The daily Web habits of a typical 18-year-old college student named Li Yufei show why American Internet companies, one after another, have had trouble penetrating what is now the world’s most wired nation.
He writes a blog, downloads Korean television shows, manages two Web sites devoted to music and plays an online game called Rongguang Hospital, at Baidu.com.
“I started doing a lot of this when I was about 11 years old,” says Mr. Li, a freshman at the Shanghai Maritime University. “Now, I spend most of my leisure time on the Internet,” he says. “There’s nowhere else to go.”
Google’s decision last month to remove some of its operations from China has overshadowed a startling dynamic at work in this country, a place where young people complain that there is not a lot to do: the Internet, already a potent social force here, has become the country’s prime entertainment service.
The surprising power of online communities in China has Communist Party leaders worried about the ability of online social networks to spread viral messages that could ignite social movements, and pose a challenge to the party and its leaders. They saw what happened to Han Feng, a midlevel party official in southern China, when his private diary was recently posted online.
In the diary, Mr. Han catalogued not just the hefty bribes he was taking, but detailed his sexual escapades with co-workers and mistresses. The ensuing online uproar led to his sacking and a criminal investigation.
“For the government, the scary part of the Internet is the unpredictable power of its organization,” said Yang Guobin, an associate professor at Barnard College and author of “The Power of the Internet in China” (Columbia University Press, 2009).
“Although people are there socializing, it can provide a platform for lots of other activities, and even turn political,” he said.
But young people in China say they are excited about the Web not because it offers a means to rebellion, but because it gives them a wide variety of social and entertainment options.
“The Web is really a reflection of real life,” says Gary Wang, founder and chief executive of Tudou, one of China’s biggest video-sharing sites. “What people do in real life is they go to karaoke rooms, they go to bars, they get together with friends and they shop. And that’s what they do online.”