BEIJING – Beijing’s leaders haltingly opened connections to the Internet toward the close of the last century. Since then, though, they have been constantly fortifying the Great Firewall that encircles China and censors information flowing into the long-isolated country.
This Chinese wall now blocks more than 18,000 websites operated across the planet, and is patrolled by tens of thousands of cyber-sentries, according to scholars in the United States and Europe who closely track Beijing’s Internet security structures.
But these experts also say many of China’s digital barricades violate World Trade Organization rules, and believe that the U.S. and the EU should challenge Beijing before the WTO’s dispute resolution council.
China’s walling itself off from social media sites including Twitter and the video-sharing channel YouTube contravenes WTO principles on free trade and open market access, says Aynne Kokas, an expert on Chinese Internet policies at Rice University in Texas.
Kokas points out that Beijing’s unjustified blockade on American Internet outfits, combined with the rise of their Chinese counterparts, like weblog hosting site Sina and YouTube lookalike Youku, in the U.S. market has created massively unequal playing fields in the two countries.
This growing imbalance, she adds, is certain to expand the American trade gap with China, which hit $318 billion in 2013.
While China prevents its 600 million Internet users from joining the global Facebook generation, she says in an interview, its own rising powers on the Web are not only free to operate across the U.S., but also have raised more than $40 billion on U.S. stock exchanges.
The U.S. should move to extend its recent victory in the WTO’s dispute settlement forum, which ruled in 2012 that Chinese barriers to the import and distribution of American audio-visual products, films, music, books and newspapers all violated WTO rules. Kokas says the U.S. Trade Representative should file a new complaint to obtain a similar injunction against Chinese controls on Web-based video, media, and communication platforms.
The WTO forum can likewise be used to contest the censorship the Chinese government wields against information channels like Google, say Brussels-based scholars Fredrik Erixon and Hosuk Lee-Makiyama, co-directors of the European Centre for International Political Economy.
The Internet is an integral part of the global marketplace that China joined when it became a WTO member by agreeing to open and liberalize its economy, they say. And Beijing specifically pledged to create unrestricted market access for online data processing services like search engines upon entering the global trade group.
Beijing’s bans on foreign information platforms, e-mail systems and photo-sharing sites are all likely to be ruled violations of WTO precepts mandating equal treatment for foreign and domestic firms, says Erixon, a leading European economist and former advisor to the Swedish prime minister.
The European Union should coordinate with the U.S. to launch a joint battle in the global trade forum to halt these bans, he says.
European outfits frozen out of China’s market include portions of the sites operated by British Broadcasting Corp. and the Norwegian-based Nobel Peace Prize, along with the Paris-based International Herald Tribune. On the Peace Prize site, the sections covering the award being bestowed upon Tibet’s Dalai Lama in 1989, and upon Chinese democracy leader Liu Xiaobo in 2010 are blocked.
Since Fredrik Erixon and Hosuk Lee-Makiyama began conducting a series of studies on how best to challenge China’s cyber-bans, sections of their European Centre’s website, including their paper “Digital Authoritarianism: Human Rights, Geopolitics and Commerce,” have likewise become hidden behind China’s digital blockade.
China’s cyber-border guards lead the world in terms of crushing individual and commercial online freedoms, says Hosuk Lee-Makiyama, a legal scholar who was a senior adviser on WTO issues to the EU leadership.
Comparing Beijing’s Great Firewall to the heavily armed Berlin Wall, Lee-Makiyama says: “China has very stringent laws on Internet cafes, on online publications and on websites operated across the country.”
“Now China is trying to make this domestic system global,” he says during an interview in Beijing.
Beijing is now reviewing schemes that would require foreign-based Internet content providers, like their Chinese counterparts, to closely collaborate with the Chinese authorities in the prevailing censorship regime if they want to operate in China. But this regime of ICP licenses, he says, is also likely to be struck down by the WTO.
And any global website operator entering into a Faustian agreement to become integrated into China’s machinery of censorship does so at its own peril.
On launching their China-based www.google.cn search engine, the leaders of Google reluctantly agreed to block search results for queries like “Tiananmen Square Massacre.”
During an escalating series of clashes with their Communist censorship overseers while operating this Google China site, Google’s leadership in California suddenly discovered that battalions of highly organized Chinese hackers had invaded the group’s central servers in the U.S. and attempted to break into the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists.
While shadowing and investigating these invaders, “what was discovered was a highly sophisticated industrial attack on Google’s intellectual property coming from China,” recounted Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, and Jared Cohen, head of Google Ideas, in their jointly authored book The New Digital Age. “Over the course of Google’s investigation, it gathered sufficient evidence to know that the Chinese government or its agents were behind the attack.”
In a series of secret cables sent to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, later published by WikiLeaks, diplomats stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing reported the overall attack on Google was being led by the ruling Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party.
The CCP’s dual-front attacks on Google – by blocking its website across China while simultaneously hacking into its U.S. servers and e-mail system – have since been repeated against The New York Times following its report on the fabulous family fortune of one Chinese Politburo member, and against The Wall Street Journal for reports on another leader who fell from the top of China’s pyramid of power.
These blocks on American news organizations, says Lee-Makiyama, also are likely to be judged impermissible under WTO rules.
Anger over China’s barricading its Internet market to leading American companies like Google, and at ongoing Chinese cyber-attacks on U.S. companies and government organizations, is growing in Washington.
In June of 2013, in a special session of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China convened to focus on Chinese hacking, Representative Chris Smith testified that his own Congressional office computers had been infiltrated by Chinese hackers searching through documents on human rights violations in China and on his proposed Global Online Freedom Act.
“Cyber attacks on Congress are only a small, but not insignificant, part of a much larger pattern of attacks that have targeted the executive branch, the Pentagon, and American businesses,” stated Smith, the commission’s cochairman. “In recent months we have seen in-depth reports come out detailing this massive intrusion into our cyberspace and massive theft of our cyber data. Chinese agents have stolen our designs for helicopters, ships, fighter jets, and several missile defense systems.”
“We now know with some certainty,” he added, “that some thefts are being organized by the Chinese Government agencies.”
In an earlier hearing, he stated: “China is one of the most repressive and restrictive countries when it comes to the control of the Internet and the impact goes far beyond the commercial losses of U.S. companies that want to participate in that market.” China, he added, has clearly “failed to comply with its WTO commitments.”
Because the commission Smith co-heads has closely tracked China’s web of cyber-censorship, attacks on Google, and squadrons of People’s Liberation Army hackers, the commission’s website is naturally blocked in China.
In the first major American counter-offensive against China’s cyber-soldiers, the U.S. Department of Justice recently unveiled a 31-count indictment of five People’s Liberation Army officers – all based at a secret Shanghai military complex – who have been charged with hacking into the servers of American outfits including nuclear power plant designer Westinghouse Electric Co, engaging in cyber-espionage, and stealing high-value intellectual property.
“This is a case alleging economic espionage by members of the Chinese military and represents the first-ever charges against a state actor for this type of hacking,” said U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
This new American resolve to publicly confront Chinese hackers could also portend a growing willingness in Washington to challenge the Great Firewall in the WTO.
Yet Andrew Nathan, an expert on Chinese Internet censorship policies at Columbia University, suggests that Beijing might balk at a WTO ruling that strikes down its barriers to American newspapers, British news sites and Google’s provision of access to information across the World Wide Web.
“I believe that information control is too important for the Chinese government to sacrifice it,” says Nathan, who also heads Columbia’s Center for the Study of Human Rights.
But the co-directors of the European Centre for International Political Economy say the chances of China’s refusing to comply with a WTO decision against its cyber-blockades are virtually zero. China’s reputation as a member in good standing of the global group is too important, they say, to jeopardize in any way.
The WTO is the leading guardian of China’s expansion into a trading superpower, they add, with the People’s Republic’s worldwide trade surpassing $4 trillion last year.
With the stakes so high, China cannot afford to risk being seen as resisting the group’s rules and rulings.
Kevin Holden is a Beijing-based writer on science and technology topics.