When finally unveiled sometime later this year, China’s Cyber-security Law could mark the beginning of a new and aggressive phase of information control in the country — one in which the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) is empowered by law to conduct widespread suppression and surveillance of networks and users under a broad mandate to preserve “Internet sovereignty” as a core function of national security.
The new law would provide a legal framework for the overarching project of media and information control in the digital age, furthering a crucial shift toward centralisation of cyberspace controls under the CAC and the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Leading Group for Cyberspace Affairs, formally established in March 2014 with President Xi Jinping as chairman.
As the leading group and CAC were formed last year, state media suggested this was a prime example of President Xi’s push to “deepen reform and strengthen top-level design,” and indeed we can understand this as a fundamental re-engineering of press controls in China to accommodate the reality that there are now close to 700 million Chinese on the Internet, of which more than three quarters have mobile access.
In an important internal speech to propaganda ministers on August 19, 2013 — later called simply, the “August 19 speech” — Xi Jinping re-iterated a core press control principle in place since it was first introduced by Mao Zedong in 1957, that the “politicians [must] run the newspapers,” or zhengzhijia banbao (政治家办报).
We must uphold the Party’s control of the media, adhering to the [principle] that politicians run the newspapers, periodicals, broadcasters and news websites. The various broadcast channels at all levels must adhere to the leadership of the Party.
Only if we recognise the seriousness of the public opinion struggle can we make it a true priority. The public opinion struggle is a fight for hearts of the people . . . .
As old-fashioned as this language may sound, Xi Jinping is clearly aware that the “struggle” for public opinion, so core to maintaining the Party’s political control, is shifting away from traditional media and almost equally outmoded “news websites.” In the age of the mobile Internet and the Internet of Things, the Chinese Communist Party must seek a fundamental innovation of controls.
The days of “politicians running the newspapers” are past. Politicians must now run cyberspace.
We should understand the Cyber-security Law as part of a series of legal and institutional changes designed to consolidate the Chinese Communist Party’s control of ideology and public opinion in a networked world.
These changes also mean, of course, that those propaganda ministers President Xi spurred to action with his “August 19” speech two years ago will be increasingly sidelined as the business of information control, and its attendant power, transitions to the Central Leading Group and its enforcement arm, the CAC. The Central Propaganda Department, in other words, may be gradually dissolved or marginalised under a new control infrastructure with immense authority over the social, cultural, political and economic fabric of Chinese cyberspace.
The central strategic role of cyberspace for the CCP demands that take a much more active role in the global governance of the Internet, which is why we have seen a sharp rise in interest since 2010 in the notion of “Internet sovereignty,” or “cyber-sovereignty.”
Occurrences of the term “Internet sovereignty” in the Chinese media since 2010. Source: WiseNews Database, for all mainland Chinese news sources.
In an article published on the Huffington Post in December 2014, the head of the Cyberspace Administration of China, Lu Wei (鲁炜), laid out the fundamentals of China’s position on global Internet governance. While the United States, said Lu, advocated a “multi-stakeholder” approach to Internet governance, meaning that “all Internet participants [are] on an equal footing making the rules,” China proposed instead a “multilateral” approach that meant “the state making the rules based on the idea of the sovereignty of the nation-state representing its citizens.”
(What, if anything, can we read into the fact that Lu Wei’s Huffington Post article has received just 49 Facebook likes and 69 Twitter shares over a period of nine months?)
By re-defining cyberspace in this manner, China’s leaders seek to legitimise domestic political controls on the Internet — and their possible global implications — on the grounds of national security and sovereignty. Or, as EastWest Institute fellow Franz-Stefan Gady put it, the push for Internet sovereignty is an attempt to “gain de jure international support for China’s de facto Internet censorship policies.”
China’s own theorists on the issue often push the point that robust international guarantees of cyber-security are essential if any nation is to be secure. Wrote Lu Wei: “No country can achieve absolute security without the overall security of international cyberspace.”
For more thoughts on the draft Cyber-security Law, its political reasoning, and its possible implications for Chinese citizens and others, I highly recommend this piece by Mo Zhixu.
Continuing our series of coverage and translations on the issue of “Internet sovereignty,” I also provide the following piece published in the Legal Daily on September 28, recapping China’s views on cyberspace and global Internet governance in light of Xi Jinping’s recent visit to the United States.
The article — which characterises China and the United States as “cyber powers,” another iteration of the state-based conception of Internet governance — talks about how China has in recent years participated “more actively and comprehensively in the global experience of cyberspace governance.” And it argues that the end result of China’s efforts will be “an entirely new pattern . . . . in terms of the international governance system for global cyberspace.”
China Actively Pushes Building of New System of International Governance of Cyberspace Legal Daily, September 28, 2015
Deepening international cooperation, respecting Internet sovereignty, preserving cyber-security, and mutually building a peaceful, secure, open and cooperative online space, and building a multi-faceted, democratic and transparent international Internet governance system.
Aside from hosting the World Internet Conference to actively construct an international platform for dialogue, and other beneficial moves, China has also begun to directly participate in key decision-making on important issues in the international governance of cyberspace. As China participates more actively and comprehensively in the global experience of cyberspace governance, an entirely new pattern will arise in terms of the international governance system for global cyberspace.
China’s confidence in promoting changes to the global governance structure for cyberspace must ultimately rely on support from technology, standards, infrastructure, [network] access equipment, critical applications and core capacity.
On September 25, President Xi Jinping held a joint press conference in Washington with U.S. President Barack Obama. Xi Jinping pointed out that China and the United States, as two major cyber powers (网络大国), must strengthen dialogue and cooperation, and that friction and opposition are not viable choices.
China and the United States have reached an important agreement on working together to combat cyber crimes, agreeing to strengthen joint investigations and information sharing. The governments on both sides agreed not to engage in or knowingly support the online theft of intellectual property . . . .
This is not the first time China’s government has made its voice heard on the issue of international cooperation over cyberspace.
In a written address to the first World Internet Conference, held in November 2012, Xi Jinping pointed out that various nations, on the basis of mutual respect, must deepen international cooperation, respecting [the principle of] Internet sovereignty, protection cyber-security, and mutually working to build a peaceful, secure, open and cooperative online space, and a multi-faceted, democratic and transparent international Internet governance system.
Experts in China and the United States have given great attention to the relevant speeches by Xi Jinping [on this issue].
James Andrew Lewis, director of the Strategic Technologies Program at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in a recent blog post that negotiations between China and the United States over cyber-security are “a welcome development.”
Yu Xiaoqiu (俞晓秋), a researcher at the China Center for Overseas Social and Philosophical Theories at the Central Compilation and Translation Bureau (CCTB), has said that while various countries in the world are divided on questions of cyber-security, there are mutual interests at stake and there is also real and potential space for cooperation: “If China and the United States maintain an attitude of mutual respect, pay attention to one another’s concerns, if they do not engage in confrontation over cyber-security or remain divided over management and control (管控分歧, [choosing rather] to advance cooperation, only then can overall relations between the two countries develop steadily and peacefully.” Developing Countries Are Still Kept on the Margins
The “2014 China Internet Cyber-security Report” issued by the National Computer Network Emergency Response Coordination Centre (CNCERT/CC) states that in 2014 the number of phishing websites threatening out country’s domestic websites totalled 99,409, affecting 6,844 IP addresses. . . . These numbers indicate that cyber-security is a problem the international community faces together, and we must strengthen international cooperation to deal with the issue.
“Internet governance and the security of global cyberspace have already become major agendas of a global nature, and of constant concern to the international community,” says Yu Xiaoqiu. “They are a pressing task staring the countries of the world directly in the face.”
Since the American [surveillance program] “Prism” was revealed, calls have grown louder in the international community for the establishment of relevant principles, for the strengthening of international cooperation on cyber-security, and the regulation of conduct in cyberspace.
Brazil and Germany have called on the United Nations to expand the scope of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to include protections for [online] privacy. The two countries jointly submitted a draft resolution on “privacy in the digital age,” and this was passed during a session of the United Nations General Assembly on December 19, 2013.
India has expressed its willingness to share cyber-security technology with Brazil, in order to assist Brazil in dealing with surveillance conducted by the United States and its allies.
On these issues, at the first World Internet Conference, Zhao Zeliang (赵泽良), director of the Cybersecurity Coordination Bureau at the Cyberspace Administration of China, suggested four principles for international cooperation over cyber-security: [maintaining] an open Internet as the foundation (立足于开放互联); adhering to rule of law in Internet management (坚持依法治网); mutual trust and respect (相互尊重信任); strengthening dialogue and conversation (加强对话交流).
. . . .
In fact, the international governance of cyberspace can hearken back to the World Summit on the Information Society held in Tunis in 2003.
At this summit, the international community held its first intense discussion over the question of whether and how the Internet should be governed. The outcome of those discussions was the creation by the UN secretary-general of the Working Group on Internet Governance.
According to Shen Yi (沈逸), an associate professor at Fudan University who specialises in the research of international politics, cyber-security and Internet governance, a report submitted by the [UN’s] Working Group on Internet Governance in 2005 gave a succinct evaluation of the Internet governance situation at the time. It pointed out, for example, that there were no effective mechanisms in place to protect the security and stability of the Internet, and that there were no effective mechanisms in place to resolve multinational crimes and other issues.
“As the governance of the online space had progressed, the basic situation now in terms of the international governance system for the online space is an unbalance state of affairs in which the United States holds the dominant position,” says Shen Yi. He explains further that the developed nations of North America and Europe, with the United States as the chief representative, hold a core position in global Internet governance together with companies and organisations that are in their grasp — and the developing nations of Asia, Africa and Latin America are kept on the margins of global Internet governance.
In Shen Yi’s view, when we look at the current situation, the governance of global cyberspace has a clear character of asymmetric interdependence (不对称相互依赖特征), in which all countries and actors are significantly dependent on the Internet. By means of technological, institutional, strategic and policy advantages, developed nations hold clear status and enjoy [a position of] lower sensitivity and relative strength. The reliance of developing nations on the Internet, meanwhile, is a classic situation of high sensitivity and high weakness. The developing countries that are the chief providers of data [in terms of Internet usage], have not obtained a matching degree of benefit, and in cyberspace they face marginalisation. China Progressively Takes The Stage of Global Governance
According to Wang Yukai (汪玉凯), and expert at the China Internet Security Conference and deputy director of the Committee of Experts on E-Government at the Chinese Academy of Governance, the United States has an absolute advantage in terms of network information technology. In recent years, however, America’s absolute advantage in cyberspace has met with constant challenges. “Many nations hope to break through American controls, and at least in the area of rules formulation they don’t want the United States having the final say, including on Internet governance and international cooperation,” Wang Yukai says.
On the eve of Xi Jinping’s visit to the United States, both China and the United States made statements concerning “cyber-security.” On September 9, Meng Jianzhu (孟建柱), Xi Jinping’s special envoy, a Politburo member and secretary of the Central Politics and Law Committee, led officials from [China’s] policy, security, legal and network communications branches on a visit to the United States, where he met with Secretary of State John Kerry. Analysts said this was a sign that Sino-U.S. negotiations had already reached a practical stage.
On September 11, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei (洪磊) said: “The issue of cyber security shall become one area of cooperation rather than a source of friction between China and the US. Some people from the US should stop their unfounded accusations against the Chinese side and carry out dialogue and cooperation based on mutual respect and trust so as to jointly create a peaceful, secure, open and cooperative cyberspace.”
Undeniably, in recent years China has progressively taken the global stage in the area of cyberspace governance.
“Taking part in the transformation of the structure of global Internet governance, China must make its own voice heard in terms of the discourse and shaping of symbols (在话语和符号塑造方面),” says Shen Yi, [the Fudan University professor].
“Because since the revelation of the ‘Prism’ program, the United States’ pursuit of a strategy of cyber-hegemony (网络霸权) has come under criticism. We must seize the opportunity, starting from top-level design and advancing the construction of ‘a new order of global Internet space’ (全球网络空间新秩序).”