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China’s global internet ambitions: Finding roots in ASEAN

The study has been authored by Dev Lewis.
By 2017, China was home to more than 731 million Internet users, already the largest internet population in the world, and with millions more having followed since. (AFP)(AFP)
Published on Aug 28, 2021 03:38 PM IST
ByInstitute of Chinese Studies

The Internet is central to the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) economic and governance ambitions. By 2017, China was home to more than 731 million Internet users, already the largest internet population in the world, and with millions more having followed since. Its technology giants are now global leaders in e- commerce, internet finance, communication, artificial intelligence, and so on, and now makeup four out of the top 10 internet companies in the world. The aspiration of building itself into a ‘strong internet power’ has assumed central importance within the CPC leadership’s thinking, within which the internet is considered to be both a critical component of national security and the restructuring of the Chinese economy to a services-based, consumer-driven economy (State Council General Office cited in China Copyright and Media).

This is evident in the organisational restructuring that took place following the 18th Party Congress in 2012. Xi Jinping chairs the presidential-level Central Leading Group on Cyber security and Information, the de-facto policy nodal policy decision-making body which he created for the various associated governance bodies including the Cyberspace Association of China (CAC) and the Cyber Security Association of China (CSAC). It is difficult to determine the exact origin of the phrase ‘strong internet power’ in party lingo, but it can be traced to an address President Xi gave to the conference of the Central Leading Group for Cyberspace Affairs in 2014 (People’s Daily Online 2015 cited in Bandurski) and was formally listed as a strategic objective in the National Cyber Security Strategy in December 2016 (China Cyberspace Association cited in China Copyright and Media). A ‘strong internet power’ according to party lingo is understood to consist of two linked components: Cyber security, and informisation, which is understood as the ‘introduction of ICTs in all aspects of social and economic life, in order to enhance efficiency and the delivery of public services, support urbanisation and economic growth, but also to be able to better monitor social thinking trends’ .

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Over the years, the CPC has passed into law a host of legislation in an effort to more effectively govern and manage the internet in China. These include the National Security Law and Counter-Terrorism Law 2015, and the National Cyber security Law 2016. To create an international environment that enables the development of China’s internet capabilities and aforementioned governance regimes, China’s foreign policy with respect to internet governance has been underpinned by two pillars: ‘internet sovereignty’ and the ‘multilateral model’ of global internet governance. ‘Internet sovereignty’, was first defined in a 2010 White Paper to mean that within Chinese territory the internet is under the jurisdiction of Chinese sovereignty, and more recently further elaborated to say, ‘national government exercises jurisdiction over ICT infrastructure, resources and activities within their territories’ (State Council 20101;Xinhua). The ‘multilateral’ model to global internet governance, is understood to mean that all stakeholders (public and private sector and NGO) take part in global governance, but States retain primacy within the scope of the United Nations Charter. This is an approach that is in overt opposition to the US-led ‘multi-stakeholder’ model.

Underpinning China’s approach is the belief that the status quo—both in terms of governance and technology— asymmetrically favours developed countries, and that the ‘the governance of global cyberspace has a clear character of asymmetric interdependence... By means of technological, institutional, strategic and policy advantages, developed nations hold clear status and enjoy [a position of] lower sensitivity and relative strength’ (Shen Yi cited in Bandurski). These positions have been emphasised on numerous occasions including by Xi in his address ‘promoting the transformation of the global system of internet governance’ at the 2015 Wuzhen World Internet Conference, and in numerous speeches by former CAC head Lu Wei, as well as leading thinkers in academia and media.

Reforms to global internet governance structures require international consensus involving a range of State and non-state actors, and since 2014, in particular, China visibly stepped up its diplomatic activity on this front. In2014, China set up its own forum, the aforementioned Wuzhen World Internet Conference, to add critical mass and build support for its agenda, namely the principle of Internet Sovereignty and multilateral approach. China has also asserted its influence in bilateral dealings with other major powers such as the US and Russia and also in the ongoing global deliberations to reform global Internet governance at the International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), UN’s World Summit on Information and Security+10 review, and International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

As global Internet governance deliberations continue to evolve domestically and internationally over the coming years, China’s task is to build a global coalition of countries that subscribe to its policies and ensure that new laws and norms are in line with its own interests, an attempt to ‘gain de jure international support for China’s de facto Internet censorship policies’ . This has also been integrated into two of China’s flagship initiatives, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Internet-Plus strategy, orchestrated in close coordination with private Chinese internet companies. Under the auspices of the Internet-plus plan, as well as BRI, Chinese enterprises are being encouraged and urged to work together and go abroad. The Internet Plus plan calls for Chinese companies to ‘aggressively establish an international presence, expand foreign users, and push out products suited for different market cultures’ (State Council General Office cited in China Copyright and Media). Former CAC chief Lu Wei further articulated, ‘China will further strengthen its network cooperation with countries along “One Belt, One Road”...will deepen pragmatic collaboration with developing countries, forcefully move forward the construction of Internet infrastructure, eliminate “information barriers”, and reduce the digital divide’ .

Although China’s leading internet players are private companies, they share a strong relationship to the Chinese State. Literature by Rebecca MacKinnon illustrates that Chinese technology companies are inextricably associated with government practices of internet sovereignty via a process she termed ‘networked authoritarianism’ . This term highlights the fact that Chinese information-shaping strategies are complex and reactive, and MacKinnon’s work emphasises the fact that Chinese networked authoritarianism cannot work ‘without the active cooperation of private companies’ via a system of strict, stringently enforced, and wide-ranging intermediary liability. How then are China’s aspirations of becoming a ‘strong internet power’ and the consequent laws, policies, and plans that it has put in place influencing its engagement with the ASEAN region? This is the central question that this paper will seek to provide answers to.

The Internet Plus concept and action plan will integrate mobile internet, cloud computing, big data and the Internet of Things with modern manufacturing, to encourage the healthy development of e‐commerce, industrial networks, and internet banking, and to help internet companies increase their international presence.

The next section of the paper will be divided into two parts. Part I will assess the ASEAN region and how it fits in China’s internet power strategy. Part II will outline the diplomatic engagement between China and ASEAN on issues related to internet infrastructure connectivity, digital economy, internet governance.

It will also examine China’s internet companies’ presence and activity in the region, empowered by the BRI initiative and Internet Plus plan. This paper will then posit some of the potential political and economic effects of this engagement in the region. Identifying the opportunity for countries to make use of Chinese capital, technology, and expertise to make leapfrog advances in digital connectivity and digital economy. But also the potential effects of the region’s own legal, cultural and political development of the internet with respect to privacy, censorship and internet governance.

The study can be accessed by clicking here

(The study has been authored by Dev Lewis)

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