Going Online When the Emperor's Away

  • Share
  • Read Later

Chinese President Zemin, right, at the FORTUNE Global Forum

In Hong Kong last week at the FORTUNE Global Forum, a few of us got the chance to meet with China's President Jiang Zemin. For us TIME.com fans who like to go online, a key question was how China would be changed by the Internet, a topic raised by AOL Time Warner chairman Jerry Levin.

President Jiang responded with a story. "I am getting old," he said, "and sometimes I have trouble using a mouse. But my grandson is very good at navigating the Internet. I tell him that there is a positive side to the Internet, because it can help promote the spread of information and understanding. And there is a negative side, which is when misinformation is spread. So I tell my grandson that he should use the Internet to enrich knowledge, and" — Jiang added with a little laugh — "he should not use it to visit pornographic sites. But my grandson lives far away from me. I cannot tell him what to do. I can only advise him what to do."

It occurred to me that Jiang was speaking not only about his grandson, but also using a tale as a parable, like Mao often did. At dinner that night, a top Chinese foreign ministry official agreed that the President had been speaking in broader, more metaphorical terms. The leadership realizes, he said, that the Internet will be hard to control, and they will be able to advise but not tell their people how to use it.

It reminded me of a trip I took in 1999 to one of China's most remote villages, Kashgar, which is across the Gobi desert from the rest of China. Three young boys were sitting in the back of a coffee shop at a computer, and they told me they were on the net. I tried to type in TIME.com and then CNN.com, but got messages saying they were blocked. Then one of the kids pushed me aside, typed in something, and TIME.com and then CNN.com popped up. I asked what he did. He said, "We know how to go through proxy servers that the censors don't know to block." I realized then how the net would eventually transform China, since it would make government control of information almost impossible. There is a phrase about freedom they use in Kashgar that also applies to Jiang's tale and the Internet: "The desert is wide, and the emperor is far away."