China's Virtual Revolution

After eight years of explosive growth, there are now almost as many internet users in China as there are members of the 70-million-strong Communist Party. China's "information elite," the largely urban, educated, professionals who are China's internet surfers, are becoming a force of equal size to the ruling political power base. What will this new center of power mean for the transformation of Chinese society?

Since the mid-1990s, China's government has promoted the rapid growth of the internet for its economic benefits. But it has also been developing a sophisticated political and technological system to control online information. The government employs a host of new legal regulations, a shadowy internet police force, and a powerful hardware-based national information filtering system.

Control also relies on the demography of internet users, most of whom belong to China's economic elite and are more likely to adopt the internet as part of a newfound consumer lifestyle than as a tool for political or social revolution.

What is surprising is that the government's control mechanisms have been largely effective. But it is also prompting profound social changes that are rooted in a rising rights consciousness within society, something strengthened--and amplified-- not only by the growth of the economy, but by the rapid spread of the internet.