This week the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), the country’s chief internet regulator and censor, held a meeting in the city of Wenzhou at which participants spent two full days discussing the construction of a “comprehensive cyber governance system” (网络综合治理体系). But what exactly is this system? A set of technical censorship solutions? Administrative guidelines and laws? A nationwide team of internet content enforcers?
The answer is all of the above. Building a “comprehensive cyber governance system” is about ensuring that the Chinese Communist Party has the necessary laws and regulations in place governing internet content; that technical systems for internet control, including at digital platforms, are adequate to ensure compliance; and that the CAC has sufficient staffing at all levels nationwide to ensure that the Party’s internet guidelines can be strictly and properly enforced.
The idea of a “comprehensive cyber governance system” was first introduced in Xi Jinping’s political report to the 19th National Congress of the CCP in 2017. Lest one loses sight of the overarching goal in the niggling details, the phrase appears in a section on “tightly grasping leadership of ideological work” (牢牢掌握意识形态工作领导权), the first clue that this system is not primarily about data privacy or security, or protecting the population from such ills as online fraud. This is fundamentally about ensuring regime security through the ideological control of cyberspace. The same section of the political report talks about “creating a clear online space” (营造清朗的网络空间), a CCP euphemism for ensuring that online content is positive and uncritical.
A discussion of the concept of a “comprehensive cyber governance system” published in the official Legal Daily shortly after the 19th National Congress noted that the system included “both the protection of network security and risk avoidance, as well as the management of harmful information.” Dealing with harmful information, it said, was necessary to ensuring the “overall clarity of cyberspace.” The same article stressed the importance of legislation in creating this governance system, and mentioned as examples the November 2016 introduction of China’s Cybersecurity Law, and the August 2017 introduction of both the Administrative Regulations on Online Comment Posting Services and Administrative Regulations on the Management of Internet Forum Community Services – all of which predate the actual introduction of the concept of a “comprehensive cyber governance system.”
On the issue of administrative enforcement, Wang Sixin (王四新) of the Communication University of China emphasized in the Legal Daily discussion the importance of the CAC and its local offices across the country in enforcing cyber governance. “While the CAC plays the leading role, we must also focus on the role of local internet information offices in local management,” he said. But he also noted that the national network of CAC offices remained insufficient, a further key aspect of the building of a “comprehensive cyber governance system.” “We also want to create a comprehensive, coordinated law enforcement governance system with the CAC as the axis,” he said. “But at the county and city levels, many areas still do not have a dedicated CAC offices and CAC teams. Of course some places have begun to make efforts in this area, such as Tianjin and Jiangsu, which have added paid official positions for CAC offices. The problem, however, is that these personnel are new recruits, and they lack some understanding of the work of the CAC and its rules.”
Another crucial aspect of the “comprehensive cyber governance system” is the involvement of internet platforms, including private enterprises, which are often the first line of defense against sensitive information. Their primary role, said Wang, is “governing illegal and harmful content on the internet.”
We encourage internet enterprises to build their own internal systems, strengthening platform responsibility. For example, with strengthening their complaint and reporting mechanisms, and in accepting the supervision of government departments and the public.Wang Sixin, Communication University of China
All of these are regarded by Chinese authorities as integral to the overall goal of creating a “comprehensive cyber governance system.” And according to the release from this week’s Wenzhou meeting, this year, which marks the 100th anniversary of the CCP, has been designated as a critical year in the building of this vast political, technical, legal and human system of internet control.