Virtual Lines in the Sand: China’s Demands for Internet Sovereignty

Rogier Creemers

The Internet figured heavily in Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Brazil. With the push of a button, Xi and President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil inaugurated the Portugese language service of Chinese search giant Baidu. The telecommunications technology company Huawei signed an agreement to create an R&D centre in Brazil, focusing on mobile, big data and security technology. Alibaba, China’s largest e-commerce corporation, is teaming up with Correios, the state-owned post company, to develop logistical procedures and payment services for Brazilian small businesses.


Xi Jinping and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff

Xi also made Internet governance a main theme in his speech to the Brazilian National Congress. He reiterated China’s basic position that the sovereignty of individual countries should be the basis of international cooperation. “In the current world, the development of the Internet has posed new challenges to national sovereignty, security and development interests, and we must respond to this earnestly. Although the Internet has the characteristic that it is highly globalized, no country should be subject to violations of their sovereign rights and interests in the area of information, however much Internet technology develops, it cannot infringe upon the information sovereignty of other countries. There are no double standards in the information area, all countries have the right to safeguard their own information security, it cannot be so that one country is safe and other countries are not safe, or that some countries are safe and other countries are not safe, and it can certainly not be so that other countries’ security is sacrificed to seek so-called absolute security for oneself.”

Earlier that week, Internet governance was an important topic at the annual BRICS summit. While no consensus was reached on a common position, the Russian and Chinese efforts to build support for an agenda of greater governmental influence on Internet governance and an expanded role for the United Nations is, perhaps, looking increasingly attractive to countries like Brazil, which have found themselves on the receiving end of NSA surveillance and monitoring.

The international debate about Internet governance is often reduced to a black-and-white affair. The dominant discourse within most Western nations is one in which government interference must be resisted at all costs, as it is imputed to lead to Internet balkanization and a curtailing of human rights. And yet, outside of this highly polarized international discourse, ensuring that local norms can be transformed into effective governance has become par for the course in many liberal democracies, even if that is often not well publicized.

In the UK, for instance, it is not well known that online filtering has been a reality for years. The Internet Watch Foundation, a registered charity funded by Internet corporations, maintains a blacklist of web pages that is applied by ISPs serving 95% of the British Internet users. Its main activity is to make child abuse images​ and​ similar criminal content unavailable, an objective most would deem legitimate, if not desirable. However, over the past few years, the government has explored the possibility of expanding the IWF’s remit to include “violent and unlawful content”. Judges have issued orders to block websites deemed to facilitate copyright infringement. The current British government has also pushed ISPs to impose systems in which selected pornographic websites are blocked by default. While consumers can opt out of this filtering programme, it has faced considerable criticism. There is no public scrutiny of filtering lists, legitimate sites are regularly blocked, while a considerable number of adult sites remains unblocked. Most of all, the legal status of these measures remains unclear in the absence of specific legislation. It is not always made clear to site managers that their content is blocked, and procedures for restoring compliance remain underdeveloped. (In fact, similar criticisms were leveled against China in a WTO request for information by the US from 2011 – which remains unanswered).

In other words, the British government has decided that it wants to have something to say over the content that is available on UK computers. As the democratic representation of the British people, it is legitimate that it does so, and the same is true for measures taken in France or Germany. These different governments and nations have different sensibilities and norms, even if all accept similar liberal democratic basic norms of free speech. It is probably impossible to agree on a consistent interpretation of these norms even within Europe or the Western, let alone on a global level. Consequently, the question to which localized governance should be imposed onto the Internet is unavoidable. In that sense, the pragmatic Chinese position reflects closer alignment with classical concepts of international law and governance than the more idealist internet freedom agenda.

Still, Chinese Internet content control is qualitatively different from these Western forms, and it is a false equivalence to treat them similarly. Most of all, political speech remains relatively unaffected in the West, whereas it is profoundly circumscribed in the Chinese environment. In particular, discourse that is deemed to imperil political and social stability is routinely removed from the public eye. Optimists’ claims that microblogs and social media would bring liberalization to the political landscape have faded as the leadership is consolidating a new governing structure for the Internet, under the aegis of a new central planning group chaired by Xi Jinping himself. One of the factors that provided the impetus for this consolidation was the increasing influence of foreign media on the Chinese market, especially after a series of stories about the wealth of top leaders’ families. In order to maintain monopoly over the so-called “public opinion battlefield”, many of these foreign websites are no longer accessible from China.

But there is more to the recent Chinese push for online sovereignty than mere questions of censoring content. Over the past months, China has become increasingly concerned about the potential vulnerability of its information technology writ large. A few months ago, Microsoft discontinued support for Windows XP, which still runs the vast majority of Chinese computers, including those in government departments. This highlighted the vulnerability of China’s IT security and its forced reliance on foreign software corporations, and resulted in calls for the accelerated development of homegrown alternatives. The Snowden files revealed that US intelligence groups had hacked Huawei and other Chinese companies. This wariness about the outside world is not new; Chinese political circles have long been concerned about “foreign hostile forces” that are poised to overthrow it, and infiltration through information technology is thus seen as only the latest kind of attempt to subdue an emerging China.

The sovereignty that Xi refers to in his speech, thus refers to more than the age-old principle of non-interference. It is coupled to an expansively defined notion of security, which covers not only traditional rubrics such as military affairs and critical infrastructure, but also “ideological security” and resistance against foreign infiltration. In order to be secure, the leadership believes that it must enhance its command over “hard” technological and infrastructure resources, as well as “soft” matters, such as ideological monopolies and information controls. China has pushed to decentralize more of the core infrastructure of the Internet, including root servers, to bring Internet governance into the UN umbrella, as well as to become more self-reliant in critical systems components and software. At the same time, it seems more information barriers between China and the outside world are erected. These are not only aimed at ensuring harmful foreign content cannot enter the country, but also at preventing internal information​ from leak​ing​ out. Recently, for instance, central State-owned enterprises were ordered ​to ​no longer cooperate with foreign consultancy firms, in order to protect against spying.

These moves merit attention and concern. China’s growth and development has largely been generated through openness to the outside world, and expanded trade and investment. While transparency has never been China’s strongest suit, the increasing reluctance towards international integration may bring considerable harm, both within China and outside. At the same time, it must be recognized that the Snowden revelations have greatly damaged the US’​s​ image of a benign steward of the Internet, and the credibility of the open and free Internet model it proposes. It is easy for China, Russia and other nations to point at the hypocrisy of Western nations who so often fail to live up to their commitments. But is that better than making no commitment at all?