...The Chinese government attaches great importance to protecting the safe flow of Internet information, actively guides people to manage websites in accordance with the law and use the Internet in a wholesome and correct way. The Decision of the National People's Congress Standing Committee on Guarding Internet Security, Regulations on Telecommunications of the People's Republic of China and Measures on the Administration of Internet Information Services stipulate that no organization or individual may produce, duplicate, announce or disseminate information having the following contents: being against the cardinal principles set forth in the Constitution; endangering state security, divulging state secrets, subverting state power and jeopardizing national unification; damaging state honor and interests; instigating ethnic hatred or discrimination and jeopardizing ethnic unity; jeopardizing state religious policy, propagating heretical or superstitious ideas; spreading rumors, disrupting social order and stability; disseminating obscenity, pornography, gambling, violence, brutality and terror or abetting crime; humiliating or slandering others, trespassing on the lawful rights and interests of others; and other contents forbidden by laws and administrative regulations.Other than that, people are totally free. What's more, the use of the Internet by the people to "supervise" public officials is praised. As long as - in the process of said supervision - state power is not subverted, "state honor" is not jeopardized, nobody is humiliated or slandered, and no "rumors" are spread. The rise of Twitter-like microblogging services is even praised. (Twitter itself is blocked by the "great firewall," though tens of thousands of Chinese Internet users are believed to access it anyway through third-party clients and circumvention tools).
As I've frequently pointed out in the past (see here, here and here for starters), blocking of foreign websites like Twitter is just the top layer of Chinese Internet censorship. Beneath the "great firewall of China" is a sophisticated system by which censorship is delegated to the private sector. The first company to set up a Chinese Twitter-clone was a startup called Fanfou. Last June they got shut down because they failed to police the service adequately: users apparently shared too much content that violated the above no-no list. Other micro-blog services have since emerged. One run by the People's Daily and another by the popular web portal Sina.com. They seem to have learned from Fanfou's troubles and have put aggressive censorship systems in place. As Chen Tong, Sina's head editor, recently commented at a 3G Wireless Industry Summit: "controlling content in Sina microblogs is a problem which is a very big headache." (The Shanghaiist blog reports that the Sina.com news article reporting Chen's comments has itself been censored, but not before getting quoted and reported around the Internet.) According to the Sina.com account of his remarks, Chen went on to describe Sina's microblog-censorship strategy in some detail: 24-7 policing; constant coordination between the editorial department and the "monitoring department" (all social networking companies in China must have one of those in order to stay in compliance with government expectations); daily meetings; and systems through which both editors and users are constantly reporting problematic content.
Even so, Chen Tong says in his speech that microblogging has been tremendously empowering in China. He says that micro-blogs have become "people's personal web portals" and that a lot of recent incidents that have generated widespread public concern first emerged on microblogs.
Despite all the policing and the round-the-clock censorship, Chinese Internet users still feel much more empowered to participate in public discourse and even bring issues to national attention than they ever could have imagined in the past. (See Guobin Yang's excellent book, The Power of the Internet in China for many examples.) As I described it to one journalist, it's as if a bird that has lived in a cage all its life (one which has been gradually upgraded, with steadily improving food and which is much cleaner than it used to be) suddenly gets released into a large atrium. The bird is likely to feel excited and empowered for quite some time and may not realize that even broader freedom is possible or even desirable: after all, without the atrium walls might she get lost and starve? Or get eaten by other birds? There are plenty of security arguments in favor of supporting the atrium's legitimacy and necessity; there are even ethical justifications.
Thus China is pioneering what I call "networked authoritarianism." Compared to classic authoritarianism, networked authoritarianism permits – or shall we say accepts the Internet’s inevitable consequences and adjusts – a lot more give-and-take between government and citizens than in a pre-Internet authoritarian state. While one party remains in control, a wide range of conversations about the country’s problems rage on websites and social networking services. The government follows online chatter, and sometimes people are even able to use the Internet to call attention to social problems or injustices, and even manage to have an impact on government policies. As a result, the average person with Internet or mobile access has a much greater sense of freedom – and may even feel like they have the ability to speak and be heard – in ways that weren’t possible under classic authoritarianism. It also makes most people a lot less likely to join a movement calling for radical political change. In many ways, the regime actually uses the Internet not only to extend its control but also to enhance its legitimacy.
At the same time, in the networked authoritarian state there is no guarantee of individual rights and freedoms. People go to jail when the powers-that-be decide they are too much of a threat – and there’s nothing anybody can do about it. Truly competitive, free and fair elections do not happen. The courts and the legal system are tools of the ruling party.
Connecting every citizen in China to the Internet via multiple devices might sound like something the Chinese Communist Party would want to avoid. Several people who contacted me about China's Internet White Paper were surprised at the Chinese government's enthusiasm for connectivity. Such enthusiasm does not jive with most American and European notions of how an authoritarian state would be run by a party that calls itself Communist. What's important to understand is that Chinese authoritarianism in the Internet age is not the same as the crumbling, centrally-planned authoritarianism of the Eastern Bloc, disconnected from the Western capitalist world.
The CCP leadership recognizes that they can’t control everybody all the time if they’re going to be a technologically advanced global economic powerhouse. What’s more, high Internet penetration is necessary if the Chinese government wants to continue high rates of economic growth, which economists agree requires boosting domestic consumer demand as well as pushing Chinese companies to the cutting edge of technological innovation. China catapulted itself to become the world’s second largest economy by turning itself into the world’s factory. But Chinese labor has grown expensive compared to some other markets in poorer countries. In order to stay competitive and keep growing, China needs to transition from a manufacturing-fueled economy to an economy fueled by domestic consumption at home, while being an innovator for advanced technologies and services that can compete with American and European companies.
Another component of the Chinese Communist Party’s survival strategy involves influencing the Internet’s technical evolution in ways that are most compatible with censorship and surveillance goals. China already has more Internet users than there are Americans on the planet. As the world’s biggest market for Internet technologies, it is starting to influence how these technologies evolve. The Internet is quickly morphing from something we’ve mainly used through our computers into a new, more mobile phase in which all devices, appliances and vehicles – from our phones to our cars to our refrigerators – will be connected to the network. The Chinese government is embracing this future. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao now gives speeches in which he waxes enthusiastic about the “Internet of things.” Chinese Internet and telecommunications companies receive substantial government support in hopes that they will lead the world in shaping the next generation of Internet technologies.
Beyond China, the fastest-growing markets for mobile Internet technologies are in Asia, the Middle East and Africa: exactly those parts of the world where authoritarian governments are most concentrated. Chinese telecommunications companies like Huawei and ZTE (the “Ciscos of China”) are already dominant in many African and Middle Eastern markets. They are building Internet and mobile networks in countries whose governments would prefer to have their systems built by Chinese engineers rather than by Americans.
Another thing that has puzzled some of the American journalists and analysts who contacted me is the Chinese government's assertion of its "sovereignty" on the Internet, given that the Internet is a globally inter-connected network and derives much of its value from the fact that borders are collapsed online. Yet at the same time, it's a physical reality that web sites have to be hosted physically on computers that are located in some jurisdiction or another; they are operated by physical human beings who reside under a government jurisdiction and can thus be physically controlled when necessary; they are operated by businesses that have to be registered in one or more jurisdiction and their physical operations are subject to government regulation; and the Internet runs on networks that physically exist within or pass through nation-states. The White Paper is a clear articulation of the Chinese government's long-standing position that nation-states should have "sovereignty" over all aspects of the Internet - human or equipment or signal - that reside within or pass through Chinese sovereign territory. Google is challenging this notion as it pushes the U.S. government to take action against China for violating WTO rules by using censorship as a barrier to trade. (For further discussion of China and Internet sovereignty see this Interview with Columbia University's Tim Wu conducted by The New Yorker's Evan Osnos.)
The White Paper also re-emphasizes the Chinese government's long-standing position that the global coordination tasks required to make the Internet function - what Internet policy wonks call "Internet governance" - are best left to governments, not private entities or companies or others. The White Paper did not condemn ICANN, the private non-profit which coordinates the Internet's domain name system - in fact it didn't even mention ICANN or other non-governmental organizations that coordinate the Internet's functions and anoint preferred global technical standards. Nor did it say anything negative about the "multi-stakeholder" governance approach currently favored by Western democracies, which includes non-governmental "civil society" organizations alongside governments and companies. But the document made clear China's position that " the UN should be given full scope in international Internet administration." As Brendan Kuerbis of the Internet Governance Project puts it, China is not intending to disengage from the existing Internet governance frameworks, but can be expected to exert its influence in shaping these frameworks in its preferred direction.
The White Paper's message is that the Chinese government is not running scared from the Internet. It is embracing the Internet head-on, intends to be a leader in its global evolution, and intends to assert its influence on how the global Internet is governed and regulated.
Note that China is not the only country seeking to assert its brand of Internet sovereignty. For an analysis of what's happening in Russia, read this chilling overview by Gregory Aslomov at Global Voices. For more on the Russia situation as well as an alarming global overview, be sure to read “Access Controlled: The Shaping of Power, Rights, and Rule in Cyberspace” just published by the Open Net Initiative.
On a more optimistic note, the White Paper does have its domestic critics. Blogger, journalist and journalism professor Hu Yong argues (writing on a domestic blog which has not been censored) that most of the regulations governing the Chinese Internet have no clear basis in Chinese law and are arguably unconstitutional. "At a time when the Internet is raising a lot of questions that we don't have answers to," he writes, "the government may not have the best solutions. It's possible that the Internet could give birth to new forms of regulation that aren't as coercive, and which place greater trust in the strength of individual freedom and the self-governance of citizens." While the Internet does need to be regulated, he concludes, the public needs to participate in the creation of those regulations.
But as long as all of China's Internet companies and the few foreign Internet companies with a local presence in China continue to do whatever the government demands, no matter how little legal or constitutional legitimacy such demands might have, the government will have little incentive to accept the kind of change that Hu Yong envisions. Note that many of the big Chinese companies receive American investment dollars or are publicly traded on U.S. stock exchanges, sending a clear message that whatever U.S. elected officials might say about "Internet freedom," many American investors are quite happy to profit from China's status quo.
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