The Internet with Chinese Characteristics

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The World Internet Conference opened today in Wuzhen, China. According to Chinese media, representatives from “nearly 100 countries and regions” are to take part in the conference. Attendees included Jack Ma, executive chairman of Alibaba; Masayoshi Son, the CEO of SoftBank; Pony Ma, chairman of China’s Tencent internet company;  Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn; and Paul Jacobs, the executive chairman of Qualcomm.

The World Internet Conference is another part of China’s push to have a say in the emerging conversation about the global Internet – what it should look like and how it should be governed. In today’s interconnected world, China is no longer content to have other countries respect its tight domestic controls of the Internet. Instead, to ensure its domestic security China seeks to have the international community buy into its vision for internet controls. This was readily apparent from the stated theme of the World Internet Conference: “An Interconnected World Shared and Governed by All.”

In a welcome message for the conference participants, Chinese President Xi Jinping emphasized that the Internet poses “new challenges to national sovereignty, security and development interests.” To meet these challenges, Xi said, the world must “pursue common governance” over the Internet. Global Internet governance was at the top of the list of topics for the conference, according to China’s top internet regulator Lu Wei. China’s vision of internet governance involves international acceptance of the idea of “Internet sovereignty,” wherein each country is given a legal, internationally recognized right to control and restrict domestic use of the Internet however it sees fit.

In addition to seeking global buy-in into China’s vision of a controlled Internet, Beijing of course continues to demand that the international community respect its unique domestic vision. Xi spoke of the need to “respect sovereignty on the Internet.” Speaking on October 30, Lu Wei defended China’s decision to block a number of foreign social media sites, including Facebook. “China has always been hospitable to the outside world, but I can choose who will be a guest in my home,” Lu said, adding that Chinese controls on the internet are designed to protect national security and “the interests of Chinese consumers.” “For those foreign firms who want to enter China, there is a basic rule for them — they must abide by Chinese laws and regulations,” Lu emphasized.

Those laws and regulations include agreeing to practice censorship as required by the Chinese government. What Beijing wants from Internet providers is nebulous by design, as ill-defined boundaries for acceptable content encourage Internet companies to err on the side of caution. At a seminar in early November, Ren Xianliang, the deputy director of the Cyberspace Administration of China, told Chinese officials and internet entrepreneurs that “an important aspect of proper website management is to spread positive energy.” Ren also encouraged those in charge of supervising Internet sites “to explore new ways to manage the virtual world,” with spreading “positive energy” as a main goal.

Over at China Media Project, David Bandurski notes the term “positive energy” in China is becoming a code word for content acceptable to China censors. “’Positive energy’ is a one-size-fits-all prescription targeting both dissent at home and ‘negativity’ towards China in every other context,” Bandurski writes. Some Chinese scholars are concerned about the possibility of a crackdown on “rightists” under the guise of promoting “positive energy.”

The emphasis on “positive energy” in the context of internet controls show how big of a gap exists between China and the West when it comes to how the Internet should function. In a recent interview with The Diplomat, CSIS senior fellow James A. Lewis (who is scheduled to speak at the World Internet Conference) said he doubts China will make much progress convincing other countries to buy into its vision for the Internet.  “China’s on the losing side of history in this one,” Lewis said. “The Russians agree with them that free speech is a bad idea, but the Indians don’t, the Brazilians don’t, most of the world doesn’t.”

As a sign that China recognizes the existence of this gap, participants in the World Internet Conference had access to a Great Firewall-free Internet through a special Wi-Fi connection. That decision shows Chinese officials know that their version of a limited, strictly-controlled Internet is not palatable to the international community – and that’s exactly what the World Internet Conference seeks to change.

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