The man who built China's first Net connection
Xu Rongsheng, the former deputy director of the computer center at Beijing's Institute of High-Energy Physics (IHEP), stands out among China's Internet pioneers.
During the early 1990s, Xu worked closely with Stanford University's Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) to establish a direct 64K bps (bits per second) link between the two institutes that would connect researchers working on the Beijing Electro-Spectrometer (BES) Collaboration, a project that brought together physicists from the U.S. and China. On May 17, 1994, that link became China's first full Internet connection.
Xu recently spoke with IDG News Service to discuss the 10th anniversary of China's first Internet connection and to reflect on the part he played in establishing that historic link.
How did you first come to know about the Internet and to realize its potential?
I worked at SLAC for many years during the 1980s. At that time, we had networks like DECnet and BITNET when I was there. So I knew networks were very important for research and also for other things.
When I returned to Beijing, the BES Collaboration meant that I stayed in contact with the people at SLAC and other professors from the United States. They told me about a network that was called the Internet and said it was very useful and much more advanced than other networks. When we decided to establish a network connection between China and the U.S., we wanted an Internet connection. We tried to get a TCP/IP link.
Looking back at the events that led to that first Internet connection, could you ever have imagined at that time how important the Internet would become in China?
Yes, sure. I believed that the Internet was most important for China's future. For me, this was basically for scientific research. We really needed the Internet and I believed that the government would not stop this project. They had to support us to do that.
What are your personal feelings when you think back to that time?
It still feels very exciting because when we tried to set up the first Internet link it was like establishing a railroad 100 years ago to have a new transportation tool. We were working on opening a new field and it was about bringing new ideas to other people, my friends. It was exciting.
When you were working on establishing this link for scientific research did you also consider the possibility of other applications for the Internet in China, such as business or other uses?
Yes, but at the beginning I thought it was better to forget thinking about other things. Scientific research was the most important thing for me. We needed that. I thought that if there were other things to worry about, those problems could be sorted out by people other than myself.
The impact of the Internet on China over the past decade seems to have been very significant. Do you agree with that?
Xu: I agree. There are many things that have happened we never thought about. We never thought that so many people would expect to profit from the Internet, that young people would invest money into that, put time into that.
In your opinion, what is the greatest challenge for the future development of the Internet in China?
On the technical side, the Internet around the world and in China is quite vulnerable to hackers. Security capabilities are definitely quite weak, I think. My own institute and a lot of my friends are working on areas related to the Internet and they are asking me to help them to find ways to maintain the stable operation of the Internet and their applications.
What is your opinion of Chinese government efforts to censor information that's available on the Internet? In the future, do you expect to see the Internet become more open in China?
In my opinion, there is a long way to go. It's not easy. There's no way to control the Internet at the moment. Of course, people are concerned about good content and bad content. The government has tried to get some control over the content that enters China but I think its difficult to control everything.