monitor the Internet at certain points in the network. You can use filtering technology or search words which make it easier to monitor information."
The screening has sparked controversy in the West, where major technology companies have assisted -- not always
A U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee is expected this month to examine the activities in China of giants like Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Cisco Systems. In the latest example of a business compromise, Google last month agreed to censor its search results for a new service in China.
Jail Time For Surfing
Amnesty International official Mark Allison describes the Western involvement as disturbing.
"We've been campaigning against controls on the Internet in China for many years now," Allison says. "We've been particularly concerned about the number of people who have been put in prison just for expressing their opinion on the Internet, or for accessing certain information that the government finds threatening or embarrassing."
But given the volume of traffic carried by the web, even a clampdown as determined as Beijing's cannot entirely seal off the Internet as a source of information the authorities would like to keep quiet.
Citing one example, China expert Christian Lemier of Jane's military publishing group in London says word of recent agricultural unrest in the countryside was spread via Internet despite government controls.
Lemier says he believes Beijing in future will have to soften its censorship policy to some degree because of such leaks, which do more damage than if the government had been forthright in dealing with the news.
"China will have to react to this [situation] in a slightly different way," he says. "It is not going to be able to control the Internet completely. And what I think may happen is that the government will go on to release more information than it has done in the past."
Of course, much of the censoring done in China does not relate to the political world at all, but lies rather in the moral sphere. Just as the West once maintained strict rules about what the public could see or hear in the media, so does China today.
"The Chinese censorship mechanism is not just looking for subversive elements," says Neill of the Royal United Services Institute. "It is also looking at the ideas of 'moral rightness' in society. For example, there are controls on things like pornography, or other elements that the state deems as unpalatable for the population."
The concept of "moral rightness" varies from civilization to civilization. This has been illustrated most recently by the current uproar in the Muslim world over the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad published in the European press.
In the West, that affair is mainly seen as a matter of secular press freedom. Among Muslims, however, it is a question of religious piety.
Freedom To Learn
However, younger Chinese often chafe under the restrictions imposed on the information available to them, regardless of whether they relate to morals or politics.
Beijing student Zhang Guoyi is typical in her stance.
"As an ordinary person, I hope that the government or certain departments could give us a freer environment in today's more open age -- give us looser and more convenient ways to study, and better conditions for communications," she says.
Judging by the vigor with which the authorities are pursuing their Internet policies, Zhang may have some time to wait.
China seems to be the most successful pioneer in controlling its citizens' access to the Internet. A recent case shows that it has the help of some Western companies in doing so.... (more)