Last week, the Chinese government published its national cyber strategy, which aims to transform it into a strong Internet power (wangluo qiangguo) by the middle of this century. It is the culmination of two years of institutional reform and departmental negotiation work and will have a considerable impact on how China will attempt not only to reshape the architecture information and communication technologies (ICTs) at home, but also how it will position itself in global strategic terms. As such, the document deserves a close reading and analysis.
The publication of this strategy signals the end of a period of considerable reform in China’s ICT sector, which started soon after Xi Jinping’s accession in 2012. Initially, efforts were predominantly focused on regaining control in the increasingly raucous social media sphere. A small department of the State Council Information Office, the State Internet Information Office (SIIO) gained expanded powers as well as an independent director, Beijing vice-mayor and propaganda chief, Lu Wei. Soon, it became clear that online content was not the only challenge China faced in the ICT sphere, a point driven home by events such as the Snowden revelations and Microsoft’s discontinuation of security support from Windows XP. Both events painfully displayed how vulnerable China was to corporate and governmental forces abroad.
The response was the creation of a new bureaucracy in early 2014 with a comprehensive remit to govern all aspects of ICTs. At the top, this consists of the Central Leading Group for Informatization and Cybersecurity, chaired by Xi Jinping himself. The SIIO was rebranded as the Cyberspace Administration of China, which, by the time Lu Wei left his position, had acquired a broad and diverse portfolio of powers from different ministries and entities. Rarely has an administrative institution risen so rapidly in China’s complex bureaucracy.
From the start, a central task of this new bureaucracy has been to develop an ICT strategy that combines elements of the scientific and development research agenda started by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s, with increasingly rapid changes in policy and security settings both domestically and abroad. Many components of that strategy have already become apparent in the past few years. The speech that Lu Wei gave at the first Wuzhen World Internet Conference in 2014 already contains many of the slogans that pepper last week’s strategy. Xi Jinping’s speech on informatization from earlier this year equally pervades the document. Partial plans have successively been presented for big data, online culture, and “Internet Plus”, or the broad application of ICT solutions for economic and social development. The cyber strategy therefore contains little information that is completely new, but it does have important symbolic value, and underlines that ICT has become one of the absolute priorities across nearly all policy areas.
How, then, is this strategy going to be turned into reality? How should this document be read? Generally, the strategy sets out an overall framework of objectives and initiatives, which are formulated in rather general and vague terms. One exception to this is the fact that the document calls for the establishment of a specific company to invest in core technology research and development. Given that it has been drafted within the CAC (which is the office of the Central Leading Group), it will have been subject to lengthy interdepartmental negotiations and horse-trading. Therefore, not all provisions will have equal priority, and some may have just been included to placate, rather than influence policy. In the next months, all the ministry-level bodies involved, as well as local governments, will come up with their detailed implementation plans, from which more practical initiatives can likely be gleaned.
Nevertheless, the overall objective of this strategy is clear. China aims to become an Internet superpower, which – in its eyes – means effective control over all important ICT processes within its territory. A first priority within this agenda is indigenization. The fact that China relies on foreign suppliers for nearly all of its “core technologies” has become a thorn in the side of the leadership, and significant investments and efforts will be made to develop indigenous operating systems, chipsets, etc. This not only reduces China’s security risk, it also assists China’s moving up the value chain. Moreover, the leadership believes that this will give it the wherewithal to play a stronger role in international Internet governance.
The second priority is socio-economic informatization. Partially, China intends to use ICTs to develop the sort of effective administration that Western states have been used to for decades. This will include, for instance, more effective delivery of services such as education and healthcare. Moreover, it is deemed that the ICT industry will not only contribute through economic development through its own growth, but also through its enabling of other sectors to progress. In agriculture, for instance, it is expected that better tracking of produce will enable fresher goods to be delivered to consumers more efficiently.
In security terms, a curiosity in this document is the dedication of a full section to military affairs. Normally, the military is largely sequestered away from civil governance. However, the innately “dual use” nature of ICTs has led to civil-military integration in cyber affairs gaining growing prominence. This is relatively novel in Chinese politics and merits attention going forward.
Lastly, the strategy is interesting for some of the corollaries it attaches to the development of the ICT sector. One salient example is immigration: the strategy explicitly calls for relaxing conditions to gain permanent residency in China, in order to attract foreign ICT talent. While this is likely to have only small effects in the short run, in the longer term, it may herald a shift in the nature of China’s economy and society, but also in terms of its global standing. In a few decades, it may well be that China will be an attractive destination for talent from the global south.