I'm Barry Petersen and this Letter from Asia comes from Beijing. China's leaders can't seem to figure out how to deal with the internet. On one hand, as a potential for the future, they embrace it so strongly that dial-up internet access is provided free to all Chinese people with a computer. On the other hand, when people get a bit too free with their thoughts of opinions, the government keeps trying to figure out how to put the genie back into the bottle.
Anne Stevenson-Yang is director of Beijing consulting firm, J.L. McGregor. She keeps an eye on changes to the internet and how the government reacts to what's going on. Internet cafes are now a big issue with the government. To us, it's innocent fun; To the Chinese government, it's serious business.
Says Stevenson-Yang, "If you are sitting there in an internet cafe, you know, what are you really doing? Who are you talking to? Is it healthy for you to be talking to that person? Are you ever going to meet? You know, suppose somebody were to - God forbid - float a petition on the internet. And let's say all get together. How do you monitor that and make sure it doesn't happen?"
Call it old-think versus reality. In the old days, the party reigned supreme. There were people right down the block you lived on to enforce what the leaders mandated. Then there was the army or the police to back that up. But even with internet police, is it impossible to monitor more than a fraction of the estimated 78-million net users?
New regulations will try reigning in game use and imposing stricter I.D.'s. "Who has already won?" says Stevenson-Yang. "You know life, life wins! And now, all of a sudden it's become this massive form of social dialogue where everybody has a blog and posts pictures of their kids and discusses them. Everybody builds their own system, has their community site. Everybody has something that they do on the internet and has met people they wouldn't have met if they'd never been to the internet. [They're involved in things they wouldn't have been involved in]. Who knows where it goes?"
And that is the dilemma for the Chinese government; where does it go? They need - and want - the internet as they push progress. They want a new generation that is as technologically savvy as any in the world. They just want to keep control as it's all happening. To which most internet users, and critics, can sum that wish up in two words: fat chance.
By Barry Petersen
Copyright 2007 CBS. All rights reserved.