China’s Latest Push to Promote Cyber Sovereignty


March 8, 2017

The News:

On March 1st, China released its first global internet policy paper entitled International Strategy of Cooperation on Cyberspace.  In the paper China calls for the establishment of a “global Internet governance system” and details a “plan of action” for international cooperation toward realizing that objective.

China’s strategic goals in cyberspace, as outlined in the document, are: 1) to safeguard sovereignty and security; 2) to develop a system of international rules for cyberspace; 3) to promote fair internet governance; 4)to protect “legitimate rights and interests of citizens”; 5) to promote cooperation on the digital economy; and 6) to build a platform for “cyber culture exchange”.

The cooperative aspect of China’s cyber strategy is aimed primarily at international organizations and fora.  The policy paper names multiple UN bodies, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the ASEAN Regional Forum, APEC, the BRICS, the G20, the World Economic Forum, and various China-led fora, as its main partners for potential cooperation and venues for promoting its cyber agenda.

A considerable portion of the policy document is devoted to China’s security-related justifications for ordering, regulating, and divvying up the internet among states—in other words, establishing widespread international recognition and respect for “cyber sovereignty”.  In contrast, there is no discussion of the free flow of information and “open” cyberspace that the paper espouses.  Rather, the policy document identifies bridging the digital divide by bringing physical internet access and IT resources to more of the world’s population as a worthy aim, seemingly equating access with openness.

The day after the paper’s release, Long Zhou, the Foreign Ministry of China’s coordinator for cyber affairs, told journalists that the principle of sovereignty, arguably the policy paper’s dominant theme, is applicable to cyberspace and is not in contradiction with the free flow of information.

The Analysis:

International Strategy of Cooperation in Cyberspace represents China’s latest effort to shape its international environment, rather than conform to international norms that it feels weaken its security.  (A similar scenario is currently playing out in the South China Sea.)

In recent years, China has made a concerted effort to build international support for “cyber sovereignty” (网络主权), a concept that fits nicely with the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, China’s fundamental foreign policy norms.  Since November 2014, China has hosted its annual World Internet Conference at which the Chinese government has tried to promote the concept of a balkanized Net.  Chinese President Xi Jinping has twice lent his voice to the conference to call for recognition and respect for cyber sovereignty.

Cyber security has been one of Xi’s top priorities during his first term as president.  He established the Communist Party of China’s Central Leading Small Group for Internet Security and Informatization shortly after coming to power and has headed the organization ever since.

Just last year, the Chinese government, under Xi’s leadership, passed stringent new rules for online publishing by foreign companies and their affiliates.  And in November, China introduced a new cyber security law that is set to come into effect later this year.

Assuming that Xi retains a tight hold on the reins of power coming out of the 19th Party Congress this fall, he is likely to further strengthen China’s efforts to sell cyber sovereignty to the rest of the world.  In keeping with China’s past major diplomatic campaigns, Beijing will almost certainly continue trying to build support for cyber sovereignty among developing and newly industrialized countries before devoting substantial resources to changing minds (and policies) elsewhere.  China has already started cooperating on cyber security with SCO countries and other countries in its near abroad.  It is not surprising that few of the cooperative partners named in China’s cyber strategy paper have memberships that are majority developed liberal democracies.  Such countries are obviously least receptive to China’s illiberal norms and most likely to push back against attempts to balkanize the internet.

Coming less than two months after President Xi’s speech at Davos in which he portrayed China as the new champion of the liberal economic order, the cyber strategy paper looks like another Chinese attempt at low-cost, minimal-risk leadership.  In both cases, Beijing successfully commanded the bully pulpit, communicated its vision to the rest of the world, appeared to take the lead on an issue of global importance while not committing itself to anything more than advancing China’s own interests.

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