Chinese Internet Pioneer Predicts ‘Wearable Terminals’ & Growing ‘Digital Divide’
In 1994, a modest but determined and brilliant engineer named Madam Qiheng Hu led a delegation to the U.S. for discussions with the National Science Foundation, which led to a consensus on setting up the first direct TCP/IP connection in mainland China. In 1997, she went on to found the China Internet Network Information Center and has chaired its steering committee ever since. This committee manages the operation and development of Internet resources in the world’s most populous nation. In addition, she is president of the Internet Society in China, which she helped found in 2001. For these among other achievements, she was inducted in 2013 into the Internet Hall of Fame. Following are excerpts from an interview with her conducted by Internet Hall of Fame Advisory Board Member Andreu Veà, in conjunction with the new book he has just published, entitled “How We Create the Internet.”
AV: What was your first experience with the Internet or ARPANET?
MH: In 1980, while working as a visiting researcher at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, I encountered the famous VAX machine for the first time. After the experience of punching the paper tapes with the 130, it was so exciting when I was able to learn and use programming languages like Fortran and Pascal, and to do computing using a terminal. I had been deeply impressed by the computer networking project during my first visit to the U.S. in 1978, with a delegation sent by CAS (Chinese Academy of Services). The delegation visited a number of the top universities –UC Berkeley, MIT, Stanford, Harvard—and some famous businesses, like IBM, DEC, HP, Wang and others. The computer culture and the networking trend impressed me the most. I was shocked to see the huge gap between China and the U.S. relating to the computer industry and its applications. After 30 years this gap is still very big, particularly in the rate of computer users throughout the whole population. This gap is rooted deeply in the two societies’ histories, cultures and even in the way people think.
AV: What are the most important milestones in the development of the Internet?
MH: Around 2001, the most popular use of the Internet in China was searching, instead of gaming. The Internet really began to take root in China when the four largest portal sites started to make a profit and a few Chinese Internet Service Providers successfully went public.
AV: How did you contribute to the development of the Internet?
MH: In early 1990 as a Vice President of Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), I was in charge of the National Computing and Networking Facility of China (NCFC) Networking Project. I succeeded in achieving consensus with the project participants to connect the NCFC network with the Internet backbone in the U.S. This connection was a completely bottom-up, volunteer-driven task, which was not covered by the NCFC budget. Participants had to finance the task by ourselves. We donors, who gave our own money, were from the Ministry of Science and Technology, the Natural Science Foundation of China and CAS.
In 1994 I visited Dr. Neal Lane and Steve Wolff at the National Science Foundation and we agreed to set up a direct connection between the NCFC network and the Internet. That was the first fully functional link bringing the global Internet to China.
To help bring the Internet to China, I led the reorganization of one CAS institute in 1994 and built on its base the Computer Network Information Center (CNIC) as an Internet service-centered institute. This established the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) for the operation of the ccTLD “.cn” in 1997. I also organized the CNNIC Steering Committee and headed the list of experts representing multi-stakeholders in China. These initial steps helped bring the Internet on its “long road” to China.
Also in 2001, I initiated and succeeded in getting support from multi-stakeholders to establish the Internet Society of China (ISC). I was elected and reelected as the Chairperson of the ISC Council from 2001 till 2013, for three terms. The ISC is the civil organization of Chinese Internet enterprises and institutions, which has played an important role in the development of the Internet in China.
AV: In your opinion, what are the key characteristics of Internet?
- Openness: It is ready to accept everyone;
- Inclusiveness: It allows for great variety in technology and in content;
- Freedom and equality: It makes no distinction between strength or weakness, rank, social position, nationality or race
- Creativity: This was needed in the development of the Internet itself, and it inspires creativity in everyone who uses it;
- Bottom-up initiative: It encourages everyone to join and to initiate;
- Voluntary nature: It expands the impact of plain people, and the weak voice;
- Fidelity: Generally speaking, it is a mirror of the society;
- Neutrality: It is a magnificent tool, depending on the purpose of the person who is using it;
- Flexibility: It uses diverse technology and applications, fitting all possible requirements; and
- Mobility: No matter which kind of devices will be developed, the Internet’s universal accessibility is the root for its mobility.
AV: What do you think the future of the Internet holds?
MH: Services on the Internet will be greatly increased, individualized and diversified. A “home manager” service provided by your computers will manage your money and look after your needs, spend your money reasonably according to your habits, and put everything you need in place. It will report to you on command.
There will be many new technical advances that will merge into the existing Internet, such as software-defined networking (SDN). Such networks will become even more powerful, effective and fast. Wearable smart terminals will be popular and intelligent mobile devices will be widely used, making this a truly networked world. At the same time, the Digital Divide will be growing, and international disputes based on security issues will also increase enormously. Under the leadership of the UN collaborating with the Internet Society, the world should arrive at a universal consensus on norms of online behavior, which should be complied with by all nations and individuals. This will be of vital importance in keeping the world at peace.