China celebrates 10 years of being connected to the Internet
- 17 May, 2004 12:58
Networking a place in Chinese history
The origin of China's first Internet connection fittingly lies in an ongoing project to study energies and particles similar to those created during the formation of the universe.
The project, called the Beijing Electro-Spectrometer (BES) Collaboration, brought together physicists from the Institute of High-Energy Physics (IHEP) in Beijing and Stanford University's Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC).
While the written record of the events that led to China's first Internet connection is incomplete and the memories of those involved have faded with time, an internal document written in early 1994 records the establishment of the first full Internet connection between SLAC and IHEP on May 17, 1994.
That first Internet connection was the result of a joint effort between IHEP and SLAC that was designed to improve communications between physicists in the U.S and China who were working on the BES collaboration.
"By 1990, it was recognized that if people were going to be collaborating they needed to be able to communicate easily," said R. "Les" A. Cottrell, assistant director of SLAC's computer services department.
At that time, IHEP was connected to SLAC over a dial-up X.25 connection that ran between CNPAC, then China's national public data network, and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. This connection, which was used to exchange e-mail once per day, was slow and expensive - costing around US$100 per hour and running up monthly bills of around US$10,000.
In addition to the link with SLAC, IHEP also had an X.25 connection through CNPAC with the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva. The dial-up link with CERN, which was used to exchange e-mail, was established in 1987 and upgraded to X.25 in 1990.
By 1991, SLAC scientists working on the BES Collaboration were regularly travelling to Beijing. However, the daily exchange of e-mail left these researchers feeling out of touch with SLAC and unable to access programs and data that resided on SLAC's computers. To overcome this problem, several researchers involved with the BES Collaboration suggested establishing a direct link between SLAC and IHEP.
A delegation from IHEP that included Xu Rongsheng, then the deputy director of IHEP's computer center who would lead the Chinese effort to establish a direct link, was visiting SLAC at that time and was receptive to the suggestion of a direct link. A visa was quickly arranged for Cottrell to visit Beijing in March 1991 to look into the possibility of establishing a direct link between SLAC and IHEP.
The first step would be to establish a modem connection between IHEP's Digital Equipment Corp. VAX computers and SLAC using the DECnet protocol.
"We knew that if we could just plug a modem into the VAX, and then use the modem to talk to the phone to dial up, theoretically we ought to be able to make a connection all the way to SLAC," Cottrell said.
There was just one problem: IHEP had only one phone line that was capable of making international calls, a line that was used by the institute's international relations department to send and receive faxes. The only phone lines available at IHEP's computer center were connected to an operator and could not be used to establish a data connection.
"There's no point in me going unless there's a phone line," Cottrell recalled telling the IHEP delegation, requesting that three phone lines capable of making international calls be installed ahead of his visit - one line to experiment with a modem connection to SLAC, a second line to allow direct voice connections and a third to be used as a backup in case something went wrong.
When Cottrell arrived in Beijing carrying a 9600-bps (bits per second) Telebit Corp. T2500 modem in his luggage, the three phone lines had been installed and were waiting for him. Before long, Cottrell, working with Charles Granieri, a computer systems specialist at SLAC, was able to get a direct modem connection between IHEP and SLAC that transmitted data at about 900 bps.
"We were able to log on to SLAC and we were able to do some real work," Cottrell said.
In addition to allowing access to SLAC's computers from IHEP, the DECnet connection was cheaper than the X.25 link, costing around US$4,000 per month.
While the DECnet connection between SLAC and IHEP offered significant improvements over the X.25 link, the experiments being conducted by the BES Collaboration still required a better connection. To that end, SLAC approached the U.S. Department of Energy and quickly won approval and funding to establish a dedicated 64K bps link using AT&T's SkyNet satellite service.
Getting the dedicated 64K bps connection up and running would prove more difficult than expected, lasting nearly two years. The initial plan was to connect SLAC with satellite earth stations in California and at Beijing's Capital International Airport. From the airport, a 35-kilometer microwave link would connect the earth station with the local phone exchange's fiber optic network, which would cover the last 15 kilometers to IHEP.
But problems getting the connection to work forced planners to instead use a copper link to cross the final two blocks between IHEP and the fiber optic network.
By early 1993, the Beijing Telecommunications Administration had succeeded in getting the connection to work with acceptable error rates and the link was officially handed over to IHEP on the morning of March 2, 1993.
"That was the first leased line in China," Xu said.
The improvements offered by the dedicated 64K-bps link, which initially used the DECnet protocol, were immediately noticeable. Tests showed the link offered a file copy rate of around 42K bps, a significant improvement over the 9600 bps modem that had previously been used to connect IHEP and SLAC. During 1993, the link was used to exchange an average of 2,500 e-mail messages per day, many of which were forwarded by SLAC to recipients in other countries via the Internet.
The dedicated link also allowed Internet access for physicists at IHEP who had an account that allowed them to access SLAC's computers. By remotely logging in to SLAC's computers, these researchers were also able to access the Internet. However, this connection did not offer full Internet access to all of the researchers at IHEP.
The IHEP-SLAC connection cost around US$10,000 per month, split between the U.S. and Chinese sides, less than the combined monthly cost of the X.25 and dial-up DECnet connections in 1991, which could cost as much as US$14,000 per month.
In the beginning, about 300 of China's top professors and scientists had access to IHEP's computers over dial-up connections but the dedicated connection soon drew interest from other academic and research institutions and raised hopes for a dedicated connection from China to the Internet.
Connecting IHEP to the Internet would have been possible when the dedicated link with SLAC was established in March 1993, but the U.S. government -- whose concerns were heightened in 1993 by tensions over alleged human rights violations in China and evidence that Chinese users were using the dedicated link with SLAC to access the Internet and copy files located on other U.S. servers -- would not allow the connection to be made, instead limiting use of the link to communication between researchers at IHEP and SLAC.
With the 64K bps connection operational between SLAC and IHEP, the final requirement necessary for Internet access was U.S. government approval to expand the scope of connectivity with IHEP and for the installation of a TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol) router. The approval was held up by U.S. government concerns that the router -- which was from Cisco Systems Inc. -- would be unable to handle connections above 64K bps.
In addition to SLAC and IHEP, plans to upgrade the link to a TCP/IP connection with the Internet also involved the U.S.-based Energy Sciences Network (ESnet), which was overseen by the U.S. Department of Energy and provided Internet connectivity to SLAC. Approval to use a TCP/IP connection was slow in coming, with the U.S. Department of Commerce finally issuing approval for the export to China of the first TCP/IP router at the end of 1993.
The Cisco router arrived in Beijing in February 1994 and was installed at IHEP in March. At that point, ESnet took over management of the U.S. end of the link from SLAC, one of the final steps towards opening the Internet connection with China.
Two months later, on April 18, 1994, ESnet sent out an e-mail to announce it planned to begin carrying Chinese IP traffic and on May 17, 1994, a full Internet connection was established by ESnet that linked the IHEP-SLAC connection with FIX-West, at that time the interconnection point on the U.S. West Coast for all of the major IP networks.
China never looked back.
Sumner Lemon and Stephen Lawson
A brief history of the Internet in China
China's first direct connection to the Internet was established 10 years ago this week but the history of computer networking in the country goes back even further.
As in many countries, the first computer networks were machine-to-machine links which later evolved into groups of machines interconnected via the X.25 protocol on public data networks. As elsewhere, the academic and scientific sector were early leaders in networking, with machines facilitating the sharing of data and exchange of e-mail among distant researchers working on similar subjects.
In 1986, the first of what would become one of a number of major Chinese public data networks got its start when researchers at the Beijing Institute of Computing Applications, working with the Universität Karlsruhe in Germany, formed the China Academic Network. A year later, the Institute of High Energy Physics (IHEP) in Beijing began internetworking by connecting to CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Geneva. IHEP would later become home to China's first full Internet connection, although not before a number of other institutions established X.25 links to universities and networks overseas.
The following is a brief timeline of some of the major events leading up to and after China's first direct Internet connection:
1986 - The China Academic Network (CANET) is launched by Beijing Institute of Computing Applications (ICA) with help from the Universität Karlsruhe in Germany.
1987 - The Institute of High Energy Physics (IHEP) establishes its first international connection. The link is to CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Geneva.
1987 - CANET establishes its first international link when a Siemens 7,760/ BS2000 computer at the ICA in Beijing is connected to the Universität Karlsruhe via a 300-bps (bits per second) packet-switched data network. Later in the month, Qian Tianbai sends China's first international e-mail. Accounts differ on the day and message title. One said it was sent on Sept. 14 and titled "Across the Great Wall we can reach every corner in the world" while another said it was sent on Sept. 20 and titled "Crossing the Great Wall to Join the World."
October 1990- The .cn international top level domain for China is registered at the DDN-NIC (Defense Data Network Network Information Center) by Qian on behalf of China. As China did not yet have direct Internet connectivity, the .cn name server was housed at Universität Karlsruhe.
March 1991 - IHEP connects to the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) at Stanford University via a direct dial-up link over DECnet.
December 1992 - China's first TCP/IP college network, Tsinghua University's TUNET, goes into operation.
March 2, 1993 - After problems getting a reliable link between IHEP and the satellite earth station at Beijing airport, the 64K-bps connection is completed and officially handed over to IHEP at 7:19 a.m. local time.
January 1994 - Agreement is reached with the U.S. Department of Energy's ESnet (the Energy Sciences Network) that will allow Chinese IP (Internet protocol) traffic to be carried on the Internet as long as some conditions, such as a notification to all ESnet sites, are met.
February 1994 - In preparation for the start of IP traffic, IHEP installs China's first Cisco router and the U.S. side of the link is handed from SLAC to ESnet.
April 18, 1994 - An e-mail is transmitted to ESnet sites alerting them that Chinese IP traffic will begin crossing the network soon. The alert was one of the conditions that needed to be satisfied before China could get a direct IP link.
May 15, 1994 - IHEP establishes China's first Web server. The server hosted IHEP's home page which included information on the institution, technology in China and cultural and tourism information.
May 17, 1994 - The IHEP link is opened to full Internet connectivity when a link was established from SLAC to FIX-West, which was a major West coast interconnection point.
May 21, 1994 - The root server responsible for the .cn international top level domain is relocated from Germany to China.
May 24, 1994 - National Computing and Networking Facility of China (NCFC), a collaborative network of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Beijing and Tsinghua Universities, opens a 64k-bps direct Internet link to the U.S. via Sprint. It was tested by sending a message via Telnet from Tsinghua University to SRI in Menlo Park. The round trip time was measured at three minutes. Then a message was sent to Vint Cerf, president of the Internet Society, informing him that the Beijing Internet link was open.
June 28, 1994 - Beijing University of Chemical Technology begins testing a leased line connection to the Internet with help from the Tokyo University of Sciences.
July 18, 1994 - IHEP gets its second international DECnet connection when it links to the National Laboratory for High Energy Physics in Tsukuba, Japan, via a 64k-bps link.
September 20, 1994 - Beijing University of Chemical Technology (BUCT) gains a direct Internet connection via Tokyo Institute of Technology.
Finding freedom behind China's Great Firewall
In the beginning, some observers predicted that opening China to the Internet would unleash an uncontrollable flood of information that would lead to the collapse of the Chinese government.
But events of the last decade have proved otherwise, as the Chinese government demonstrated that it can both censor -- and, to some degree, tolerate -- the flow of information over the Internet.
The issue of Internet censorship in China, including Chinese government attempts to block access to some Web sites and censor discussion groups, is routinely met with criticism from human rights groups and Western observers. But the issue of Internet censorship and access to information in China is far more complex and nuanced than these criticisms and many Western media reports suggest.
"I think it's been exaggerated by the Western media," said one Beijing Internet user, who spoke with IDG News Service on condition of anonymity. "But what's there is there, no one can deny it."
Hu Yong, chief consultant at ChinaLabs, an Internet consultancy in Beijing, agreed that Western media reports place too much emphasis on Internet censorship. "This kind of news indeed happens in China but its importance is overemphasized," he said.
Focusing too closely on Internet censorship overlooks the expanded freedoms of expression made possible in China by the Internet, Hu said. "It's much more free and open than people imagine," he said.
But there are boundaries to this freedom. Internet users who post content online or participate in discussion groups are generally savvy enough to know what topics test the government's tolerance for free discussion and as a result temper their remarks through self-censorship, a phenomenon noted by several observers and decried by advocates of free speech outside China.
Understanding the scope and impact of Chinese Internet censorship efforts is complicated by the absence of official confirmation that these censorship efforts, including blocking access to certain Web sites and hijacking domain names, exist. In an effort to fill that gap, several studies have been conducted in an effort to better understand the extent of Chinese Internet censorship programs.
A 2002 study conducted by researchers at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society found that 18,931 out of more than 200,000 Web sites were inaccessible from two different proxy servers in China on two different days. While the study found that many of the sites that were blocked were sexually explicit, the list of blocked Web sites also included sites offering news, health information, education and entertainment.
In 2003, a Reporters Without Borders investigation of content filtering by Chinese Web sites showed that 60 percent of messages posted to discussion forums over a period of one month appeared online. That number fell to 55 percent for messages that contained content deemed controversial by Chinese censors, including criticism of the government, the Paris-based group said. Of that 55 percent, more than half were subsequently removed by webmasters tasked with overseeing the online forums, it said.
The level of filtering varied from site to site and discussion forums run by commercial sites are generally more open than official Web sites, Reporters Without Borders said. The group noted that no messages submitted criticizing the Chinese government were posted on the discussion forum of China's official news service, Xinhua News Agency. By comparison, 50 percent of messages criticizing the government appeared on the discussion forum run by Sina, the operator of China's most popular Web portal, http://www.sina.com.cn, it said.
Despite empirical evidence of Internet censorship in China, these efforts have not substantially restricted access to online information, according to one researcher.
"I don't think it's a big issue," said Gene Wang, an assistant professor at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, who has been studying the Internet in China.
Wang noted Chinese Internet users are often able to access politically-sensitive information despite the best efforts of Chinese censors. In many cases, users were often aware of information contained on Web sites blocked by censors, reducing the significance of the government's censorship efforts.
"What I really found interesting was they actually have many different sources on the Internet. There's no way the government can control 100 percent of the information," Wang said.
The result is a paradox, Hu said. The Chinese government's attitude towards the Internet is split between a desire to control the information available to Chinese Internet users and a recognition that the Internet is a critical tool for the country's economic development and modernization, he said.
"The politicians do realize for practical matters it's nice for people to have a way to blow off steam, which is what the Internet provides, as long as they don't make it a platform for activism," said Andrew Lih, an associate professor and director of technology at the University of Hong Kong's Journalism and Media Studies Center.
One example of an online forum that allows Chinese Internet users to vent their frustrations is the Strong Nation discussion forum (http://bbs.people.com.cn/bbs/start, in Chinese) on the Web site of the official People's Daily newspaper. The People's Daily is the official newspaper of the Communist Party of China and editorials run by the paper are generally considered to be authoritative statements of Chinese government policy. The Strong Nation forum, which has been running for five years, underscores how open Internet discussions can be in China.
"In that forum you can say a lot of things, even criticize the current leadership. ...It's quite open there and it's right under the nose of the People's Daily," Hu said.
The nascent openness permitted by Strong Nation and other Internet outlets is a sign of things to come. In time, the need to be economically competitive with countries like India and the West will lead to China further loosening restrictions on the flow of information, Lih said.
"The Internet in China will be freed up not because they desire democracy but because it makes business sense. For better or for worse, it's the money that talks," he said.
Sumner Lemon with Martyn Williams
Chinese Internet users work to make knowledge free
An informal group of Chinese volunteers is working to build an online encyclopedia called Chinese Wikipedia to create a free source of information for Chinese Internet users.
Chinese Wikipedia (http://zh.wikipedia.org) is a Chinese-language offshoot of Wikipedia, an online English-language encyclopedia that is also available in a host of other languages. Wikipedia is a wiki, a term that is derived from the Hawaiian word for "quick" and used to describe Web sites that can be edited by any reader, including anonymous visitors.
Work on Wikipedia started in early 2001 and the project now has more than 6,000 active contributors working on 600,000 entries in 50 languages, according to the Wikipedia Web site, which noted the English version (http://en.wikipedia.org) offers more than 260,000 entries. All of the content on Wikipedia is copyrighted under the GNU Free Documentation License, a license for free content developed by the Free Software Foundation.
By any measure of common sense, Wikipedia and Chinese Wikipedia shouldn't work. The wiki format allows any visitor to the Chinese Wikipedia Web site, or that of its English-language cousin, to modify any of the pages in the encyclopedia by adding, changing or deleting information.
In theory, an Internet vandal could come to the site and easily deface or delete entries to the encyclopedia, wasting the efforts of numerous volunteers and rendering Chinese Wikipedia unusable. But wikis are essentially online databases of information and each modification is stored in the database, allowing information to be restored to the Web site if a page is deleted or defaced.
"The instantaneous editability surely is an attractive quality that will impact the future of Chinese cyberspace culture," said Menchi, a regular contributor to Chinese Wikipedia who requested his real name not be used for this story, in an e-mail interview.
Menchi, who was born in Taiwan, said the majority of the 100 regular contributors to Chinese Wikipedia are from Mainland China. As a result, most of the more than 9,000 entries contained in Chinese Wikipedia are written using the simplified Chinese characters used in China, rather than the traditional characters used in Taiwan, he said.
"One would assume and hope the impact (of Chinese Wikipedia) would be positive, 'liberating' the Mainlanders from the restrictive Communist censorship," Menchi said. "But reality often has a funny way of backfiring on us. It is very possible at the first sign of trouble the Communist government will put the Great Firewall up and permanently cut Mainlander Wikipedians off."
So far, that hasn't been a problem.
"Many Westerners are shocked to learn that Chinese Wikipedia has never been 'firewalled' by the Communist government, but many Mainlander Wikipedians actually think it’s not surprising. They consider their government to be reasonable, so long as one does nothing insane to offend the government," Menchi said, noting that some contributors from Mainland China have suggested toning down entries on politically sensitive topics, such as Tibetan independence.
One reason why Chinese Wikipedia has not been blocked by Chinese censors may be the site's insistence that all entries reflect a neutral point of view, a policy that defines all Wikipedia versions in other languages. The neutral point of view is intended to avoid editing wars between contributors competing to impose their interpretation of various subjects on other readers.
"The site is not blocked en masse at the site level because its not obviously pro or against anything because of the neutral point of view policy," said Andrew Lih, an associate professor and director of technology at the University of Hong Kong's Journalism and Media Studies Center.
Another reason Chinese Wikipedia has not been blocked by Chinese censors may be its low profile and relatively small group of regular contributors. As the site gets more attention and attracts more contributors, Chinese censors may decide to block access to the site, giving an indication of how much exposure censors are willing to tolerate for a site like this, Lih said.
"As the profile gets higher and higher it's going to be interesting to measure what threshold these folks have for it," he said.
For now, the site remains accessible in China and makes available information on a range of sensitive topics, including an entry on the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.
The entry, which includes the famous picture of an anonymous Chinese demonstrator facing off against a column of tanks, describes in detail events leading up to June 4, 1989, when Chinese soldiers used force to clear Tiananmen Square in central Beijing. It notes that the Chinese government reported more than 200 people were killed in that incident, including more than 30 students. But it goes on to note that foreign media reports estimated that more than 1,000 people were killed.
However, the entry also pushes the boundaries of objectivity, noting that some people believe the majority of the students who died on June 4, 1989, were hunger strikers who died of starvation -- a theory that was not widely reported by the official Chinese media or foreign press.
By comparison, the same entry on the English-version of Wikipedia notes that estimates for the number of people killed range as high as 2,600. The English entry makes no specific mention of official Chinese government estimates or the theory that those who died were hunger strikers who succumbed to starvation.
"The fact there is even the picture of the guy standing in front of the tanks in that article (on Chinese Wikipedia) is huge but there's other parts of it where you scratch your head and say, 'Well, I wouldn't put it that way,'" Lih said, noting that the openness of Wikipedia could serve to undermine the quality of information that is contained on the site.
"In the long run, as more Chinese get on to it, the Chinese Wikipedia could actually get worse in quality because you have people contributing to it that are not as enlightened or informed about this stuff as people who know the whole story," Lih said.
"On the other hand, it could open up a real debate. ...This could be a real eye-opener for the folks in China," he said.
China wrestles with growing spam problem
Suresh Ramasubramanian knows about outsourcing. The company he works for, Hong Kong-based Outblaze Ltd., has made a business out of running e-mail and Internet services on behalf of other companies. But there is an outsourcing trend he and others are fighting to stop.
As China marks the tenth anniversary of its first full connection to the Internet, the growing number of spammers who have moved part of all of operations to China is a target for people like Ramasubramanian, who is Outblaze's manager of security and anti-spam operations and a coordinator for the Asia-Pacific Coalition Against Unsolicited E-mail (APCAUCE).
"The situation seems to be that like a lot of other things, spam seems to be getting outsourced as well," he said. "American spammers hire local Chinese spammers who install servers at a Chinese ISP's (Internet service provider's) data centers and host or maintain the spammer's Web sites, run scripts and send out spam."
The result is a flood of spam from China that has pushed the county to No. 2, behind the U.S., on the London-based Spamhaus organization's April ranking of the worst "spam countries." A recent survey by Commtouch Software, which provides an anti-spam product, found that 71 percent of the Web sites referenced in spam e-mail were hosted in China.
The spammers using China are unlikely to be Chinese and most of the spam they send is directed out of the country, Ramasubramanian said. In the past, spam fighters say they've had a hard time convincing Chinese system administrators that their networks have been the source of unwanted e-mail. But that attitude is changing as a more spam is directed at Chinese users and complaints from Chinese users multiply.
A July 2003 survey found that on average 55 percent of the e-mail received by Chinese Internet users was spam, according to a presentation delivered by Li Yuxiao, director of the anti-spam coordination team at the Internet Society of China, at an APCAUCE conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, earlier this year. By January, this year that figure had risen to almost 58 percent.
In terms of the annoyance spam represents for Chinese Internet users, Li estimated that 47 billion pieces of spam were received by Chinese users in 2003 and a collective 1.5 billion hours were wasted reading and deleting spam. The economic loss attributed to spam was put at 4.8 billion renminbi (US$581 million).
One such user, Hu Yong, chief consultant at ChinaLabs, said spam is becoming a big problem, especially for people who frequently use the Internet. Yong relies on a spam filter set up by his e-mail service provider, Sina Corp., to keep his mailbox free from junk e-mail messages.
"If the service providers do not come out with some kind of solution, you will be bombed with spam and it takes a lot of time and it's a great waste," he said.
Filtering services installed by providers to protect users like Hu have been at the forefront of China's fight against spam but that is beginning to change.
"Until recently, the focus of the local Internet regulatory authority in China, the Internet Society of China (ISC), has been controlling spam inbound to Chinese e-mail users," said Ramasubramanian. That is now changing and the group is determined fight spam more aggressively, he said.
The ISC began getting tough on August 8, 2003, when it published its first spam blacklist. It contained the IP (Internet protocol) addresses of 225 servers responsible for sending spam, including 23 in China, 97 in Taiwan, 4 in Hong Kong and 101 located elsewhere in the world. The list delivered a one-month ultimatum to ISPs hosting the servers: cut the spammers off or we'll start blocking traffic from your network.
The ISC wouldn't comment for this article on the effectiveness of the list. But at the APCAUCE Kuala Lumpur meeting earlier this year it said spam dropped 26 percent during the two months after the first list was published. Three subsequent lists have been issued, one in November last year, one in February and the most recent in April.
As part of its battle against spam, the ISC also invited Richard Cox, a member of the Spamhaus team, to visit China to discuss measures that can be taken to cut down on spam. Cox visited China in April and met with representatives of major ISPs, e-mail providers and a representative of the Ministry of Information Industry (MII), which is the government agency that oversees the Internet.
"Some of the world's worst spammers are out there and we want (the Chinese) to understand the harm they are doing," said Cox. "We are beginning to get that message across."
Cox confirmed the ISC's determination to try to stop spam and said he was encouraged by the attitude of ISP representatives and the government official he met. His organization is in the process of establishing a Chinese-language version of Spamhaus (http://www.spamhaus.cn) that will be more accessible to local system administrators.
"We are very encouraged," he said. "We are also aware now of exactly what needs to be done."
Martyn Williams with Sumner Lemon
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.