Because of the prevalence of the Internet and its liberalizing tendencies in Chinese society, the Chinese Communist Party leadership has developed new strategies to fend off political, social and cultural challenges from this decentralized and borderless technology.
Under the rhetoric of protecting information security, China’s top-down model of Internet surveillance is composed of a dual strategy.
First, the government blocks online content and communication that it deems subversive. China has launched a sophisticated filtering system to contain the forces of political, social and cultural liberalization. Severe punishments have been imposed on Internet service providers, hosts and users who violate the rules.
Besides these punitive actions, the state adopts many pre-emptive methods to monitor cyberspace. Co-optation of private enterprises is crucial for neutralizing any crises that otherwise would have threatened the regime. One strategy is to implement a rigid business licensing system that demands obedience and cooperation from the private sector.
As a result, many Chinese online service providers assist the state in policing the Internet. The best example is the self-imposed censorship over any news about Hong Kong’s Umbrella movement last year and the “Jasmine Revolution” in the Middle East in 2011.
Second, the state fights fiercely for technical standard-setting and resource reallocation on a global stage under the guise of defending cybersovereignty, wanglu zhuquan (網絡主權). Beijing considers the Internet to be an infrastructural tool for state-building and is determined to nationalize its domestic cyberspace.
This assertive effort to impose ruling authority over the Internet as an economic sphere and a political space not only betrays the Western conception of a market-based, private-dominated Internet system, but also favors a new cyberstructure that weighs governmental authorities over non-state actors and national security over individual liberty and freedom.
More recently, outraged by escalating domestic discontent, the Chinese government has switched to a harsher approach through banning online criticisms of the state and forbidding citizens to use virtual private networks to visit Web sites outside the country. These aggressive policies of nationalizing cyberspace reveal a growing sense of confidence among China’s top leaders to challenge Western dominance over digital technologies worldwide and to institutionalize a regulatory framework for global and national Internet governance.
In a nutshell, the tension between Internet freedom and control has created a paradoxical feature in China’s cyberspace: Growing online freedom is accompanied by the intensification of government surveillance through formal and informal censorship.
Political dissidents are not alone in feeling burnt. As cyberspace becomes increasingly politicized, only the future can tell whether the Chinese model of Internet governance will appeal to the world in the 21st century.
Joseph Tse-Hei Lee is professor of history and co-director of the Global Asia studies program at Pace University in New York.
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