China, India Internet Rules Bow To Culture

Laura Sydell just returned from a reporting trip to China where she was working on stories about how the Internet is opening up arts and culture — and last fall she went to India on a similar trip. Sydell compares India and China — the two growing economic and technical giants — and how different they felt in terms of Internet openness.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

China and India boast the world's fastest growing economies, driving the growth of new technologies, especially the Internet. But as NPR's digital culture correspondent Laura Sydell tells us in this Reporter's Notebook, cultural change can be much slower than technological progress.

LAURA SYDELL: It was a hot spring afternoon in Beijing. I hopped into a taxi to head back to my hotel. I just interviewed a woman who represented a Western publishing company. She brought up Falun Gong, a spiritual practice that's banned in China. Neither one of us really knew much about its beliefs. As my taxi pulled up to my hotel, I thought to myself, I'll look it up on the Internet. Then I realized I couldn't do that. Not in China. Tibet, Taiwan, Tiananmen Square and Falun Gong were off limits.

Thousands of censors comb blogs and bulletin boards everyday and manually take down postings with political views contrary to the government, which also blocks access to entire sites. One day at a Shanghai cafe, I met with a man who described himself as an Internet dissident. As I spoke with him, I noticed a Chinese policeman staring at us from the doorway. He said he's often followed by such men.

Everywhere I went in China, the skyline was dominated by steel and glass high-rises. The roads were freshly paved and the traffic hummed along. But Shanghai and Beijing felt like walled cities, meant to keep my curiosity tightly in their boundaries. Just a few months before I'd been in India, where the traffic didn't hum, it honked. Economic growth is slower here than in China, where high-rises sprout up but they sit beside poor hovels.

Still, the Internet is enabling such a media communication with India and animation studios are opening up facilities in cities like Mumbai. The same studios are less interested in opening up in China. Why? Because of the censors. In India, American companies, from Google to Disney, are more likely to face a mob of journalists than a committee of government censors.

As I sat in my car one afternoon driving through the hot, crowded streets of Mumbai, my translator pointed out the city's largest Hindu temple. I decided that when I returned to my hotel room, I was going to look up its history. The thought that I wouldn't find it never crossed my mind.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Laura Sydell.

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