Can China unplug the Internet?

08 Jul 2014
John O'Neill

On a ferry ride last week from Hong Kong to Macau, I sat next to a man from Shanghai, aged in his 40s, and discussed family, Chinese politics and business. A Chinese national, born and raised in Shanghai, he studied mechanical engineering at university but there were no engineering jobs so he went into management.

During our conversation, his iPhone 4S frequently alerted him to friends' posts on Weibo (a Chinese Facebook/Twitter hybrid) and he continually addressed incoming texts.

“It is very dangerous right now," he told me. "I am very worried for my business. It's very unstable." He was referring to rumours related to the removal mid last month (March) of Bo Xilai as the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) secretary of Chongqing, population 30 million.

Mr Bo had been rallying Maoist-style populist support and was reputedly set for a seat among the nine member Politburo Standing Committee which shadows all decision making for a fifth of the world's humanity.

Then he was rebuked by Premier Wen Jiabao and a related corruption scandal saw him dismissed on March 15.

My travelling companion said much of the Internet was suddenly not available on mainland China, a direct consequence, he believed, of the Party seeking to ensure the ousted Mr Bo's supporters could not garner more support.

My new friend runs a successful export business making outdoor products to order for business partners in the United States, Australia and other parts of the world.

He has factories in mainland China and warehouses in the countries to which he exports. In the United States, he has a Chinese national partner who he has known since school and who has secured a Green Card and become a US citizen. Instead of profits, which are very hard to repatriate offshore from China, he pays his partner a bonus equivalent to what would have been a dividend.

The Internet, he says, is changing China for ever. And he is fearful. He repeats: he is actually very fearful because he is certain there is a division now among China's ruling Communist Party elite and he believes some sections of the military are in one camp and others are now in another.

But, he said, it was not possible to unplug Internet and he feared for the consequences. He was no fan, he added, of Mr Bo whose populism included reviving mass singing of 'red songs' and orchestrating crackdowns on "gangs".
My companion told me he had a seven-year-old daughter. He had heard great things about Australia from Chinese friends now living in Sydney. Which city would be better to live in? Sydney or Melbourne? He asked me earnestly.

Then it was over. It was time to disembark for a day's relaxation at the Venetian Resort and Casino where he planned to shop for the best-priced name luxury brands to be found in Asia.