China is openly undermining the United States' vision of a free and open Internet. Motivated by maintaining the fragile balance between information control, social and political stability, and continued modernization and economic growth for an online population of over 600 million, the Chinese government is attempting to alter how nations understand their role in Internet governance through a concept called "Internet sovereignty."
Internet sovereignty refers to the idea that a country has the right to control Internet activity within its own borders, and it is what China refers to as a natural extension of a nation-state's authority to handle its own domestic and foreign affairs. For the United States and other Western nations, however, Internet governance is delegated to an inclusive and distributed set of stakeholders including government, civil society, the private sector, academia, and national and international organizations (also known as the multi-stakeholder model of Internet governance).
Lu Wei, the head of the State Internet Information Office and the director of a powerful cybersecurity strategy group comprised of China's top leaders, is the administrative ringleader of the Chinese Internet. With a long background working in China's propaganda apparatus, Lu has been behind China's recent campaigns promoting its conception of Internet sovereignty abroad, including a trip to Washington D.C. and Silicon Valley in the first week of December.
In his Dec. 2 speech at the U.S.-China Internet Industry Forum, for example, he attempted to blur the distinction between U.S. and Chinese models of Internet governance. He equated the U.S.-backed multi-stakeholder and Chinese-backed "multilateral" (state-centric) approaches to Internet governance, saying, "Without 'multilateral' there would be no 'multi-stakeholders.'"
Lu's influence is backed by years of active Chinese promotion of Internet sovereignty in domestic propaganda efforts, government White Papers, Internet conferences, bilateral and multilateral meetings, and United Nations meetings. As I argue in my recent report, administrative control of the Internet fits neatly in China's broader cybersecurity strategy: to maintain the Chinese Communist Party rule over China. Securing Internet activity would allow China to assert control over information dissemination, to sensor sensitive websites and social media, and to stem other potential sources of unrest that could challenge CCP legitimacy.
China's list of prohibited content online includes any information that: endangers state security, damages state honor and interests, spreads rumors, and disrupts social order and stability. These draconian regulations are further reinforced by Chinese literature on cybersecurity strategy. Chinese cyber scholars, for example, have noted instances where loss of control over the Internet toppled regimes in Tunisia and Egypt. Nothing frightens the ruling CCP more than the prospect of an uncontrolled Internet having a similar outcome in China.
China has engaged the international community on this front, wishing to signal to other countries that it is a responsible and cooperative actor on technology issues. Understanding that international norms and law have yet to codify Internet governance and cyber activity, China has invested significant effort to set the course for international norms in Internet governance.
China's push for Internet sovereignty gained momentum abroad after Edward Snowden released information about U.S. National Security Agency surveillance programs. Capitalizing on the anti-U.S. sentiment in other authoritarian countries like Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, China wooed developing countries with growing online populations to consider the benefits of control of the Internet.
China has also employed an engagement strategy of candor and trust to promote its message, though it often backfires. This November, China hosted its first World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, the theme of which was "An Interconnected World Shared and Governed by All." The conference hosted a number of business executives and government officials from China and abroad to, according to President Xi Jinping's welcome letter, "contribute creative ideas, pool wisdom and build consensus, to ensure that the Internet will bring even greater benefit to mankind."
By name, the conference's theme aligns with Western conceptions of Internet governance, but China's underlying motivation for holding the conference was quite different. On the last night before the end of the conference, organizers distributed a draft Wuzhen Declaration that was to be released at the closing ceremony several hours later the next morning, giving attendees few hours to object to the content or submit revisions.
The declaration provided nine recommendations for Internet governance, including one to "respect Internet sovereignty of all countries. We should respect each country's rights to the development, use and governance of the Internet, refrain from abusing resources and technological strengths to violate other countries' Internet sovereignty." As soon as news broke of China's intentions with the declaration, the conference organizers omitted any mention of it during the closing ceremony.
Yet, Internet sovereignty is only one aspect of China's cybersecurity strategy, and its realization may impede or contradict with other priorities, such as economic growth or expanding Internet access to citizens. In light of these competing objectives, it will be difficult for China to sustain this model of "Internet with Chinese characteristics."
EXPAND OR CONTROL?
Expanding Internet access will increase the number of citizens whose Internet activity China will have to monitor or control, potentially straining the central government's resources. Further, limiting information access and could negatively impact Chinese domestic company aspirations enter to international markets or limit information that would assist economic growth. Lastly, a tightly regulated Internet has deterred some companies -- such as Google, which left China in 2010 over Internet censorship regulations -- from conducting business in China.
Regardless of whether China's blunt approach to promoting its vision is effective or not, China will continue to pursue this counter narrative and will continue to attempt to convince the international community to conform to the concept of Internet sovereignty. Despite this undertaking, both domestic and international audiences have noted China's limitations and obstacles, and the countervailing voices promoting Internet freedom are equally potent.