Asian Leaders Bullish on E-Commerce

In separate industry forums being held in Beijing and Seoul this week, Chinese President Jiang Zemin and South Korean President Kim Dae-jung offered optimistic assessments of the ability of the Internet and e-commerce to change their countries’ futures.

While President Kim’s remarks about the need for Asian cooperation to strengthen e-commerce in the region were not unexpected, President Zemin’s comments that the Internet will transform China surprised many observers, and highlighted the government’s internal struggle over the medium.

Speaking at the World Computer Congress — a gathering in Beijing of Internet entrepreneurs and regulators from 70 countries — President Zemin said on Monday that “virtual reality is changing the way people produce, learn and live,” and the “melding of the traditional economy and the information technology will provide the engine for the development of the economy and society in the 21st century.”

Mixed Messages

President Zemin’s remarks — broadcast on the country’s domestic television news — seemed to be a ringing endorsement of his government’s belief that China needs to embrace the Internet to keep up with the transformation of the global economy.

However, just two weeks ago, The People’s Daily, the government’s official organ, said that China must seize the initiative to stem the tide of online dissent from its ideological enemies. A week before that message appeared, the State Security ministry had shut down a dissident Web site called the “New Culture Forum,” saying it spread unlawful propaganda.

In his statement at the World Computer Congress, President Zemin alluded to China’s tightrope walk, saying that the Internet also spawned a “flood of trash” and dispensed information that was untrue. China has routinely blocked citizen access to Western media outlets and dissident sites operating outside the country.

Zemin advocated establishing an international Internet pact to “strengthen the safe management of information to give free rein to the positive uses of the Internet,” but that thinly veiled call for censorship will surely be ignored by Western governments.

The People’s Daily said earlier this month that 14.9 million Chinese citizens now have Internet access and the number of people going online is doubling every six months. The Chinese government evidently recognizes the pros and cons of the Internet, and the struggle to find a happy medium allowing economic growth but restricting information access will no doubt continue.

South Korea Touts Initiatives

Meanwhile, in Seoul, President Kim told 600 international industry regulators and executives at the International Conference on Electronic Commerce 2000 that his country will play a leading role in promoting e-commerce in the areas of electronics, textile, steel and chemistry — traditionally strong sectors for South Korea.

Kim said his government will raise $450 million (US$) for a government/business venture investment fund and an additional $90 million for a merger and acquisition fund. The South Korean government will also expand distribution infrastructure, train the workforce, support regional e-commerce ventures and establish a federation of large conglomerates, venture firms and smaller companies engaged in Internet business, he said.

President Kim called for Asian countries to cooperate in expanding telecommunications networks, IT development, promoting e-commerce and standardization. He said that 16 million South Koreans — almost one-third of the population — have Internet access. That figure will rise to 30 million in two years, the South Korean president predicted.

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