As James T. Areddy at the Wall Street Journal tells it, the Chinese military was deeply troubled by the role a supposedly U.S.-dominated Internet played in destabilizing other despotic governments and warned Beijing could be next. The warning described the Internet as “a new form of global control” and the United States as a “shadow” hovering behind various uprisings.
The warning evidently resonated with the Chinese Politburo, as Areddy reports they are “pushing to rewrite the rules of the global Internet, aiming to draw the world’s largest group of Internet users away from an interconnected global commons and to increasingly run parts of the Internet on China’s terms.”
It envisions a future in which governments patrol online discourse like border-control agents, rather than let the U.S., long the world’s digital leader, dictate the rules.
President Xi Jinping—with the help of conservatives in government, academia, military and the technology industry—is moving to exert influence over virtually every part of the digital world in China, from semiconductors to social media. In doing so, Mr. Xi is trying to fracture the international system that makes the Internet basically the same everywhere, and is pressuring foreign companies to help.
On July 1, China’s legislature passed a new security law asserting the nation’s sovereignty extends into cyberspace and calling for network technology to be “controllable.” A week later, China released a draft law to tighten controls over the domestic Internet, including codifying the power to cut access during public-security emergencies.
Other draft laws under consideration would encourage Chinese companies to find local replacements for technology equipment purchased abroad and force foreign vendors to give local authorities encryption keys that would let them control the equipment.
As the WSJ piece details, China now has the commercial clout to force its grim ideology on the Internet in much the same fashion:
Such a strategy would have been impossible a few years ago when Western companies dominated the Internet. That has started to change with the rise of Chinese powers such as e-commerce giantAlibaba Group Holding Ltd., online conglomerate Tencent HoldingsLtd. and information aggregator Sina Corp., which enable Chinese citizens to enjoy most services Westerners use, plus some unique to China, without needing Google Inc. or Facebook Inc. Chinese companies are easier for Beijing to control and have a history of censoring users upon demand.
The government is directing financial and policy support toward domestic firms that are developing semiconductors and servers that can replace ones provided by Western players. Earlier this year, Premier Li Keqiang unveiled Internet Plus, a strategy to incubate Chinese companies that integrate mobile, cloud and other types of computing with manufacturing and business.
It would actually be less toxic for the cause of freedom around the world if China used all those blueprints it has been stealing from Western companies to manufacture its own hardware, instead of muscling foreign companies into playing its game. Unfortunately, Western companies eager to retain Chinese market shares are falling all over themselves to please Beijing and prove themselves compatible with the communist agenda. The WSJ mentions LinkedIn, Hewlett-Packard, and Apple among the companies that have made significant concessions to Chinese censorship and/or online surveillance.
It is also mentioned that China likes to use Edward Snowden and his leaks about American cyber intelligence as a rhetorical club for demanding greater Chinese control of the Internet, for those still working to total up in the incredible damage Snowden caused. His superfans should set aside their congratulatory rhetoric about freedom of information and come to terms with the hard, cold fact that the Internet will end up less free around the globe because of what he did.
As mentioned above, China finds sympathetic ears across the world when it complains about excessive freedom of speech and privacy for citizens, everywhere from Russia to Europe and the United States. This is one of the reasons the American Left has been so disturbingly sympathetic to Islamic speech codes, after spending decades posturing as free-thinking, anti-religious, censorship-thwarting, provocative iconoclasts. They like the idea of imposing more stringent controls on speech, and they’re quite happy to throw Islamists a bone about forbidding Mohammed cartoons to win their support. They agree on principle that free speech must be restricted to protect government power and maintain order.
The Western left, abetted by the well-fed trans-partisan bureaucratic class, will likewise agree with China that the Internet should be more heavily regulated and monitored. There will be some dispute about the details, but China has enough economic leverage to render most of these disputes academic. The cost of maintaining special hardware, software, and operating parameters just for the huge Chinese market, plus other domineering environments like Turkey or Russia, will be too high for international vendors to bear; it’s better to devise universal standards acceptable to the most demanding governments.
The safe bet is that tomorrow’s online world will look much closer to Beijing’s vision than the wild, creative, messy, and sometimes fearsome digital anarchy American users are currently accustomed to.