Cyber Sovereignty and the PRC’s Vision for Global Internet Governance

Publication: China Brief Volume: 18 Issue: 10

Xi Jinping addresses the 2017 World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, China

Over the past eighteen months, major Western media outlets have followed every step of Facebook’s slow and painful fall from grace, including the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal. However, while the stories focus heavily on Trump and Putin, it is CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping who may benefit the most from a collective loss of faith in Western cyber systems and institutions. While the world’s attention has focused on accusations of collusion and election hacking, the Chinese leader has been promoting a homegrown PRC approach to technology, the internet, and governance, one that seeks to embed the PRC’s concept of “cyber sovereignty” (网络主权) in the institutions of global internet governance.

Although progress to date has been patchy and there is disagreement within the PRC as to how cyber sovereignty should be defined, other previous PRC efforts to shape technical standards and norms globally suggest that the cyber sovereignty campaign is likely to grow in scope, specificity, and sophistication. Growing global legitimacy for Beijing’s approach to internet management could have concerning implications for online freedom of expression, both within the PRC, and in countries who see it as an attractive alternative to a more open, decentralized US-led approach. Also worth watching are the ways in which the PRC’s efforts to build support for its cybergovernance model interact with its growing technical cooperation with Belt and Road partner nations.

Chinese Wisdom for a Chaotic Cyber Landscape

 Growing concerns over the institutions of the American-led internet order are helping Xi make his case. In addition to its work on the 2016 Trump campaign, Cambridge Analytica faces a backlash for using many of the same tools to influence elections in a series of poor middle-income countries, including Kenya, Brazil, India and Malaysia (China Global Television Network, March 23). Meanwhile, government leaders in those and other countries are evincing increasing concern over the security risks posed by the platforms of an open internet. The Sri Lankan government recently imposed a temporary blocked Facebook, Whatsapp, and Viber, and temporarily shut down parts of the island’s internet to curb a wave of sectarian violence (Derana, March 7). Brazil has repeatedly blocked Whatsapp (Digital Trends, July 28 2016).

Amidst growing skepticism that an open, unmanaged internet is inherently beneficial, Xi has projected himself and his ambitions onto the global stage with a confidence that stands in stark contrast to the low-profile approach of his recent predecessors (China Brief, May 9). There have recently been indications that Xi’s China views itself not simply as a partner in trade and infrastructure construction, but in governance as well. In a speech to the 19th Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in the fall of last year, Xi stated that the Chinese model was “a new option for nations who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence,” adding that China’s system of socialism offers “Chinese wisdom and a Chinese approach to the problems facing mankind.” (Xinhua, October 18 2017).

Developing the Global Internet on China’s Terms

China’s stepped-up efforts to promote its vision of global governance include a push to enshrine its version of the internet as a model for other countries. In a statement to China’s fourth-annual World Internet Conference, held in December of 2017 and attended by the CEOs of Google and Apple, Xi rallied support for this model, referred to as “cyber sovereignty” (SCMP, December 3 2017).

Close readings of Chinese-language scholarly and policymaker discourse have found that, although Xi Jinping has used the term repeatedly, Beijing’s policy apparatus has yet to produce a precise, agreed-upon definition of the term “cyber sovereignty” [1]. However, the term, at least in principle, consistently describes the idea that sovereign nations should be granted control over networks and data within their borders, to manage as they see fit. While this principle may seem unobjectionable on first glance, it must be understood within the context of Beijing’s determination to defend its own model of internet management: sophisticated, systematic censorship through a well-developed “Great Firewall,” and strict requirements for local data storage imposed upon all firms operating within its borders (SCMP, May 7).

A report released at the December 2017 World Internet Conference by the Chinese Academy of Cyberspace Studies called for an “establishment of a multinational, democratic and transparent global internet governance system” through the United Nations, a theme that has become consistent in statements from Xi and PRC government offices. “Multinational” in this case is a reference to the “multilateral” approach to internet management favored by China, Russia, and other nations, which would give national governments a larger role in managing the global internet. It can be contrasted with the “multistakeholder” model preferred by the EU and the United States, where management of the global internet architecture rests in the hands of a cluster of industry, academic, and non-governmental actors (Global Commission on Internet Governance, January 17, 2017).

Taking Multinational Models to the UN

This language was also echoed in the PRC’s first-ever white paper on international cyberspace cooperation, jointly published by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Public Security in March 2017 (Xinhua, March 1 2017). Interestingly, in its section on “Reform of the Global Internet Governance System”, the white paper says that “China will push for institutional reform of the UN Internet Governance Forum to enable it to play a greater role in Internet governance, strengthen its decision-making capacity, secure steady funding, and introduce open and transparent procedures in its member election and report submission.”

The IGF is a UN-convened annual meeting of internet governance stakeholders, with little real decision-making power. Why does it require reform? The white paper does not specify. However, it is worth noting that the IGF has consistently supported the multistakeholder model of governance, and included only two PRC delegates in the Multistakeholder Advisory Group for its 2018 meeting. The US, in contrast, sent three delegates, one of whom was the chair (Internet Governance Forum, 2018)

The UN and its affiliate organizations have been a consistent focus of PRC’s attempts to win support for its evolving vision of a nationally managed internet. Another particularly well-known such attempt came at a 2012 meeting of the International Telecommunications Union, the United Nations specialized agency for information and communication technologies, where the PRC and it supporters were headed off by a US-led delegate walkout (Ars Technica, December 12 2012). Some internet governance experts have expressed concern that the next quadrennial plenipotentiary meeting of the ITU, scheduled to begin October 29 of this year in Dubai, may see another such attempt (Brookings Institution, February 7). Since 2014 the ITU has been headed by Zhao Houlin, a PRC national who worked for the now-defunct PRC Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications prior to beginning a 30-year career with the ITU [2]. Zhao will be eligible for election to a second four-year term at this year’s plenipotentiary meeting.

Leveraging the Belt and Road

The PRC has also sought to build acceptance of its technical and cyber diplomacy through the technology-focused dimensions of the Belt and Road Initiative, increasingly described in official PRC statements as a “digital Silk Road” (Xinhua Silk Road News, May 17). The joint communique issued at the close of last year’s Belt and Road Forum in Beijing announced pledges by participating nations to cooperate on “telecommunications and information and communication technology”, so as to “put into place an international infrastructure network over time”. The communique also calls for “harmonizing rules and technological standards when necessary” to “maximize synergies in infrastructure planning and development”. e-commerce, digital economy, smart cities and science and technology parks” (Xinhua, May 15 2017).

Beyond poorly defined calls for cooperation, Beijing’s partnerships with Belt and Road partners has begun to include the sale of technologies that could strengthen authoritarian governments’ surveillance capabilities. In Zimbabwe, one of China’s closest African partners, a prominent Chinese AI firm will work with Zimbabwean security forces to develop a surveillance system using facial recognition technology (Radii China, April 16). Zimbabwean journalists have already expressed concern that the government is spending money on technology that could be turned against the political opposition, while neglecting hospitals and doctors’ pay (TechZim, April 13). Huawei has been promoting “smart city” systems, surveillance-heavy approaches which are billed to assist police in crime prevention, with a high-profile project underway in Nairobi. Huawei’s advertising copy emphasizes that the technology “means police forces can have ‘eyes’ where they didn’t before” (BBC). ZTE, the subject of recent enforcement actions by the White House, is promoting such systems, even using the branding “Data Belt, Information Road.” (ZTE, May 2, 2016).

The Appeal of the Chinese Approach

Western leaders, journalists, and human rights activists have genuine reason to be concerned about Xi’s cybersecurity vision. Many countries along the Belt and Road have histories of brutal dictatorships and poor rights protections for their citizens. Although there are, as of yet, no signs that the PRC’s efforts to gain acceptance for its technology and internet governance efforts have extended into direct assistance to countries wishing to turn them towards authoritarian ends, it is not difficult to imagine this as a potential next step.

It is important to understand, however, that these countries’ cooperation with the PRC does not take place in a vacuum. They may see the PRC as offering solutions where Western governments have failed. For example, while there is much hand-wringing over automation-driven job loss in developed countries, developing countries are just as concerned over the potential impact of automation on the low-skill, repetitive positions upon which many of their citizens rely (World Bank, 2016). Such an outcome, coupled with a population boom—in Africa in particular—could exacerbate already high levels of youth unemployment. Governments need ways to provide the stability their people demand. For some, support for the PRC’s global internet and governance agenda may prove a more attractive means to that end than those on offer by the US and its like-minded allies.

Elliott Zaagman is a Beijing-based corporate trainer, executive coach, and writer who has spent the past seven years working in China’s growing tech ecosystem. He contributes regularly to the publications Tech in Asia and Technode. Follow him on Twitter at @ElliottZaagman.


[1] An excellent resource on this subject is the article China’s Solution to Global Cyber Governance: Unpacking the Domestic Discourse of “Internet Sovereignty” by Jinghan Zeng, Tim Stevens, and Yaru Chen, published in in the June 2017 issue of the journal Politics & Policy.

[2] For more information on Zhao’s career, see his official ITU biography.