THE CMP DICTIONARY

Digital Hegemony

Digital Hegemony

数字霸权
| Stella Chen

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“Digital hegemony,” or shuzi baquan (数字霸权), is a term used since early in the Xi era to focus criticism on the United States, with the idea that US dominance of cyber technologies and policies threatens a fair and multipolar world in terms of digital rights and sovereignty — understood strictly through the prerogatives of the powerful state as opposed to individuals and civil society. The term is often used to criticize efforts by the US to influence cyberspace policy internationally, to conduct cyber surveillance, or to contain tech advancements and related policy moves by China.

“Digital hegemony” first entered the formal CCP discourse in the People’s Daily newspaper in January 2015, when the paper brought up the term in reference to a formal anti-trust investigation of Google, the US-based tech giant, by the European Commission, in which questions emerged about the possible abuse of users’ privacy. Using the Google investigation in Europe as a primary example, the People’s Daily article underscored what it concluded were clear violations of personal privacy by the company, and placed these in the broader context of global power and sovereignty:

As noted by renowned American political scientist Joseph Nye Jr. in his book Understanding Global Conflict and Cooperation: An Introduction to Theory and History, an information revolution is transforming world politics, and countries with a position at the forefront of information technology can seize greater power, while those in a more backward position in information technology are losing much of their power.

The final line of the article, which brought in the concept of “digital sovereignty” (数据主权), clearly summed up the link between the concept of “digital hegemony” and the struggle for power and influence among nations globally. “It seems that in this information age,” the paper said, “the capacity to protect ’digital sovereignty’ also determines a nations future position [in the world.” The article urged Europeans to act “aggressively” in self-defense, or otherwise be reduced to “slaves” under the digital hegemony of the US.

The language of digital hegemony intensified in 2019 after the US sanctioned Huawei, a leading Chinese tech company, as a national security threat. The People’s Daily strongly criticized US President Donald Trump’s decision to place Huawei on a blacklist, and said this act of “digital hegemony” arose from concerns in the US over losing control of its telecommunications infrastructure to Huawei. The article alleged that the US had double standards in its cyber policies toward China, and cited revelations years earlier about PRISM and other digital surveillance tools used by the US National Security Agency (NSA).

Screenshot of coverage at the People’s Daily about US restrictions on China’s tech companies, with a cartoon showing Uncle Sam contrasting “Clean” with “China 5G.”

Introduced in May 2020, the “Clean Network” initiative by the US State Department, which pledged to address “the long-term threat to data privacy, security, human rights and principled collaboration posed to the free world from authoritarian malign actors,” mentioned China specifically as posing a danger to the security of telecommunications networks. The stated goal of “Clean Cloud,” for example, was to secure the “most sensitive personal information” of US citizens from “being stored and processed on cloud-based systems accessible to our foreign adversaries through companies such as Alibaba, Baidu, China Mobile, China Telecom, and Tencent.”

“Clean Network,” which had support from more than 30 countries, drew furious responses from the Chinese government and state-run media. The People’s Daily described the initiative as a scheme by the US to “fabricate facts and black the true face of Chinese enterprises, all to maintain its own technological monopoly and hegemonic position.”

In a report in May 2022, Security Insider (安全内参), a WeChat public account dealing with cybersecurity, analyzed the “digital [chess] game” (数字博弈) it said was being played between China, the United States and Europe. The report was headlined: “An Analysis of ‘Digital Gaming’ By China, the US and Europe in the Context of American ‘Digital Hegemony.'” “Digital economy developments in China and the EU cannot avoid the influence of the ‘digital hegemony’ of the United States,” the article said, “and finding a dynamic balance in the tripartite game will become the norm.”

Despite the obvious impact of party-state control on the creation of a largely independent cyberspace dominated by Chinese tech firms, Chinese state media have repeatedly presented the alleged “digital hegemony” of the United States as the key obstacle to the global connectivity of the internet. In 2021, a Xinhua News Agency commentary called for a global alliance against US domination of cyberspace. “To achieve healthy development of the global Internet, we must say ‘no’ to US-style ‘digital hegemony,'” the commentary said. “It is necessary for countries around the world to join hands to create a new situation for digital cooperation, to create a new pattern of cybersecurity, and to form a more inclusive internet management framework and sustainable digital transformation, building a community of shared destiny in cyberspace.”

By a “more inclusive internet management framework,” China’s leadership means concretely that nation states must have sovereign control over cyberspace, a notion that puts national priorities over individual rights and protections, and that countries like China and Russia must have a larger voice in international policy-making.

In a joint statement on the sidelines of the Beijing Winter Olympics in February 2022, Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke of greater collaboration on global information, with the goal of “[deepening] cooperation in the field of international information security . . .  to contribute to building an open, secure, sustainable and accessible ICT environment.” In a clear reference to the US, the statement spoke out against “establishing exclusive blocs and alliances of convenience,” which it said went against the “true values of democracy.”

“Such attempts at hegemony,” said the joint statement, “pose serious threats to global and regional peace and stability and undermine the stability of the world order.”


Stella Chen

CMP Senior Researcher