China: Our Internet is Free Enough

The government says tight controls are compatible with vibrant growth.

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.

Tangled Web: Chinese Internet users, like these in a Shanghai café, must contend with broad censorship amid surging Internet growth.

“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.”

China has nearly 400 million Internet users–nearly one-quarter of the world’s total–plus 750 million mobile-phone users, many of whom access the Web from their phones. Despite censorship, Internet-based grassroots campaigns on Chinese social-networking sites have had some targeted successes, such as pressuring the Chinese government to jail corrupt local officials. Referring generally to this kind of activism, the Beijing whitepaper makes a bold assertion: “Chinese citizens fully enjoy freedom of speech on the Internet.” Left unstated is that Chinese Internet companies are under government pressure to self-censor, and do so very effectively on a slate of banned topics, including advocacy of democracy, opposition movements, the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising, and Tibetan independence.

“This is not the first time the Chinese government has said ‘we have free speech in this country, except for the speech that isn’t allowed,’ and then there’s a long list of things that aren’t allowed,” MacKinnon adds.

“There is a much broader scope of public discourse happening on the Chinese Internet now than there was in the public sphere before the Internet existed in China,” MacKinnon says. “The thing is, it’s circumscribed.”

China’s statement advertises itself as “providing an overall picture to the Chinese people and the peoples of the rest of the world of the true situation of the Internet in China.” It is a synthesis of long-understood positions: China “energetically advocates and actively supports the development and application of the Internet across the country” and sees it as crucial to economic expansion, but also reserves the right to “administer” the Internet.

“Frankly, I think China is Exhibit A for how authoritarianism will survive the Internet age,” MacKinnon says. “I think Americans have this assumption that nondemocratic regimes can’t survive the Internet, and I think that’s naïve. The Chinese Communist Party fully intends to survive in the Internet age and has a strategy for doing so. So far, it’s working.”

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