Inside the Great Firewall.
It should come as no surprise that media developed for the Web and mobile devices are dominant in China, which claims the world's largest Internet market, at 220
million users, and the largest number of mobile phone users: 500 million plus. Two of China's Web sites are regularly ranked by Alexa within the Top 20 sites globally - search engine Baidu and
Tencent's instant messaging site QQ.com.
"It's clear enough that in urban China, electronic media, especially the Internet, have displaced print in very much the same way we're seeing in more developed markets," says Kaiser Kuo, group director of digital strategy at Ogilvy China.
Digital media is likely to grow even more powerful in coming years as broadband uptake increases rapidly. Market research firm BDA China forecasts that the number of broadband users will exceed 128 million by 2011. WiMax is on the way, too. Beijing was one of the first cities in the world to offer WiMax for its residents, in time for the 2008 Olympics.
Another leading-edge media trend is the entry of 3G mobile phone service. 3G's debut this year in China creates more options for media - even electronic books - to migrate to cell phones. Mobile magazines distributed through multimedia messaging service (MMS) claim readership in the millions, leading Kuo to predict that China "will have a very interesting mobile media ecosystem in 10 years' time."
This new digital media force that has sprung up in recent years from private enterprise contrasts with largely state-owned and regulated print and broadcast. Most foreign press, such as the International Herald Tribune, is limited to distribution among guests staying at leading luxury hotels. Ditto CNN and other foreign programming.
All media in China face government restrictions and censorship in the Communist-controlled country. That is not likely to change soon. "In the near-term, media in China will remain firmly in the hands of bureaucrats who have little interest in either liberalization or growth," says Don Kummerfeld, president of FIPP (International Federation of the Periodical Press). "The biggest barrier to growth other than distribution," he adds, "is lack of investment capital, with foreign investment difficult, if not impossible, in government-controlled media."
Among the challenges faced by news providers are blocked sites and the so-called Great Firewall, which stops politically sensitive subjects from residing on servers. The Chinese Internet is evolving more as an entertainment highway than an information one. Young people listen to music, chat with one another and view videos rather than access hard news or serious political coverage, says Rebecca MacKinnon, an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Hong Kong. In a nation infamous for its blatant piracy, a number of Web sites have sprung up in China that are close copies of Facebook, MySpace and YouTube.
China's first blogging site, named Bokee (Mandarin for blog), grew out of a freedom-of-expression movement. Founder Fang Xingdong set up Bokee after one of his controversial columns was yanked from a site.
Many of these sites are supported by subscriber revenues to value-added services, as well as online advertising. Online ads are projected to increase by 26 percent to $1.7 billion by 2010, according to Analysys International in Beijing. Mobile advertising will reach $243 million by 2010, predicts Mark Natkin, managing director of Beijing-based Marbridge Consulting. A recent forecast by ZenithOptiMedia estimates that ad spend in China will grow 65.5 percent by 2010.
Chinese media is evolving on a "highly compressed timeline," according to Kuo, who adds, the "transformation of media has been stupendous." He predicts that print, especially newspapers, will "continue to be a staple of the Chinese media diet," at least until the Internet reaches more people and state control over news and distribution is gradually loosened.