China Wants to Draw Borders in Cyberspace — But So Does Every Other Sovereign Nation

Lu Wei, China's Minister of Cyberspace Affairs Administration, speaks at the opening ceremony of the World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, in eastern China's Zhejiang province on November 19, 2014. China, which censors online content it deems to be politically sensitive, opened the World Internet Conference in Wuzhen with the country's biggest Internet companies in attendance alongside a sprinkling of foreign executives and officials. AFP PHOTO / JOHANNES EISELE [IN_PRODUCTION] [Verrouillé] 12:57-19/11/2014 Wuzhen SHA ECO,POL (Photo credit should read JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images)

Washington foreign policy elites often worry about the rise of China, that is, when they are not parsing President Obama’s strategy to combat the self-proclaimed Islamic State or lamenting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intervention in Syria. Lately they seem to worry most about how to stop China’s push into the South China Sea. The more strategically minded wonder when, not if, China will supplant the United States as the world’s dominant economy. More rarely, sophisticated observers track China’s challenges to the U.S- led system of global governance.

With the new Chinese-initiated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the expandedShanghai Cooperation Council, and the ongoing lawfare related to maritime claims, China is slowly but surely promoting its own political and social values as alternatives to existing U.S. dominated international institutions.

Yet, as the Second World Internet Conference opened in Wuzhen, China this week relatively few foreign policy experts have focused on the significance of China’s emerging campaign against the open global Internet and link it to China’s wider challenge to America’s global leadership. For the second straight year China’s Internet czar, Lu Wei, is offering a vision of cyberspace governance based on the concept of “Internet sovereignty.” Rather than participating fully in an interconnected world in which information flows free irrespective of national borders or the ownership of the Internet’s overarching infrastructure, China asserts its intention to regulate the Internet within its own borders according to its own values that place a premium on maintaining the power and legitimacy of the Party-state against internal opponents and foreign influences.

To Western ears, the substantive arguments may seem plausible. As Lu Wei wrote in The WorldPost last year:

Disagreements on certain issues understandably arise. For example, with regard to cyberspace governance, the U.S. advocates “multi-stakeholders” while China believes in “multilateral.” [“Multi-stakeholder” refers to all Internet participants on an equal footing making the rules and is considered more “people-centered” while “multilateral” refers to the state making the rules based on the idea of the sovereignty of the nation-state representing its citizens.]

These two alternatives are not intrinsically contradictory. Without “multilateral,” there would be no “multi-stakeholders.” Exaggerating our disagreements due to differences in concepts is neither helpful to the China-U.S. Internet relations nor beneficial to global governance and the development of the Internet.

There is, of course, a catch: It is unclear that the Chinese people have chosen or would chose the Chinese Communist Party’s approach to governing cyberspace internally much less its emerging global stance. In an interview leading up to this week’s conference, Lu was more blunt about what his approach means:

‘I’ve got no way to change anybody, but I do have the right to choose my friends. We really must decide who we allow into our home; we must make sure that only friends come in. We do not welcome those people who earn money from the Chinese, occupy a share of the Chinese market, and then slander China. Just like any other family, we don’t welcome unfriendly people to come and be our guests.’

If China’s alternative perspective gains wider traction with other governments, the global Internet as we know it will soon be history.

Declaratory policies aside, how does China treat the Internet? Internet censorship is rampant. Attacks on U.S. corporations and government agencies by hackers affiliated with the Chinese government, whether officially sanctioned or not, have been proven to the satisfaction of outside experts. Some Chinese technology firms are either clearly state-owned or suspected of being state controlled, leading to fears of both industrial espionage and state-on-state spying. Some firms are reportedly complicit in propaganda campaigns to promote the Chinese government’s views or versions of international and domestic events. And Chinese officials often dissemble when confronted with evidence of such behaviors.

If China’s alternative perspective gains wider traction with other governments, the global Internet as we know it will soon be history.

Close observers are not surprised by China’s initiatives to control the Internet within its borders and assert its own vision for Internet governance. Indeed, China simply represents an extreme example of a much wider phenomena. Professor Chris Demchak and I have analyzed an accelerating “cyber – Westphalian process”over the past decade as most sovereign states have been asserting their authority, establishing virtual borders, and increasing the offensive and defensive cyber tools believed necessary to protect society, deter misbehavior, and punish ‘bad” actors. (“Westphalian” refers to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 heralded as the birth of the nation state. It ended the 30 Years War by according sovereign rulers control over their own society within agreed borders)

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Credit: The World Post