Is China's Internet Actually 'Slow'? And Does That Matter?

By James Fallows

Over the weekend the International Herald Tribune ran a version of an opinion piece I'd had in the NYT Sunday Review section, itself a version on an argument in my book, about the next stage in China's development. Its main point was to ask whether the strategy behind the huge Chinese achievement of the past thirty years -- that of alleviating poverty on a wide scale through an emphasis on construction, infrastructure, and low-wage manufacturing, was likely to be a help or a hindrance as Chinese companies tried to become high-wage, high-value, international brand competitors. How would we know whether the Chinese system was becoming capable of competing with Apple, rather than outsourcing for Apple.

[A view in Shanghai today, which is looking very nice.]

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In my book I lay out a number of markers indicating whether Chinese companies and the Chinese productive system were moving in this higher-end direction. In the article I mentioned this one:

After another several-month stay in China last year, I came up with one proxy for China's ability to take this next step: how slow its Internet service is, compared with South Korea's or Japan's.

In much of America, the Internet is slow by those standards, but mainly for infrastructure reasons. In China it's slow because of political control: censorship and the "Great Firewall" bog down everything and make much of the online universe impossible to reach. "What country ever rode to pre-eminence by fighting the reigning technology of the time?" a friend asked while I was in China last year. "Did the Brits ban steam?"

Several people have objected and responded, with good points that make me clarify my own. For instance:

1) At his China Hearsay site, Stan Abrams asks where it is really fair to claim that China's growth is suffering to any serious degree because of Internet controls:

How much is China's GDP suffering because of lower Net speeds? Is that comment about the Brits banning steam fair?

First answer: I don't really know....

Second answer: I have a feeling that the conclusions on this issue are overstated to some degree....

My point is that it's too easy to say that China's Net speed is slow and therefore its economy is taking a significant hit.

Actually I agree. I'm not claiming that at this moment China's output sags to any real extent because of the delay in reaching firewalled sites outside of China. My point was that when looking for indicators of a general opening-up of the Chinese system -- of how the balance stands in the ongoing struggle between the security-state forces and the economic-development forces that is underway in so many parts of China's policy -- a reduction in the Great Firewall handicap would be an important sign.

2) A Western reader who lives in China and works in the Internet industry sends a long and very detailed reply. I quote it in full because it raises several different points about current levels of Chinese control and the reasoning behind them. Emphasis added, in this and the subsequent note:

You are correct that access from inside China to websites outside of China is slow, and this is because we have only a few entry/exit points for the intertubes in/out of China.

 I also spent a lot of time in the past on off-the-record analysis and scanning of the ISPs and bandwidth in China, and until 5-6 years ago, a large amount -- but not most -- of the speed issues in China were a result not of blocks, but rather of poorly-configured DNS, slowly updated DNS, and poorly-trained Chinese ISP technicians. I have given lectures in places like [..] to ISP chief admins on how best to configure and work with DNS and allow for faster speeds. China's Internet is held together by duct tape, as it is in the other parts of the world.

Another reason for speed/connection/interoperability/latency issues is very capitalistic in nature: business competition. Simply, there is no Net Neutrality in China. I can write books on this, so I'll leave it at that for now.

But inside China, the Internet is "fast enough" for what netizens do now. I can view Youku videos with no buffering while sitting on my toilet viewing my iPad connected to a wifi modem a few rooms away connected to a mediocre adsl connection to China Telecom in Beijing.

I also routinely hold GoToMeeting.com video and audio meetings with people from around the world with rare speed-related problems.

My wife routinely does Skype-based audio interviews with guests from around the world, again with rare speed-related problems. She also uploads data to her servers in the US, and also her videos to YouTube, all without major speed problems (the latter of course via a proxy).

Most importantly: Internet access in China is truly ubiquitous. In the calm of Jiuzhaigou's towering trees, my mobile phone signal is at full bars. At the top of a ski slope in Jinan, I can download my email. Driving my car from Beijing to Xi'an, I have uninterrupted streaming Internet music via my iPhone on long stretches of highway. I can walk into (most) elevators in China and continue talking on my phone without the signal dying. These things are rarely possible in America with its deadzones. 13-14 years ago I could easily go to the corner newspaper stand in Beijing and buy a card for dial-up Internet access, but when I visited the US I had to register with AOL and go through hoops to get online. Getting online in China has always been easier, albeit content more restricted, than the USA. It is still easier today in China to get online than in the US.

Of course the trade-off to having full bars at the top of a ski slope in Jinan is that I am now trackable on that ski slope in Jinan.

I do not mean to be an apologist (or marketer) for China's Internet. But for 99% of Chinese netizens, they can do without constant access to non-Chinese websites and services hosted offshore. So while I too often lament (bitterly and frustratingly) that the slow Internet is killing China's growth abilities, I also calm down and then realize that China's Internet bubble (sic) works for all the participants currently operating within that bubble. Complaining about slow access to sites in the West is mostly a Laowai Dilemma. I do feel your pain.

3) And similarly, from a western reader in Shanghai:

I think you are uncharacteristically missing something. The internet in China is way fast *as long as you stay in China*. China is not fighting "the reigning technology" at all; as  you know sites like TaoBao and Weibo, and now Weixin, are at least as significant as their counterparts in the US both technically and in their effect on society. It is easy for foreigners to assume that because they can't get on Facebook, or Twitter, or Youtube, or Hulu (oh wait, Hulu and Pandora are blocked *from the US* - separate rant) and that Google doesn't work half the time that Chinese can't use the internet, when nothing could be farther from the truth. Some Chinese certainly would love to get to those sites - but it's not clear that it's a significant number in the context of the Chinese internet.

The big question is not whether or not China can build a world-class society while fighting the internet, the question is whether or not it can do so while building a giant intranet that is China-specific. China is big enough that I think this is something of an open question.

Please don't get me wrong; I think the GFW is absurd and repugnant. And it is indeed hard to think that any nation that is scared of Facebook could be called great. But it's certainly misleading at best to say China is fighting the internet.

I'll just say: these are important points, and I agree. As I argued several years ago in my piece about the Great Firewall, the brilliance of China's internet control strategy is that it is not airtight. People who want to, badly enough, can find ways around the controls. But doing so can be costly, and is a nuisance -- and an increasing one, as the government more and more often interferes with "VPN" services that let you evade the firewall. It's a nuisance resident foreigners are willing to put up with -- but that the vast majority of Chinese internet users will not bother with, since so much is available to them so easily within the (monitored) Chinese-only internet world, in which you really can get coverage anywhere. (I've used a four-bar-coverage cell phone from deep down inside a Chinese coal mine.)

I agree with these points, and thank the readers for spelling them out -- while still maintaining that a variety of measures of fully international openness, like those I mentioned here, are significant in measuring China's progress toward fully featured, soft-power-plenipotentiary, rich-country status. As reader #3 says, "the question is whether or not China can build a world-class society while building a giant intranet that is China-specific." By my lights, the answer to that question must be No. Everything I have learned about the world tells me that "world-class" powers must be open to the world. I agree with the reader that China's scale makes it an open question -- and if the answer turns out to be Yes, many of our (my) other assumptions will come into question as well.

This is why the place is interesting. And to close out, the People's Square view just now, from ground level and above:

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PS to round off the thought: I've been trying to compose this at a Starbucks in Shanghai, where the connection was unbelievably molasses-slow. But consistent with all the points above, that may not prove anything, since I was logging into U.S.-based servers that few Chinese netizens would be interested in.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/05/is-chinas-internet-actually-slow-and-does-that-matter/257743/