In the 13th and 14th centuries, China led the world in printing — the leading 'information technology' of the time — but with the renaissance, and later the industrial revolution, Europe drew ahead. In the 20th century, America strode the technology arena like a colossus. In the 21st century, China is still way behind in what is one of the leading information technologies of today, the World Wide Web.
That's easily explained: they're a developing country with education and income levels substantially lower than in the West and they are disadvantaged by a lack of familiarity with the English language, the lingua franca of today's Web. So, of course they are well behind in adoption and use of the World Wide Web, or so conventional wisdom says.
Conventional wisdom can be wrong. While researching for a presentation recently, I visited Alexa Web Search, which tracks World Wide Web traffic. I pulled up a list of the top 25 websites by traffic, fully expecting to find the usual suspects (Yahoo, Google, Myspace, etc). Sure enough, there they were. To my surprise, there was Baidu at #5 and qq, apparently a Chinese portal, at #9. The top-25 list was rounded off by five more Chinese websites.
Think about it. This means fully a quarter of the 25 most popular sites on the web are written in Chinese, for Chinese users. China is big on Internet penetration, too. According to reports, they may already have more broadband users than the United States. China is not far behind in Internet activity of the more nefarious kind. The country is one of the top sources of spam and phishing sites.
China is an awesome force on the World Wide Web. Couple this with their already phenomenal domination in IT hardware (much of the world's supply of computers, including IBM-Lenovo, and almost the entire gamut of electronics hardware, including iPods, are being made in that country), and you have a fairly staggering picture of just how influential this country has become.
If you agree, as I do, that the World Wide Web is powerfully shaping social mega trends, then all of us had better accept that China is going to play a far bigger role in deciding how technology and society will evolve in the coming decades.
Who says the Chinese need to learn English?