Here’s How China’s Trying To Rewrite The Rules Of The Global Internet


In a small town crisscrossed by canals, Chinese leaders this week will attempt to reframe the future of the Internet.

The eastern Chinese city of Wuzhen will host the second World Internet Conference, which starts Wednesday and continues through Friday, with President Xi Jinping giving the keynote speech. The conference is part of an ambitious Chinese effort to redefine debates over cybersecurity, national sovereignty and censorship.

In recent years, Chinese leaders have pushed the idea of “cyber sovereignty“ — the notion that each country’s government should maintain independent control over what content is available online within its own borders. Numerous countries censor online content they deem illegal, but cyber sovereignty takes on a new dimension in China, where global web giants such as Google, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Instagram are blocked.

Jeremy Goldkorn, founder of China-focused research service and a long-time commentator on the country’s Internet, has written on cyber sovereignty for The China Story Yearbook. He spoke with The WorldPost to explain the impact of China’s push for cyber sovereignty.

When did the Chinese government begin using the terms “cyber sovereignty”, or “Internet sovereignty,” and how has it employed them?

The term “cyber sovereignty” was first used well before the rise of President Xi Jinping and China’s Internet czar, Lu Wei [the director of a powerful cybersecurity strategy group comprising China’s top leaders] — it first appeared in a government white paper in 2010. But it really started becoming used heavily after Xi came to power and Lu got his job. They basically made up a new title for Lu — the Cyberspace Administration of China — and a lot of the control of the Internet seems to have become focused in one organization and on one role.

The use of the term “Internet sovereignty” or “cyber sovereignty” has allowed the Chinese government to argue that they should be absolutely in control of what’s happening on the Internet in China. That allowed them to take a more confident approach to talking about Internet censorship. Previously it had always been a situation where they were trying to make excuses for it at press conferences. The use of this term paved the way for a renewed confidence and almost a kind of nationalism, implying that control of the Internet was part of China being a strong country.

Cyber sovereignty has rapidly expanded under Xi Jinping's presidency.JEWEL SAMAD via Getty Images
Cyber sovereignty has rapidly expanded under Xi Jinping’s presidency.

How much do you attribute this new confidence to the fallout from the Edward Snowden revelations, and how much to the recognition of China’s strong bargaining power concerning the major Silicon Valley players?

They’re both significant factors. Snowden is inevitably cited in almost any Chinese government discussion of Internet policy, whether it’s cybersecurity, hacking or censorship. So I would say that’s very important.

But the dynamism of the Chinese Internet sector and the fact that the Silicon Valley giants all want to be here — that’s certainly another important factor that they use. The World Internet Conference does attract Silicon Valley heavyweights — and during Xi’s visit to the U.S., there was also a meeting in Seattle with Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, and the others all attending, almost looking like tributary states.

The other thing is there exists a very genuine fear of an uncontrolled Internet and social media being a really serious threat to Communist Party control over the country. The watershed moment was the Wenzhou train crash of July 2011, when the party completely lost control of the narrative — social media was telling the story. That supported their view about the threat of an uncontrolled Internet and made that a real factor.

Since the Wenzhou train crash, we’ve seen major crackdowns on social media celebrities — as well as a huge migration of users from China’s Twitter-esque Weibo to the social messaging app WeChat. From the government’s perspective, have these changes essentially doused those fears of uncontrolled Internet?

It’s difficult to know which was a greater factor, but certainly the crackdown on the Big V [Weibo celebrities with large social media followings] was absolutely chilling. I look at one moment — the arrest of [outspoken Chinese-American blogger] Charles Xue and his humiliation on primetime TV. From that month on, things went very, very quiet on Weibo.

There were actually a few things that happened at the same time: Lu had a dinner with a bunch of Big V’s, Charles Xue was arrested, China Central Television [China’s national broadcaster] did this interview with Pan Shiyi [celebrity property developer and Big V member], where he was kind of stuttering. The message was pretty clear. Over the course of a few months, they basically intimidated all of the Big V and everyone watching got the message too. This also coincided with a shift to WeChat, [where] it’s much more difficult to broadcast. Things don’t go viral in quite the same way.

The Beijing headquarters of Baidu, China's largest online search company, is acquiring firms in developed countries like the ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images
The Beijing headquarters of Baidu, China’s largest online search company, is acquiring firms in developed countries like the U.S., where it has an artificial intelligence lab in Silicon Valley.

You’ve written about how three of China’s biggest Internet companies — Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent, also known as BAT — have tried to make inroads outside of China. What has the impact been so far?

From what I can understand, none of them have met any great deal of success anywhere. Tencent is pushing WeChat in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East, and I know there is a certain amount of adoption there. Tencent, Alibaba and Baidu are acquiring companies in developed countries like the United States, which is one way of growing. Baidu has its artificial intelligence lab in the U.S., although I’m not sure exactly what the business goal of that is. [Chinese smartphone juggernaut] Xiaomi is pushing into India. Baidu has got a Brazilian and a Japanese search engine, neither of which seem to be doing particularly well.

I think they’re having about as much luck abroad as American tech companies are in China. That’s not to say it won’t change, but I don’t think it’s going to be easy for them. The things that make you successful in China won’t necessarily work abroad — the understanding of Chinese culture and user habits, the necessity of working with the government. Particularly in developed markets, I think it’s going to be quite a struggle for companies that share the same brand as the Chinese companies, because there’s a very great deal of mistrust of the Chinese Internet.

Recently there’s been increased discussion of the Great Firewall as not just an issue of human rights, but also protectionism for local Internet companies. Do you see any leverage for the U.S. pressing these concerns from a free trade perspective?

I could see the U.S. Internet companies and the U.S. government using the World Trade Organization or some other kind of platform to apply some non-human rights pressure on the wall or restrictions on foreign companies operating in China. But we haven’t seen much evidence of that so far. It’s a difficult thing when the foreign Internet companies are eager to get a slice of the market. Google apparently has started a company in the Shanghai Free Trade Zone, and it looks like it’s trying to get back in.

It’s hard to see there being a lot of pressure to bear on the Chinese government. They’re not susceptible to pressure about certain things, and I think this is one of them. They’re not going to crack on censorship and suddenly change their minds.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.