Does the Internet, a key technological infrastructure in contemporary urban China, facilitate the emergence of private entrepreneurs and autonomous citizens? Who deserves the credit? Chinese national leaders answered “yes” to the first question and pointed to themselves as the answer to the second. This essay maintains, however, that local state actors played the central and effectively centralizing role in informatization (xinxihua) projects in Nanhai City, Guangdong province. Through local e-government projects and a series of policies regarding land use, financing, and personnel training, the Nanhai government was able to shape the emerging local e-conomy in a way that limited entrepreneurial autonomy for small-scale start-ups in the Internet industry. The highly centralized informatization campaign fundamentally reversed Nanhai's renowned decentralized model of rural industrialization.

Through this process, a fractured system emerged for the public and private meanings attached to informatization and to the city itself. This was manifested in everyday practice and discourse among local policymakers, entrepreneurs in both new and old economies, and average residents with different (mis)perceptions of the Internet influenced by their gender. At the formal policy level, the trend toward centralization was most obvious, revolving around the formation of a nebulous “public” network space being constructed by the city using technological, administrative, and rhetorical devices. Yet the “private” practices and perceptions of Internet that defined Nanhai's informational landscape persisted in a fractured manner at the same time, leading to major corruption scandals and the implosion of the grandiose technology campaign. To understand such a paradoxical process, this article examines the contextual and internal factors for Nanhai's Internet buildup. From a critical and historical perspective, it highlights a long-term seesaw battle along the problematic public-private borderline regarding issues of urbanization and informatization in contemporary Chinese cities.

This article reflects on the restructuring of local power relations and the role of “informatization” policy discourse therein. A crucial, yet often overlooked, dimension of reform in China today is the migration and subsequent transformation of technosocial meaning across different scales of public and private operations. The discursive process often has a transnational reach and tends to follow a political logic that usually only makes sense against the backdrop of the local history.

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