Long march down China's information superhighway

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 June, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 June, 1994, 12:00am

IF knowledge is power and information the key to enlightenment, then consider for a moment China's planned telecommunications revolution, and imagine what impact this will have on a fifth of the world's population.

Over the next six years, China will spend US$41 billion (HK$319 billion) on telecommunications. The sector is one of the fastest growing in the country, expanding by 40 per cent a year.

Today China has only 40 million telephones for 1.2 billion people, and only nine per cent of urban residents have telephones. By the end of this century, this figure will more than triple, and China could have 140 telephone lines, hooking up as much as 40 per cent of its urban population.

By next year, China will have completed 22 national optical fibre trunk lines to connect all the provincial capitals, along with 20 digital microwave trunk lines and large and medium-sized satellite telecommunications ground stations.

At the same time, if China opts for a national telecommunications system based on optical fibre rather than the old generation of technology built on copper, it will have established the foundations for an information superhighway which could link telephones, computers, cable television, banking, shopping, and much more into one big telecommunications network.

In other words, China could leapfrog from the telecommunications dark ages into the age of information.

''China will watch closely the world's latest development of the information superhighway,'' Wu Jichuan, Minister of Posts and Telecommunications, said recently.

This falls short of an outright commitment to building the sort of network the administration of US President Bill Clinton has made a key policy goal.

But according to William Warwick, the chairman and chief executive officer of AT&T China, this country's own modernisation goals seem to be pushing in that direction.

''You hear parts of it, pieces. Much of the planning is in place for a national, fibre optic backbone network that touches every provincial capital. The goal is to have that in place by the turn of the century. It's an enormous undertaking,'' he said. ''No one has really defined it yet, but the intent is that it would connect the major provincial capitals . . . That's very much like an information superhighway.'' The implications are awesome. An information superhighway could transport remote villages out of their isolation and give them much greater access to education, health services, financial information and new jobs.

More than that, though. In a country where the government seeks to maintain its authoritarian control through propaganda and by filtering information about not only the rest of the world, but also what is going on literally in Chinese people's neighbourhoods, vast numbers of ordinary citizens could have access, again literally, to all the information in the world.

''The leadership is arming the Chinese people with information and the means to communicate instantly with each other. And, ultimately, with the power to make intelligent decisions about their lives,'' said Mr Warwick. ''We are witnessing a profoundly democratising phenomenon underway in China.'' At a symposium in Beijing recently, Mr Warwick outlined some of the changes that a superhighway would bring.

Today, tens of millions of peasants are on the move from the countryside, where their labour is superfluous, to the already overburdened cities in search of jobs. The information superhighway will provide rural constituents with employment opportunities, thus cutting the need for migration.

In a country faced with a shortage of teachers and a high rate of illiteracy, the information superhighway will bring education to the homes of children of nomadic tribes, and teach new skills to workers. In a country where doctors are in short supply, the highway should bring top level medical advice and care to remote villages. The information revolution will cut back pollution, give decision-makers instantaneous access to financial information, and help strengthen ties between regions.

But it will also present the Communist Party with new challenges. Already the government's control is eroding as dissidents keep in touch with each other through pagers, political activists abroad broadcast calls for protests in China through fax, and banned literature circulates on computer disks.

But in some ways, the information superhighway will give the government more control. For instance, cable television gives the authorities a greater ability to determine what programmes people watch than satellite transmission. It is that sort of information, distributed to vast numbers of the population, which the government most seeks to monitor.

But can the government stop dissidents from cruising down the superhighway, could it stop people from gaining access to news and views the government does not like? And what will China's prudish leadership do about hi-tech pornography, which will also be easily accessible through the information superhighway.

''When you put in fibre you really do lose the ability to review information passing through the system. While it's technically possible to do it, it's not practical to do it. So there is some loss of control,'' said Mr Warwick.

The decision on whether China will use fibre, instead of copper, on a national basis needs to be made soon, before implementation of the ninth five-year plan, beginning in 1996.

To install fibre is only nominally more expensive than copper when building from scratch. But to install copper and then replace it with fibre later on would be extremely costly.

If the Chinese Government ''leaves it to the individual whims of each company, telecommunications decision-makers, they will choose whatever course of action suits their purpose at the moment, which may not be fibre, and then you'll end up with a loop [network] that is partly broad-band, partly narrow,'' said Mr Warwick. ''If it's not made as a national policy, it will be made by default'' by the local post and telecommunications authorities.

But Mr Warwick says pressure is building in favour of a national information superhighway. ''It's really a push today, and the push is because China is building an infrastructure. There is none that exists and if you're going to build one, why not build it so that it accommodates broad band off the bat, so you don't have to replace it 20 years from now?'' Within the leadership, Mr Warwick perceives a ''real drive for China to catch up and even pass parts of the world in terms of its economic development, and its leading edge capability''.

''China has a real opportunity to get ahead of much of the Western world in implementing the information superhighway,'' said Mr Warwick.

''They have a chance to do it right the first time, and that's unique. Nobody else has had that chance in the Western world . . . If China can see its way clear to do it, then very quickly they will surpass the Western world in terms of broad-band capability.''