In a ceremony in Beijing earlier this week, the director of the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), Xu Lin (徐麟), presided over the inauguration of the China Federation of Internet Societies (CFIS), a broad internet industry grouping whose stated purpose is to “promote the development of Party organizations in the industry.” The federation’s establishment is a clear sign of the growing involvement of the Chinese Communist Party in private internet firms, and further reflection of the broader trend of closer Party governance and scrutiny of all forms of media.
Prominent industry leaders, including Tencent chairman Pony Ma, Alibaba’s founder Jack Ma and Baidu chairman Robin Li, have been appointed as vice presidents of the new federation.
The Global Times quoted Zhao Zhanling of the Beijing-based Internet Society of China as saying that the formation of the federation was about leveraging the “voluntary” participation of internet companies in order to improve the governance of cyberspace. “Just relying on government authorities,” said Zhao, “is far from enough in administering cyberspace, and it’s more important that CFIS members voluntarily clean the cyberspace environment.”
But such industry groupings in China are never voluntary or independent. For many years the Party has used such intermediate structures as vehicles to assert control through means that appear more autonomous and legitimate. More than 10 years ago, I wrote about how the Beijing Association of Online Media, an organization claiming membership by some of the world’s top technology companies, including Intel and Nokia, served as an organ of state censorship.
According to a CAC press release appearing at People’s Daily Online and other state media sites:
The China Federation of Internet Societies said it would conscientiously study and implement the spirit of Xi Jinping’s Strategic Thought on [Building] an Internet Power (习近平网络强国战略思想) and the National Cybersecurity Work Conference, serving as leader for internet social organizations in upholding a correct political direction; serving as a motivator for internet social organizations in serving function roles [in internet governance]; serving as a protector of the interest demands of internet social organizations; serving as a promoter of Party building within internet social organizations; serving as a monitor of the regulated operation of internet social organizations; and promoting the healthy development of internet social organizations on the path of rule by law.
It appears that the primary role of the federation will be to exercise tighter Party control over the complicated ecosystem of various organizations, companies and groups involved in cyberspace governance. The Global Times quoted an official from the Institute of China Cyberspace Strategy as saying that “the Party should step up its guidance of CFIS members so that internet companies could raise their awareness in safeguarding China’s sovereignty and interests.”
The most crucial part of that strategy will be to build and strengthen Party units within these organizations and other CFIS members, including private internet companies. This is something we have already seen in recent months. We wrote last month about a Party study course held inside Beijing Byte Dance Telecommunications, the operator of Toutiao.
And yet somehow, against all reason, the Internet Society of China’s Zhao Zhanling managed to reassure the Global Times: “But the Party units will not interfere in the operations of these companies.”