The Internet plays an increasingly vital role as a forum of public opinion in China as other forms of media remain under tight Communist Party control, though government restrictions on the Web will likely intensify, experts said at a recent symposium held in Tokyo.

The recent threat by the U.S. search engine giant Google to pull out of the world’s most populous market over alleged cyber attacks and censorship has once again highlighted China’s policy of controlling content on the Internet.

In recent years, rising numbers of Chinese citizens have been using the Internet to express their views and exchange information on social issues, but the Communist government will try to put the Web under increasing controls all the more for its potential as a tool for social change, the experts said.

Scholars and journalists from China were joined by Japanese experts on media issues during the Jan. 19 symposium organized by the East Asia Media Research Center at Hokkaido University’s Research Faculty of Media and Communication, with cooperation from the Keizai Koho Center.

The use of the Internet in China has expanded at a pace even faster than the breakneck speed of the nation’s economic growth, said Yin Yungong, director of the Institute of Journalism and Communication at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

The Internet audience in China reached 384 million people at the end of 2009, more than a tenfold increase from a decade ago. While the number represents less than 30 percent of the population, the ratio is much higher among younger generations and in urban areas, with people aged 35 or under estimated to account for 40 percent to 50 percent of Web users in the country, Yin said.

Internet shopping has expanded to more than 100 million users — about double the figure of a year ago — despite continuing risks, such as fraud involved in Web-based transactions, he added.

The Internet has diversified the process in which news is spread in China and has now become a primary forum of public opinion in the country, Yin noted. And in many cases, opinions expressed on the Web form a stark contrast to those stated by conventional media such as newspapers and TV, he said.

There are increasing instances in which serious social problems are exposed on the Internet first and then taken up by newspapers and TV, Yin said.

Today, Chinese newspapers and TV broadcasters look to the Internet for sources of information and pay attention to opinions expressed on the Web, said Shan Xuegang, deputy secretary general of the Internet public opinion monitoring center at People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s official newspaper.

About 180 million people have their own blogs, with 60 million of them updated within the past six months, as blogs have become a key channel where people express their views on news and issues, Shan said.

A growing number of people — including scholars, experts on various issues and ordinary Internet users — voice their opinions on the Web and claim widening influence as opinion leaders, sometimes overwhelming those of newspapers and TV, he said.

So-called microblogging has rapidly expanded over the past year, with much of China’s 230 million mobile phone users seen as potential microbloggers, Shan noted. Web access through mobile phones enables people to quickly relay information on news and issues not covered by conventional media, he added.

While much of China’s Internet users previously accessed the Internet for online computer games and other sources of entertainment, a recent survey shows that more than 50 percent of them use the Web as a platform to post their comments on social issues, according to Shan.

Increasing ranks of Internet users have organized by creating communities on social networking sites and last year some of them resorted to physical action in real life to express their discontent, he said.

One such action took place in Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong Province, last November, in which more than 1,000 local residents staged hours of rallies around the city government offices to protest a project to build a garbage incineration facility, said Zhang Ping, a reporter for the Southern Metropolis Daily in Guangdong.

The largest protest demonstration in Guangzhou since 1989 was triggered by people’s discontent with the project, which had been promoted by city government bureaucrats without informing the residents near the construction site or assessing damage to the local environment, said Zhang, who is known as an influential blogger in China. It was also revealed that a senior city government official had close ties with people involved in the project, he said.

Zhang noted that Internet blogs, community sites, microblogging and mobile phone mails played a key role in connecting the protesters in the Guangzhou incident.

When journalists at local newspapers and TV broadcasters were ordered not to report on the dispute surrounding the project, some of the reporters used their blogs to spread the news, Zhang said.

Protesters posted information on the issue on an Internet community forum and discussed when, where and how to stage the demonstration. On the day of the protest, fearing that the community site could be shut down by city authorities, some of them used Twitter-like microblogs to upload photos of the demonstration they took with their mobile phones, Zhang said.

Subsequently, the city government announced in December that it was reviewing its policy and promised to hear local residents’ opinions before going ahead with major construction projects that affect their lives, he noted.

Parody images and videos posted on the Web are another popular form of protest among Internet users in China, Zhang said.

Short film creator Hu Ge said he did not imagine that a parody video he made of the movie “The Promise” by renowned director Chen Kaige at the end of 2005 would stir up a nationwide controversy.

Hu said he created the 20-minute video in eight or nine days after he watched the highly publicized movie at a cinema and did not like it. He sent the video file to his friends just so they could have fun, but within days the video spread among the Internet audience throughout China.

The video — and the sensation that it created on the Web — was taken up by the media and became an even bigger topic when director Chen said he would sue Hu for copyright infringement — a threat he eventually withdrew as the debate continued to rage on the Web.

Hu said he had no intention of challenging the director, as some media reports characterized the issue, but was simply trying to express his opinion in his own way.

Now a popular Web video creator, Hu said he owes what he is today to the Internet, which enables people to raise their voices irrespective of their social status.

“For Web users, the Internet provides a space that is more equal than real life,” he said.

Zhan Jiang, a professor in the department of international journalism and communication at Beijing Foreign Studies University, observed that the Internet plays a larger role in China’s society than in many other countries around the world. It has provided a venue for Chinese people at large to express their views to a wider audience, which had not been possible with the country’s newspapers and TV broadcasting, he said.

Currently, freedom of association is restricted in China, but the Internet has enabled individual citizens — empowered by the nation’s rapid economic growth — to connect with each other, Zhan noted.

The professor said he believes that the Chinese government holds mixed views toward the Internet — whether to promote it or to restrict it. Some bureaucrats are using the presence of pornography and other “unhealthy” contents on the Web as an excuse for their attempt to introduce comprehensive controls over the Internet, he added.

Xi Ru, an associate professor at the Hokkaido University Graduate School of International Media, Communication and Tourism Studies, said Beijing has a policy of promoting the Internet in China from the standpoint of industrial and technological development while keeping it under strict control — as has been made clear in the recent dispute with Google.

People turn to the Internet as a key forum where they can express their views and obtain information because those actions are restricted vis-a-vis the conventional media under the ideological control of the ruling party.

The Chinese government’s basic idea of controlling content on the Web is essentially the same as its policy toward newspapers and TV, and it is now confronted with a vast challenge of how to respond to the ever-expanding Web world in the country with new control systems and technologies to cope with the changing situation surrounding Web users, she said.

Yasuo Furuhata, a reporter with the Chinese news section of Kyodo News, said that given the Chinese government’s control of the Web as highlighted by the Google issue, it would be premature and unrealistic to think that a wider use of the Internet would promote democratic reforms in China. The authorities use every means possible to try to control the public opinion expressed on the Web, he added.

Still, the Internet has no doubt led to the emergence of public opinions on the Web that are different from those of the masses influenced by government propaganda, and have the potential to change things in the Chinese society, he said.

Yoshikazu Shimizu, vice chief editorial writer of the Tokyo Shimbun daily, noted that the Chinese government, confident of its policies particularly after the quick economic recovery following the global financial crisis, appears to be leaning toward tighter control of domestic media.

But it is also undeniable that it’s increasingly hard for Chinese authorities to ignore public opinions while activities of lawyers, experts and nongovernmental groups that connect individual citizens have expanded to previously unimaginable levels, Shimizu said.

The Internet is playing a vital role in connecting these people. While there is no organization in China that could rival the Communist Party, networks of individuals linked via the Web are being established and in some cases have the potential to mobilize large numbers of people, he said. The ruling party leaders prioritize control of the Internet because they are well aware of this, he added.

Meanwhile, Kiyoshi Takai, professor and dean of the Research Faculty of Media and Communication at Hokkaido University, gave a more cautious view of the potential of the Internet in China.

The Internet is expanding its role in China because government control of other media is so strict while that of the Web content is still relatively loose, Takai noted.

Much of the news content on the Web is under state control just like newspapers and TV because many of the Internet sites rely on topics taken up by the conventional media, he pointed out. Scandals or unreported news are exposed on the Web mostly by chance, but it is still hard to say that the Internet has been established as a constant watchdog mechanism, he added.

Susumu Yabuki, a professor emeritus of Yokohama City University, said it would be hard to determine at this point what impact the Internet would have on future changes in Chinese society.

The Chinese government would likely move toward tightening its censorship of Web content, including blogs and microblogs that it has so far not been able to put fully under control, he noted.