Over the past few years, China’s leadership has increasingly sought to establish national sovereignty as the foundational norm of Internet governance. At the recent Wuzhen World Internet Conference (WIC), Xi Jinping reiterated China’s position, that countries should “respect each country’s rights to choose its online development path, its network management model, its public Internet policies and equal participation in international cyberspace governance, not engage in cyber hegemony, not interfere in other countries’ internal affairs, and not engage in, tolerate or support online activities harming the national security of other countries”.
This state-dominated approach stands in sharp contrast to the multi-stakeholder approach prevalent in numerous existing Internet governance fora, and embraced by various governments, NGOs and experts. Foreign observers have largely treated it with a mixture of concern and disdain, holding up China’s well -known plethora of Internet control measures, as well as its reputation for industrial espionage and cyber-intrusion. Prominent Internet governance commentators have alsolambasted the foreign participants’ willingness to support the WIC, as well as the Wuzhen Initiative that was established in its wake. These include businesses such as Kaspersky, NGOs such as the EastWest Institute, as well as existing Internet governance bodies such as APNIC.
To be sure, instances such as the reported alteration of the transcript of a speech by Jimmy Wales, cofounder of Wikipedia, do little to improve China’s image in the outside world. Nevertheless, a – for many uncomfortable – truth is that China now has the world’s largest online population, is a major producer of IT hardware and, increasingly, software, and is rapidly developing world-leading businesses of its own. The WIC also demonstrated that China is rapidly building a regional coalition of like-minded countries. This is part of a broader plan in which the leadership pursues an increasingly significant role on the global Internet governance stage. Whatever one might think of China’s stance, it seems inevitable that the country is going to play an increasingly significant role on the Internet stage, and that some form of engagement will be required if the integrity of the global Internet is to be preserved.
As such, rather than dismissing both its attitude to global Internet governance as well as domestic Internet control out of hand, it is perhaps useful to consider the roots of China’s position, as well as why this position might be attractive to other governments. The conflict between the “open Internet” model proposed by the United States, the United Kingdom and other Western nations and China’s sovereignty-based approach reflects both an opposing conception about the international order and the role of liberal values therein, as well as of the proper function of the state in domestic and global governance.
The existing global order is, in many ways created or strongly influenced by the United States, reflecting its stunning victories in the Second World War and the Cold War. The idea of liberal democratization as the end of history, still strong in the minds of many U.S. policymakers, is seen as the irreversible achievement of half a century of global engagement. Consequently, any derogation to that system by non-liberal democratic powers can only be considered as a clear symbol of decline and backsliding. For China, on the other hand, memories of its engagement with the emerging global reach of Western nations are largely negative, compounded with its miserly treatment during World War II and decades of isolation until the Nixon visits of the 1970s. China’s leaders therefore do not consider it has ownership of the current global status quo, as China had little or no role in creating it, and find it often functions counter to the national interest. Moreover, they often see the existing rules of the games as a hypocritical disguise for the naked exercise of power by status-quo powers, particularly the United States.
This contrast is compounded by fundamentally opposed conceptions of the legitimate state and its role in Internet governance. Liberal-democratic notions, accompanied by a strong anti-government bias, have been tremendously influential in shaping the belief systems of Internet governance stakeholders hitherto. Such notions of legal and legitimate limitations to state power are absent in the Chinese context, where the historical experience of successive governments has been that a strong, capable state is necessary to ensure national power and prosperity. In other words, where it is often inconceivable that the state plays a dominant role in regulating cyberspace in Western views, in Chinese eyes, it is equally inconceivable that it doesn’t.
Lastly, China’s leadership has designated the Internet as a crucial “battlefield” in its increasingly complex relationship with the United States. Beijing has always been cautious about the subversive potential of information technology, and this has been exacerbated in recent years. Its analysis is that the United States Government, as well as U.S. businesses, have played a significant role in fostering regime change and colour revolutions that are largely aimed at supporting the U.S. national interest. Moreover, the Snowden revelations highlighted China’s vulnerability in technological terms, accelerating a drive towards indigenization of software and hardware, as well as greater assertiveness concerning the thorny question of cross-border hacking, surveillance and intelligence.
The results of these tensions are quite visible: China’s new Internet administration is presenting successive measures to enhance its effective control over domestic and cross-border online processes, strengthening the Great Firewall, building coalitions to counter the status quo in various regional and global Internet governance forums, and changing facts on the ground in order to enhance its own discursive and substantive power. It is likely that it will use the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the One Belt One Road initiative to buttress its position by developing more powerful hardware and software businesses, as well as by creating standards and regulatory frameworks that reflect China’s desires and aspirations for adoption elsewhere.
This does not mean that all cooperation between China and Western countries in cyberspace is impossible. There is broad agreement about the technological underpinnings of the Internet, even if the on-going ICANN transition has raised a few political issues, and China is seeking to expand its footprints there as well. China boasts broad and successful international connections in, for instance, countering child pornography and financial fraud. China and the U.S. have recently concluded agreements concerning cyber espionage and hacking, and while some caution is necessary, this seems to have somewhat attenuated the previous escalation.
However, it does seem that some important questions present themselves. In cyberspace and elsewhere, Western governments and observers may have to come to terms with, as James Mann put it, “a wealthier, more powerful China [that] continues to be run by a one-party regime that still represses organized political dissent much as it does today, while at the same time […] is also open to the outside world and, indeed, is deeply intertwined with the rest of the world through trade, investment and other economic ties.”
If relationships with such a China are to be cordial, it must be recognised that it also has legitimate interests and claims that must be respected, even if the foundational values of its political system are diametrically opposed. Conversely, China must come to terms with the fact that not all rules in the global playing field are sedulous attempts by the U.S. to expand its own power, and that it also must be bound by them in order to maintain global stability and prosperity. Indeed, as the relative power disparity between China and the U.S. grows smaller and other players join the global game, such rules – properly observed by both sides – become even more important. These questions are profoundly difficult, and those who have to address them face an unenviable task. But the world is a complex place, and although simplistic approaches may play well to the home crowd, more sophistication and humility will be required from those in charge.