China, with the most Internet users of any country in the world, has issued its first government whitepaper declaring an overall Internet strategy–one that advocates Internet growth while implicitly defending censorship policies amid global concern over online repression and China-based cyber espionage.
“I think this whitepaper is a statement that the Chinese Communist Party intends to stay in power, and also intends to expand Internet access, and be on the cutting edge of Internet innovation, and that there isn’t any contradiction in any of those things,” says Rebecca MacKinnon, a China Internet expert who is a visiting fellow at Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy.
While the document, which comes from Beijing’s information ministry, contains no surprises, it is noteworthy as the first complete declaration of its kind from China. It is also clearly–if not explicitly–a response to recent events. Last year China announced it would require computers sold inside China to contain censorship software known as Green Dam, although it later suspended the requirement. And this year Google pulled its search operation out of mainland China, declaring it could no longer comply with censorship requirements after China-based attackers attempted to steal intellectual property and spy on e-mail accounts of human rights activists. Google has also asked the United States to petition the World Trade Organization to recognize Chinese censorship as an unfair trade barrier.
“The timing of course coincides with the public uproar about Google China and Green Dam software,” says Guobin Yang, a China Internet expert and sociologist at Columbia University, and author of the book The Power of the Internet in China. “What is interesting here is that I see this as reflecting part of an effort to promote the government’s point of view–a larger strategy of projecting ‘soft power.’ They want to put out their own position, a defense of their policies and strategies.”
The whitepaper is partly an effort to promote the idea that states can assert sovereignty over and administer the Internet, Yang adds. “It’s such big business, such a big part of the Chinese economy,” he says. “More and more so, the government has an interest in maintaining growth of this economy, while at the same time it still wants to control the Internet.”