Can China Conquer the Internet?

A ChinaFile Conversation

Lu Wei, China’s new Internet Czar, recently tried to get the world to agree to a model of information control designed by the Chinese Communist Party. Regular contributors comment below and we encourage readers to share their views on our Facebook page—The Editors


Prediction is a treacherous business. I'll slip that noose and focus on one sure thing—namely, that the recent bluster over internet sovereignty we've heard from the Chinese Communist Party reflects the deepest of convictions, anchored by the profoundest of fears: If China cannot reshape the internet, the internet will reshape China.

The CCP has always drawn a close link between the control of information and the maintenance of social and political stability (preservation, in other words, of its own rule). The “politicians must run the newspapers,” said Mao (zhèngzhì jiā bàn bào / 政治家办报 ). Loss of the narrative ahead of the brutal crackdown of June 4th, 1989, defined a whole new generation of press controls under the notion of "public opinion guidance" (yúlùn dǎoxiàng / 舆论导向).

The possibility of a truly global internet—and especially of dispersed, real-time multimedia content shared across social media with global scale—is a terrifying picture for the ruling Party. China's leaders pine for those good old days (not so long ago!) when these were all domestic matters. When it was enough to crush the green shoots of independence among its newspaper journalists; when they could build a Great Firewall around the problem; when the world was neatly divided into the realms of the internal, or duìnèi (对内), and the external, or duìwài (对外). While the former was the prerogative of the Party’s powerful Central Propaganda Department, the latter was the prerogative of the State Council Information Office (SCIO). Internet controls were always centered in the SCIO because the internet was viewed as fundamentally an “external” medium.

The strict duìnèi / duìwài bisection is no longer possible strategically. The walls have come down, and global information sharing, if unimpeded, poses a “domestic” threat to the CCP.

This historic shift in priorities in the Party’s bid for information control provides the back story for the rise of Lu Wei, China's new "internet czar”—with his penchant for darkly cute phrases: no one would design a car without brakes/the internet needs brakes. Lu Wei is the head of the State Internet Information Office (SIIO), set up in 2011 and staffed by State Council Information Office folks. Lu is also the director of the new internet security body President Xi Jinping created seven months ago. So Lu Wei is not just China’s internet czar; he is a symbol more broadly of the translocation of the power center of information controls in China. The Central Propaganda Department, with its duìnèi priorities, is no longer paramount. Lu Wei and the Information Office are in ascendance. And this institutional power shift tells us even more clearly than Lu Wei’s characteristic “directness” that China’s strategic information control priorities are now external.

That does not mean, of course, that official China’s thinking is not insular. What it wants more than anything is to have its walls back. But it knows now that it must go international to achieve that.

David may not wish to make a prediction, but his eloquent description of the changes in Internet policy exemplified by Lu Wei's rise has  answered the question: China has already reshaped the Internet.

China has the biggest Internet population and the Chinese Internet offers a wonderful array of services, but Chinese people use and have access to a completely different network than people in all other countries. Only North Korea has stricter Internet censorship. The Balkanization of the Internet has already happened, and Lu Wei is its most prominent champion. Authoritarian governments around the world from Moscow to Harare are looking on approvingly; no doubt the concept of Internet sovereignty and the practice of pervasive censorship will continue to spread.

It is important to remember that, in recent years, the Internet has come to encompass much more than only the production and dissemination of ideas and content – important though that remains. In fact, the development of the State Internet Information Office (SIIO), known in English since this summer as the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), as well as the Central Leading Group for Cybersecurity and Informatization point to the expanded sphere the Internet encompasses. Web shopping, online payments, e-healthcare, long distance education, security of critical infrastructure, and cyber espionage now all fall under the remit of the Leading Group and its secretariat—conveniently located inside the CAC. In other words, over the past year or so, the leadership has moved decisively to ensure that all departments affected by the Internet are at the same table.

Yet the discussions at this table might be more acrimonious than we sometimes think. China’s informatization policy displays profound paradoxes. On the one hand, China aims to expand connectivity and broadband to allow for broader opportunities for e-commerce and the delivery of social services, to create more efficient cities and economic processes. One thing that became quite clear to me in Wuzhen, where I attended the World Internet Conference last month, is the eagerness of Chinese Internet corporations to expand their international business—which requires an Internet that is at least technologically unified. On the other hand, the Snowden revelations and China’s comparative disadvantage in home-grown hardware and software, as well as the sense of ideological threat posed by “the West”, has fostered calls for more Chinese control over the technological resources of the Internet, and indeed for less interaction with the outside world. In other words, the efforts to remove Internet-related policymaking from the ministerial silos has meant that the process to come to a broad consensus of what the Internet should look like—even among the leadership—is an agonizing one.

Sinica Podcast


Internet Wrangling in Wuzhen

Kaiser Kuo & Rogier Creemers from Sinica Podcast
Kaiser Kuo hosts alone this week as we turn our attention to the World Internet Conference (English site) last week, when a last minute attempt by Chinese organizers to foist the so-called Wuzhen Declaration on participants provoked an international...

Simultaneously, Internet governance is in flux at the international level as well. While a particular libertarian ethos still dominates much of the debate, the halcyon days of techno-optimism seem to be behind us. Scandals from Snowden (again) to the disclosure of personal (and indeed private) pictures of celebrities, concerns from data security and privacy to the prevention of cybercrime have thrown into sharp relief the possible harm that can be inflicted through Internet technology. Yet the sheer complexity of the topic makes the first stage of regime formation (framing and agenda setting) especially difficult. Different initiatives (such as the U.N.-sponsored Internet Governance Forum, the London process, and Netmundial) are taking place concurrently, highlighting the fact that even a consensus about the sort of process by which Internet governance should be realized, is far away—and China has made matters just a bit more difficult by adding yet another annual conference. On many substantive or detailed questions about the look of a future Internet, China has not yet formulated an adequate response. Yet it has decided it wants more of a voice, with a project that—however cynical— is rather attractive to many who see the open Internet agenda as potentially harmful or hypocritical. The challenge for European and American governments, therefore, is to rebuild trust and develop a practicable vision of an open Internet that takes into account many of the—sometimes legitimate—concerns voiced elsewhere in the world.

Speaking of “the profoundest of fears,” this fear started several years ago, when the Internet first entered China. On October 20, 2010, Mr. Peng Bo, chief of the ninth bureau of the State Council Information Office (SCIO) gave an internal talk at the Fifth Training Section of Internet News Work. Peng spoke to propaganda officials at the training session: “Over the past ten years, the State’s policy on the Internet has been to make it serve our own purpose: development (of the Internet) first, then follow up with the management (of the Internet). This year, Internet policy has made a significant shift, we will manage (the Internet) according to law, to ensure security."

More importantly, in Xi Jinping’s internal speech at the National Propaganda and Ideology Work Conference on 19 August, 2013, he highlighted such fear, saying: “The Internet has become the main battlefield for the public opinion struggle. Some comrades say that the Internet is the “largest variable” that we face, and if we get it wrong, it will become “a worry in our hearts and minds.”” (this secret document was later leaked in Chinese cyberspace, and translated by the previous commentator, Rogier Creemers.)

So, it is not a surprise to see the escalated efforts from the Chinese government to try to control and “reshape” the Internet, for the safety of the Chinese regime. But such censorship efforts are constantly being challenged, even subverted by netizens. Three days ago, a Chinese blogger “Xiaolan” leaked an archive of the email communications of the Internet Information Office of Zhanggong District, Ganzhou City, Jiangxi from 2013 and 2014. The archive includes correspondence, photos, directories of “Internet commentators” (wǎng píng yuán / 网评员), summaries of commentary work, and records of the online activities of specific individuals, among other documents. Over 2,700 emails are included in the archive, many of which include attachments of Microsoft Word documents.

The archive is one small window into a massive censorship system. The Zhanggong District has a population of only 468,461 but has three full-time staff and over 300 Internet commentators listed.  The Zhanggong Internet Information Office is a branch of the city office, which is in turn overseen by the provincial office, and ultimately administered by the Cyberspace Administration of China. The head of the national ministry, Lu Wei, is currently in Washington at the U.S.-China Internet Industry Forum.

The personnel and resources currently deployed by the government to control the Internet show us how great their fear is.

As Rogier brings up, Chinese Internet corporations are expanding overseas, a potential source both for greater company revenues and Chinese soft power. However, it also is a process which inevitably will cause hand-wringing for everyone involved. The way in which these technology companies expand into foreign markets will play an important role in deciding how the CCP influences global Internet policy—and whether it can maintain current levels of control within China’s own borders.

Despite the best efforts of anti-censorship activists and netizen bloggers to develop tactics to evade onerous limits on free speech online, the Great Firewall has held up overall. As David and Jeremy remind us, Chinese authorities currently hold great sway over the Internet inside the Great Firewall, influence that has begun to radiate outward to the broader world by sheer dint of China’s size and increased diplomatic efforts to promote its balkanized Internet model. To wit, the Wuzhen Declaration.

However, this control only holds so long as China’s authorities continue to be able to convince Chinese companies—the middleman content providers and web platforms—that it is in their interests to censor and police on behalf of the government. Forcing Baidu or Tencent to police netizens in China may be one thing—but will they do the same in the U.S. when users can easily reject their services and find better alternatives? And their censoring Chinese citizens may even come up for debate if company share prices on global exchanges fall due to users abandoning their services—as Sina Weibo acknowledges may happen in their SEC filing

So, while Xiao and David rightly point out that Chinese authorities are afraid of what the Internet might bring about among average netizens, I think their fear is tied equally to concerns that Chinese companies won’t play ball. As we’ve seen in a number of informal surveys by Jason Ng (no relation) and Yu/Robinson, and in the reporting of Helen Gao, even the most educated and Internet-savvy are not advocating for a total dismantling of the Great Firewall.

Because users are so divided on what information controls are acceptable online, it is companies themselves that theoretically wield the most power in forcing changes to the censorship system. They can grant greater, incremental freedoms online unilaterally, or ignore following others to the letter of the law, such as Real Name Registration. Not to get all Free Market Champion here, but I think Chinese Internet companies will decide at some point that pushing back on the government’s demands that they self-censor is in the best, selfish interest of their bottom line. If the CCP is taking the long view, it may be in theirs as well.