The Internet 互联网

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Jeremy Goldkorn
Danwei Media and the Australian Centre on China in the World


This lexicon entry consists of the following sub-sections:



This section reviews the development of email and the Internet in China. From the 1980s, China’s connectivity proceeded in gradual steps, beginning with the first email sent from the Mainland in 1986 (or was it 1987? See below) and the systematic development of a nationwide network, to the ubiquitous presence of microblogs and sophisticated Internet censorship today. The timeline below attempts to recap the most significant general events related to the development of the Chinese Internet.

China’s First Email

There is still somewhat of a controversy on when exactly the first email was sent from China. There are two conflicting claims, one from 1986 and the other from 1987.

The first states that China’s first email was sent on 25 August 1986 by researcher Wu Weimin from a computer at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Institute of High Energy Physics, to Jack Steinberger, a scientist at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) in Switzerland.

The second claims that China’s first email was sent on 20 September 1987 by a joint Chinese and German team at the Chinese Institute of Computer Applications (ICA) in Beijing to the University of Karlsruhe in Germany. The project was led by Werner Zorn, the head of the Computing Center IRA (Informatik Rechnerabteilung) and professor of Computer Science at Karlsruhe University, who was in Beijing in September 1987 to work with Chinese and German scientists to establish the connection to Germany. The Sino-German team composed a message for the first email which read in both German and English:

Across the Great Wall we can reach every corner in the world.

This is the first ELECTRONIC MAIL supposed to be sent from China into the international scientific networks via computer interconnection between Beijing and Karlsruhe, West Germany (using CSNET/PMDF BS2000 Version).

In 1990, the ICA registered the .CN country code domain for China, again with the assistance of Zorn and Karslruhe University. Eventually on 17 May 1994, a full TCP/IP connection was established between China and the US, which meant that data packets could take independent paths and the costs of email would be much reduced. In 1995 China Telecom began to construct a network to facilitate public Internet access in China; eventually on June 20 1996, the Chinese network was officially opened to commercial operations for the wider public.


China Internet Timeline

Foundations: 1986-1995

  • August 1986: Wu Weimin, as scientist at China Academy of Sciences Institute of High Energy Physics in Beijing, allegedly sends China’s first email to Jack Steinberger, another scientist at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), via satellite link
  • September 1987: A scientific research group at the Chinese Institute of Computer Applications (ICA) in Beijing successfully send an email (supposedly the first from China) to Germany with the title ‘Across the Great Wall we can reach every corner of the world’
  • November 1990: Registration of China’s country code domain, .CN, completed
  • December 1992: Tsinghua University Network (TUNET) established at Tsinghua University. This is the first college network in China using the TCP/IP structure
  • March 1993: Deputy Premier Zhu Rongji oversees the establishment of the National Public Economic Information Network in China (i.e., the Golden Bridge Project)
  • May 1994: The High Energy Physics Research Institute at the Chinese Academy of Sciences sets up China’s first web server and establishes the first set of web pages
  • May 1994: China’s top domain (.CN) servers are fully installed locally using TCP/IP, ending the period of location abroad
  • May 1994: National Research Center for Intelligent Computing Systems opens China’s first BBS, called Dawn BBS
  • May 1994: The national English language newspaper China Daily launches a website. Despite the newspaper’s turgid official style, the newspaper and its website publish Reuters and other foreign news wires’ articles which are often much racier than anything in the rest of the state-owned Chinese-language press
  • March 1995: The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) completes a long-distance connection to four branch institutions in Shanghai, Hefei, Wuhan and Nanjing respectively in the first step to spread the Internet across the whole of China
  • May 1995: China Telecom begins to build a national Internet network in China
  • July 1995: China’s first 128k leased line connecting to the US is opened
  • August 1995: The primary phase of the Golden Bridge Project is accomplished, connecting 24 provinces via satellite
  • September 1995: China’s first commercial website, a directory of companies, goes online at The site was started by Jack Ma who later grew it into, one of the most successful Internet companies in China

Indiginisation: 1996-2002

  • 1996: and, two privately-run Internet companies, obtain funding and open for business. As the dot com boom takes off, the Internet grows as rapidly in China as it does elsewhere. Suddenly there is a whole new medium that is not subject to any existing government regulations. Within a few years, ordinary Chinese people have access to all the information available on the Internet, with very few restrictions
  • May 1996: First Internet café in China opened in Shanghai
  • September 1996: China Golden Bridge Network announces beginning of provision of Internet access services, mainly for institutional users through dedicated lines and individual users through telephone lines
  • September 1996: First domestic City Area Network (CAN) opened in Shanghai as part of the Shanghai Public Information Network
  • July 1999: The first lawsuit involving Internet plagiarism hits the Chinese courts. Six novelists, including former culture minister Wang Meng, sue an IT company for publishing their work without permission. The writers win the case and the court orders the firm to pay compensation
  • 2000: Internet services that allow users to go online anonymously without any kind of registration become widespread. Chinese Internet users rapidly get used to being anonymous online. The bubble bursts, but the massive increase in both Internet accessibility and Chinese online content cannot be reversed. However, the government uses increasingly sophisticated technologies to block and filter certain foreign websites, and starts regulating Chinese websites more strictly as Internet use grows
  • 2002:, still a US-based search engine, controls an estimated 25 percent of the Chinese search market
  • November 2002: Chinese activist Jiang Lijun is arrested following an investigation that used information supplied by Yahoo

Rise of the Netizen: 2003-2009

  • June 2003: A young journalist with the online name ‘Mu Zimei’ (木子美, also written as muzimei and Muzi Mei) starts a blog in which she records her sexual experiences. After publishing a rather negative ‘review’ of her experiences with a well-known rock musician, her diary becomes an overnight Internet hit, read by millions of Chinese youngsters. The print media publish reports about her, and blogging becomes a household word
  • January 2004: A young computer gamer named Li Hongchen wins the country’s first virtual properties dispute case: the Beijing Chaoyang District People’s Court orders Arctic Ice Technology Development Company, the maker of the game ‘Hongyue’ (Red Moon), to return game winnings, including virtual biochemical weapons, to Li, who protested after the items were stolen by a hacker. In the same month, the state-owned news agency reports that a new online game is introduced every ten days in China
  • April 2005: Real estate tycoon Pan Shiyi starts a blog, becoming the first of many celebrities to start blogs in 2005 and early 2006
  • 2006: A Chinese rival to Google,, begins to grow, reaching 63.7 percent market share. Google’s market share drops from 25 percent in 2002 to 19.2 percent in 2006. Google was slower and less effective than other search sites because it was hosted outside of China
  • March 2006: Some government officials begin personal blogs drawing comments from the public that would never make it into traditional media. Among the bloggers are both People’s Representatives and members of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference or CPPCC
  • July 2006: A Chinese policeman starts what the People’s Daily calls the country’s first ‘police blog’. The police blog is an overnight hit, claiming more than one million visitors in its first two months
  • November 2006: The first part of the Great Firewall of China, also known as the Golden Shield Project, goes into service
  • December 2006: Time magazine names ‘You’ as person of the year for 2006. They explain: ‘Yes, you. You control the Information Age. Welcome to your world.’ The article includes profiles of fifteen citizens – including a French rapper, a relentless reviewer and a real life lonely girl – of the new digital democracy. One of the citizen’s profiled is Wang Xiaofeng, a Chinese blogger, who is used to highlighting how citizen bloggers are changing the way information can be controlled in China
  • April 2007: A Chinese version of MySpace launches, but lacks discussion forums devoted to politics and religion. It also has a filtering system that stops the posting of content about Taiwan’s independence, Falun Gong, the Dalai Lama and other ‘inappropriate’ topics
  • April 2007: In the wake of the Virginia Tech Shootings, the largest incident of mass murder in the history of the US, rumors that the killer is Chinese cause wide spread anxiety that the incident might spark anti-Chinese sentiment. Two threads on Netease, a popular web forum in China, garner over 10,000 comments apiece within the first 24 hours
  • May 2007: A Shanghainese man sues his Internet connection provider China Telecom because his US-hosted website was blocked, and China Telecom will not or cannot explain to him why. He does not win the case in court, but his website is unblocked
  • January 2008: The catch-phrase ‘Very pornographic, very violent’ 很黄很暴力 circulates throughout the web and is dubbed the first online meme in China of 2008. The meme originated in a CCTV broadcast featuring an interview with a middle-school student about the dangers of online pornography; she said she went online to look for information and found a website that was ‘very pornographic, very violent’. The phrase draws ridicule and becomes the subject of spoofs targeted at CCTV and the national anti-pornography campaign
  • March 2008: Angry Chinese citizens condemn what they perceive as biased western media coverage of the Tibet riots, beginning ‘anti-CNN’ campaigns and websites, and proposing boycotts
  • June 2008: A possible connection between the suicide of a young girl and local police sparks a riot in Weng’an including over 30,000 people; cars are burned, police attacked, government buildings sacked. The government promptly holds a press conference, mainstream Chinese media reports the riots, and fairly open discussion is allowed to remain on government run news sites like Xinhua. On the other hand, discussion of the riots on popular public forums is tightly censored. This censorship angers many netizens and they begin to refer to ‘push-ups’ to indicate the Weng’an riots (one of the suicidal girl’s friends was doing push-ups when she jumped off a bridge.) When the word ‘push-up’ begins to draw online censorship, whole websites are set up devoted to push-ups, and netizens fill forums with references to push-ups in protest
  • July 2008: On 1 July, Yang Jia, a twenty-eight-year old Beijing resident, charged into a local police station in Zhabei, Shanghai and murdered six police officers. Speculations and rumors about the murderer’s motive abound on the Internet after the grisly and bizarre murder spree. As dust settled, it turned out that Yang was a victim of police brutality who sought revenge after being denied justice. The public generally have a degree of sympathy for Yang and some even see him as a hero. On 26 November, Yang is executed
  • August 2008: MSN and Yahoo sign a ‘self-disciplinary pledge’ that will limit what users can say on their blogging sites, yet both decline to implement the collection of real names of users

The Rage of Microblogs: 2009~

  • 2009: By the second half of the year, web portals such as, Tencent and Netease have all initiated microblogging platforms. Microblogging starts to attract public figures and institutions and private Internet users increasingly sign up, making it one of the hottest Internet topics of the year
  • June 2009: China introduces Green Dam Net Filtering Software that will be fitted to every new PC sold in the country from July 2009. The software was created to stop people looking at ‘offensive’ content such as pornography and violent imagery. In the face of online protest, the policy is never fully implemented
  • January 2010: Google announces that it might pull out of China following a cyber attack on e-mail accounts of human rights activists. In March, Google announces that its Mainland search engine will be redirected through Hong Kong
  • March 2010: The State Administration of Radio, Film and Television issues the first batch of web TV licenses
  • October 2010: When Li Yifan, son of a local Public Security Bureau deputy director Li Gang, kills a female student and injures another on Hebei University campus with his car and shouts: ‘Sue me if you dare, my dad is Li Gang!’, the phrase soon becomes an Internet meme in China after the incident causes an uproar in China’s online community. Following the uproar Li Yifan is tried and jailed, although the phrase ‘My dad is Li Gang!’ becomes a ubiquitous phrase associated with corruption and some of China’s elites attempts to sidestepped the normal procedure of the law.
  • November 2010: An Internet war erupts between Qihoo’s 360 anti-virus security suite and Tencent’s QQ, used for IM and social gaming, when Tencent releases its QQ Doctor (later revamped to the QQ Computer Manager) app as a free supplement to its IM app. Amid claims that the QQ app has the ability to scan and possibly transmit all files stored on a computer, in response 360 released its own app which claimed to thwart the Tencent app. The spat escalated to become national news, yet when the authorities intervened the brouhaha died down quickly. For a few weeks, China’s Internet users found themselves in the middle of two Internet giants, with pop-ups denouncing the opposing company. Eventually in September 2011, a Beijing court ruled that three companies related to Qihoo 360 had to apologize to Tencent and pay it compensation of RMB 400,000 for slander and unfair competition
  • June 2011: A microblog by a user named ‘Guo Meimei Baby’ is discovered on Weibo in which the user flaunts her wealth while claiming to be ‘general manager of the Red Cross society.’ Guo Meimei’s posts are forwarded multiple times and spread rapidly, and netizens start to question her wealth and job status. Netizens discover that Meimei had suddenly become very rich, and suspicions of corruption – especially related to the Red Cross – infuriates netizens. Fiercely attacked online, Meimei soon apologizes via Weibo, disavowing any relations with the Red Cross Society
  • July 2011: The importance of microblogs is underscored when the first SOS message from the scene of the Wenzhou train crash is posted to a microblog; shortly afterwards the news spreads rapidly, and in the weeks that follow and large debate occurs on Weibo and other SNS platforms on not only what really happened and how, but on more broader issues like corruption, governance and compensation. The Wenzhou train crash and the ensuing microblogging debate is seen by some as a turning point for China’s Internet culture in which debate on a wide range of issues inexorably moves online
  • October 2011: A van hits two-year-old Xiao Yueyue in Foshan, Guangdong; while the little girl lies prostrate on the ground, seventeen passers-by ignore her before another van runs over her. Finally someone came to her aid, but little Yueyue later dies in hospital. When surveillance footage of the entire episode is uploaded to the Internet, it induces a controversial debate on China’s moral character
  • October 2011: Beijing residents start to complain online about pollution and dispute statistics on the number of blue-sky days provided by the State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA). Pan Shiyi, the real estate tycoon who started his blog way back in 2005 (see above), vent his anger on his blog and request the government to release data for PM2.5 readings, i.e. a form of fine particulate matter that is considered to be the most dangerous to human health. In January 2012, in a rare victory for online people power, the official Xinhua News Agency reported that Beijing would start providing PM2.5 data
  • As of January 2012, there are around 513 million Internet users in China, increasing from around 9 million in 2000, and around 300 million people use their mobile phones to go online. At the end of 2011, Sina Weibo claims to have 250 million active users


Internet Glossary

  • Computer network diannao wangluo 电脑网络
  • ‘Interconnection network’ (probably the most common phrase to describe the Internet in China) hulianwang 互联网
  • International ‘Interconnection network’ Guoji hulianwang 国际互联网
  • Intewang (transliteration of Internet into Chinese, not commonly used) 因特网
  • Network wangluo 网络
  • Netizen, Internet user, someone who posts to websites and participates in online communities wangmin 网民

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