China's bid for Internet influence

China's bid for Internet influence

The irony was lost on no one.

China's inaugural World Internet Conference (WIC) last week in Zhejiang province had, as its slogan, "an inter-connected world shared and governed by all".

This, from a country whose landmark cyberspace achievement has been to construct the world's most elaborate and formidable firewall to block its citizens from the world.

Worse, a joint declaration, drawn up by organisers to mark the end of the two-day conference - attended by industry players from over a hundred countries - was dropped after overseas attendees revolted.

Slipped under hotel room doors at 11pm at the end of the second day, the document prominently mentioned mutual respect for each country's sovereign control and regulation of the Internet - a controversial Chinese doctrine that many see as a fig leaf for repression and censorship.

Revisions would need to be submitted by early next morning, attendees were told. Needless to say, few were willing to be bulldozed into signing the document overnight.

With this topper, Western media dubbed the conference a fiasco, even as the Chinese media called it a "watershed" event that marked a shift from a global cyberspace led by the United States.

Still, as the lodestar of a philosophy of Internet governance that is growing in worldwide influence and home to a quarter of the world's Internet users and some of cyberspace's most valuable firms, China cannot be ignored.

More importantly, the holding of the conference gave notice of a change in China's modus operandi, from one of blocking out the global Internet community to engaging with it.

A 'less free' Internet

THIS shift is significant for the global Internet community, given that China's philosophy of Internet governance is gaining traction in some parts of the world.

Beijing has recently moved to centralise and coordinate its cyberspace governance. The formation of the "leading small group on cyber security and informatisation" this year headed by President Xi Jinping himself raised the sector to a top-level policy priority.

This year also saw a fortifying of the Great Chinese Firewall - Google and Instagram, among others, were pushed out - and a crackdown on Chinese social media.

Scores of netizens have been arrested for the crime of "spreading rumours"; they can now be sentenced to up to three years' jail for tweeting "false information". Users have reacted to the fraught atmosphere by fleeing Weibo, a Twitter-like microblog service.

That China is doubling down on Internet control is perhaps less surprising than the fact that the rest of the world is following, to various degrees, in its footsteps.

Dubbed "Internet sovereignty", Beijing's core philosophy is that the government has the right to police and defend Chinese cyberspace boundaries, as it does the state's physical borders.

As Mr Lu Wei, director of the State Internet Information Office, told reporters last month: "I don't try to go into your house and take down your websites. But it is my right to decide who can be a guest in my home."

Increasingly, both democratic and authoritarian states are applying this very idea. It is not just illiberal Iran, Saudi Arabia and Russia that are following China's lead, but democracies like India and Brazil are also experiencing "deteriorating Internet freedom".

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