How China Plans to Become a World Class Cyber Power


On April 13, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and State Council issued new guidelines on strengthening internal security in the wake of unprecedented terrorist attacks inside the country, rising public order concerns, and increasing online dissent. The guidelines called out the use of new high-technology and cyber-based assets, including data mining, closed circuit TV, and satellites, to help restore central government control. This is the third in a series of five brief items (see: “Part II: How China’s Ministry of Public Security Controls Cyber Policy”) by Greg Austin, based on his 2014 book, Cyber Policy in China, providing some political context on how the country is using its cyber power in the service of internal security. 

Part III: Politics of the S&T Base

Of all the G20 members, China is the government most committed to transformation of its national economy and society through informatization — the exploitation of advanced information and communications technologies in all walks of life. Like Russia, China has a long way to go to catch up to its G20 peers in most measures of cyber power. But it is moving as rapidly as it can. For example, in 2012, Chinese scientists claimed to be the first in the world to have succeeded in the physical teleportation of the electronic properties of remote particles, one of the important foundations for quantum computing.

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The scale of the country’s ambition to become a world leader in the S&T base of cyber power is documented in a 2011 plan by the country’s Academy of Sciences, called Information Science and Technology in China: A Roadmap to 2050. The vision is staggeringly ambitious and complex. It sees China approaching the frontiers of science, economics, and social organization in the sphere of information technology by mid-century.

Of considerable interest at the political level, the report comes close to arguing for a new set of social values in pursuit of transformation of the S&T base. While much of the argument about political change in China is made disparately and buried somewhat in the technical jargon, the Executive Summary gives a slightly clearer set of markers. Some sound simply technocratic, but as later discussion in the report suggests, they are also deeply political. The report says that the national information systems — presumably meaning in politics, science, and the economy — need to:

  • be user oriented
  • be ubiquitous
  • offer ‘convenient’ access to information
  • provide the ability for people to ‘more effectively cooperate’
  • create opportunities for a ‘higher quality of life’
  • be seen as a human and social phenomenon rather just as a technological enabler
  • operate ‘free from monopoly’

While the report also references classic regime needs, such as an expansion of Chinese language web content, national security considerations, and the imperative of building a harmonious society, the political significance of a turn of phrase like “operating free from monopoly” could not be more profound. Towards the end of the report, in a short subsection called “social computing,” which appears at first glance to have only a limited technical meaning, the authors open up the political question without answering it. While observing the desirable growth of people-to-people networking, they note that “the entire community realizes that these new technologies will profoundly affect the structure, organization, and activity patterns of future society.” We can reasonably interpret this to mean a fundamental transformation of the political system.

The changes will be unpredictable, the report says, but will need to be managed. The authors call for urgent adoption of an overarching “theory of social computing.” This could be interpreted to mean new rules for less government intervention in cyberspace and in network supervision — what is referred to in the report’s Executive Summary as the ‘monopoly’ over the information networks. The document would have been discussed with and approved by senior Communist Party officials, since the political implications of the objectives highlighted here are significant.

One impetus for the 2011 report was a strategy document, Technological Revolution and China’s Future: Innovation 2050, from the Academy of Sciences, which served not just as an overarching mobilizing document, but also marked the launch of a series of 17 subsequent sector-based roadmap reports also looking ahead to 2050. The 2009 foundation report on innovation, which had involved some 300 Academy researchers and experts for more than a year, recommended that China prepare itself for a new revolution in S&T in the coming ten to 20 years in green energy, artificial intelligence, sustainable development, information networking systems, environmental preservation, space and ocean systems, and, most interestingly, national security and public security systems.

There is no doubting the determination of China to build its S&T base to become a world class cyber power, but its scientists — one of the country’s most influential lobby groups — have flagged for the leadership the essential tension that this will create with traditional notions of the monopoly of power. What will China’s new theory of social computing look like as we tick off milestone years on the way to 2050? The ethical contest in China to define that theory of social computing is not over. It is continually escalating. The Chinese IT sector, both in academia and business, is irreversibly part of the political debate.

Up next on Monday: “China’s Assessment of its Online Civil Disobedience”

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