The Wuzhen Summit and the Battle over Internet Governance
President Xi Jinping (front) talks to Jack Ma (left), founder and chairman of Alibaba Group, during his visit to the "Light of the Internet" expo in Wuzhen, East China's Zhejiang province, Dec 16, 2015.

The Wuzhen Summit and the Battle over Internet Governance

 
 

Like in the previous year, the principle purpose behind the 2015 iteration of the World Internet Conference, held in the town of Wuzhen in China’s Zhejihang province in December, was simple: to promote the Chinese Communist Party’s vision of Internet governance to an international audience and to gain allies against the perceived Western encroachment upon China’s cyber sovereignty.

For the Chinese Communist Party leadership, defending cyber sovereignty—an expression that in essence means the power of the state to control the internet—is tantamount to defending both the physical territorial integrity of China and the unchallenged rule of its Communist Party.

The increased priority for senior Chinese leaders to defend the idea of a “Communist Party-friendly” internet was underlined by the personal appearance of China’s President Xi Jinping at the conference. In a speech the Chinese president outlined his ideas of promoting “the transformation of the global system of internet governance.” (Last year, Xi merely sent a video message, in which he however also called for countries to “respect sovereignty on the Internet.”)

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In his speech Xi outlined four principles and five propositions including an opposition to all types of cybercrime and a call for an international convention on cyber terrorism. However, the core of his remarks centered on “respecting cyber[internet]-sovereignty,” which entails an acceptance of China’s notion of a multilateral approach to internet governance in which states reign supreme.

In the words of Xi “respecting cyber-sovereignty” implies “respecting each country’s right to choose its own internet development path, its own internet management model, its own public policies on the internet, and to participate on an equal basis in the governance of international cyberspace — avoiding cyber-hegemony, and avoiding interference in the internal affairs of other countries. (…) [We must] build a multilateral, democratic and transparent governance system for the global internet.”

The key word in his remarks was “multilateral”— a term standing in direct opposition to the Western concept of a “multi-stakeholder” approach towards Internet governance. The latter emphasizes (granted only in theory) a full involvement on equal footing of all actors with a vested interest in the internet including businesses, civil society and governments, whereas the former emphasizes nation-states as the principal decision-makers. (One indication to where the Chinese government wanted to steer the conference towards was the total exclusion of civil society from the summit—an event organized by the Cyberspace Administration of China and, in a minor capacity, the provincial government of Zhejiang.)

China’s concept of cyber-sovereignty is intrinsically connected to the multilateral approach towards internet governance, allowing the state to control all critical information infrastructures within a country and also control their usage. In addition, China’s concept of cyber sovereignty also entails the right to censor and restrict information flowing in and out of the country.

It is noteworthy to point out that prior to the 2nd World Internet Conference, China achieved a victory of sorts in its campaign for a multilateral internet governance approach: During the United Nations’ Ten-Year Review of the World Summit on the Information Society, Beijing’s diplomats succeeded in inserting the word “multilateral” in the final resolution, although the rest of the non-binding document endorses the multi-stakeholder approach. (During the Net Mundial Conference, hosted by Brazil in 2014, China refused to endorse the summit resolution due to the exclusion of the word in the final document.)

One of China’s major allies in pushing for this version of internet governance is Russia. Unsurprisingly, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in his speech during the conference endorsed Xi’s vision of cyber-sovereignty. As I pointed out before, both countries’ cyber diplomacy strategy is to promote the idea of cyber-sovereignty in international forums and institutions such as the World Internet Conference and the International Telecommunication Union in order to gain de jure international support for Beijing’s and Moscow’s de facto restrictive internet policies, which are vehemently opposed by Western and other like-minded countries. Overall, there seems to have been little change in the entrenched positions of both sides on this very delicate subject.

Thus, my assessment of China’s motive behind last year’s conference still seems to be valid for the 2015 event:

For China it is essential to buy time to ramp up its domestic informatization campaign, streamline cyber policies across a diverse group of domestic stakeholders, build up technical surveillance capabilities and strengthen its cyber defenses. In the meantime, China will focus its international cyber engagement strategy on trying to convince like-minded countries of the superiority of its vision to Western concepts of Internet governance. Consequently, it is fair to assume that we can expect more discussion of Internet sovereignty at the next CAC [Cyberspace Administration of China]-sponsored cyber conference.

This article has previously been published at ChinaUsFocus.com.

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