Censorship fails to stop Internet

Glenda Korporaal | September 04, 2007

JACK Ma uses numbers to offer an insight into the potential of the internet in China. In two years, he says, China will have more internet users than the entire 300 million-plus population of the US.

Mr Ma, China's leading internet entrepreneur, is in Sydney for the meeting of the APEC Business Advisory Council.

He was the founder of the first internet outfit in China in 1995 and now runs Alibaba, an expanding online company that counts among its divisions China's version of eBay and the world's largest business-to-business website, which is set to list on the Hong Kong stock exchange for more than $1 billion.

Mr Ma, 42, said there were 160 million internet users in China, which was now the fastest-growing market in the world for online commerce. And in two years, the number of internet users in China would be much higher than the whole population of the US.

The ruling Communist Party is famed for creating what is referred to as China's Great Fire Wall, which blocks sites considered dangerous to public order. These include sites calling for Tibetan and Taiwan independence, and the site of the banned Falun Gong group.

Internet use in China is strictly policed, but Mr Ma said the Chinese Government was not restricting the growth of theinternet.

"If the Government in China really wants to control the growth of the internet it would not have grown so fast," he said. "If they really wanted to control it, they would have."

Mr Ma said he had had no problems with the Chinese Government over what he put on his internet sites, which had been largely aimed at servicing small and medium-sized businesses, and also involved internet trading by consumers.

He took over Yahoo's Chinese business after controversy over the decision by Yahoo US to reveal the name of an internet user who uploaded politically sensitive information on the site and was later jailed. "I have never had a problem with the Government to say to shut down this site or that," Mr Ma said.

He said he agreed with controls on the internet when it came to issues, such as pornography and online gambling.

Mr Ma, who has been coming to Australia since 1985 after making friends with an Australian tourist visiting his home town of Hangzhou, rejected suggestions the internet was slow in China.

On the contrary, he said he had found the internet in Australia much slower than he had at his home and in hotels in China.

The business leader said he was disappointed that he was not able to use his wireless internet in Australia to the same extent as he did in China.

Mr Ma said the internet was proving a great boon to small business in China, where there was a lack of developed credit cards and other advanced systems for payments.

His Ali.pay operation, an internet payment business, now has 48million users, compared with only 33 million credit card users in the whole of China. "E-commerce in the West is only a niche market because the infrastructure is so good," he said. "In China the system is not good, so we have to leapfrog the technology. Chinese businesses, particularly small and medium enterprises, are so eager to use the internet."

Mr Ma's Alibaba website is the largest business-to-business website in the world, allowing companies to search for source materials, many of them from Chinese suppliers. Mr Ma said the site was used by 17 million companies around the world, including several thousand in Australia.

He said he believed the internet was only just beginning, particularly in China.

Mr Ma said the internet was particularly effective for small business, which did not have the same financial resources as large companies and could use the net to reach potential customers around the world. "The game has not started yet," he said. "It has great potential."

Mr Ma predicted that next year's Olympic Games in Beijing would lead to a great increase in use of the internet. But he said he did not want to use the Olympics to make money, as many other businesses were in China.

"We should not focus on getting money out of people," he said. "We should focus on allowing people to use it to develop their skills." He said he did not want to focus on large companies but wanted to help small companies do business using the internet. "We don't want to catch the whales, we want to catch the shrimps," he said. "In this ocean there are more shrimps than whales."