Ryan Blethen / The Democracy Papers
China's best young minds at the front of a new world
The Internet's greatest societal contribution is not convenience, and may not be as an incubator for innovation. The Internet has begun to do what no political system or revolution has managed.
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BEIJING — The Internet's greatest societal contribution is not convenience, and may not be as an incubator for innovation. The Internet has begun to do what no political system or revolution has managed: The World Wide Web has drawn out the commonalities of a generation and created a space for the exchange of ideas across boarders.
This new global society is evident at Peking University, where the students' soaring confidence and answers to questions were nearly indistinguishable from their American counterparts.
I doubt this was the case before the Internet.
The eight journalists I traveled with through China met with the students and their professor in a beautiful, gray, one-story, three-sided building that formed a courtyard. Red trim accented the traditional tiled Chinese roof.
I occasionally speak with students at Washington State University and the University of Washington, and was curious how journalism students from one of China's top universities compared. The similarities surprised me.
I did not know what to expect in terms of how people consume the press. I led the discussion off by asking them how they used the Internet? Did they use it to study? What did they read as aspiring journalists?
One by one, they explained that they used the Internet to read The Washington Post and The New York Times, and track down more information for school.
"I just surf the Internet for information the teacher did not tell us," said one of the more-vocal students.
Most importantly, they spend untold hours plinking away at the keyboard communicating with friends, shopping and downloading, music and movies from America and Hong Kong.
"I use the Internet daily, but most of the time it does not have to do with studying," said a female student.
The Internet as a networking tool — and a portal to places and people that were previously seen as black ink on white paper — has been animated through fiber optics and computer screens.
New cybercommunities are floating in the ether of technology, colliding like storms. It is too soon to tell what this new youth-dominated world community will mean for a nation such as China, which has painted bright red lines on information the government wants to control.
The Chinese Internet is awash with red-flag topics such as sex, Taiwan and democracy. Any barrier can be breached, especially in cyberspace. A couple of maneuvers with the keyboard can bring a savvy Chinese student into the open plain of the Internet.
None of the students admitted to doing so, and probably had not on Tiananmen Square. They wondered why Americans cared so much about the students and protesters, many from Peking University, who were killed during the Tiananmen Square democracy demonstrations of 1989. One girl said that she had heard that many soldiers died at the hands of those wanting democracy.
Tiananmen has become a historical episode that might not be conquered with more information — a time rather forgotten by a generation hurtling into a new world.
These kids will be at the front of this new world. Peking U was described to me as the Harvard of China. In a nation of 1.3 billion industrious people, this puts these students on par with the world's best young minds.
When they leave the cocoon of college into the grind of journalism and adulthood, their use of the Internet will incorporate a broader view of the world. Some might work for the foreign press and develop new ideas. Others might work for state-run news organizations like Xinhau News Service or the China Daily and be writing stories about the need for a censored Internet.
Their answers to the question of why they chose a career in journalism were encouraging: "The Western media have a powerful effect ... I just want to be one of them." Or, "We don't have enough information. Information is power, and I want to share it."
Strong statements from kids who will enter the world with more in common with their counterparts in the West than the movies they watch.
Ryan Blethen's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is email@example.com for a podcast Q&A with the author, go to Opinion at seattletimes.com
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