On Monday, the government of India announced its decision to ban 59 Chinese mobile applications within its borders. In a statement from the country’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, governing authorities from India accuse these Chinese mobile applications, including TikTok, WeChat, and Weibo, of mining user data and transferring data to servers outside of the country.
The ban on Chinese mobile applications was not appreciated by the Chinese government. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed concerns over the decisions and urged India to “uphold the legitimate rights of international investors.”
Despite showing concerns about another country restricting the use of certain mobile applications within its domestic network, China has consistently blocked foreign apps, websites, and other internet services using its “Great Firewall,” which stops internet users in China from accessing websites such as Google, the New York Times, and The Diplomat. Smartphone users are also not allowed to use mobile applications such as Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.
The Chinese regime also has strict restrictions on the distribution of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), which can be used to get around the restrictions. In 2018, a software engineer faced criminal charges and received a suspended prison sentence for selling software that helped internet users to bypass the Chinese government’s Great Firewall to visit prohibited websites.
While Chinese apps and technology services often face criticism and scrutiny over data security and privacy concerns, it is worth noting that the government of India also brought up the argument of protecting India’s national sovereignty and integrity. It is a rare move for democratic countries to use the term “cyberspace sovereignty,” as this idea has been utilized by authoritarian regimes such as China and Russia to justify controlling their respective cyberspaces and introducing legislation to enhance censorship on the internet.
The term, thanks to its association with nondemocratic countries, is often mistaken as equivalent to imposing internet censorship. Yet as we enter a new digital era with greater dependence on internet technologies and cyberspace, it would be naive for democratic nations to ignore the importance of protecting cyberspace from predatory attacks and unregulated erosions.
The concept of cyberspace sovereignty started to make a greater impact on international politics in 2015, when Chinese President Xi Jinping made a speech calling all countries to respect cyberspace sovereignty. By that, Xi meant respecting all countries in their choices to develop and manage their own internet. According to China’s formulation, countries should not attempt to interfere with other countries’ domestic affairs and jeopardize other countries’ cybersecurity, nor should any countries attempt to become an internet hegemon.
But it is clear that Chinese government messaging is not consistent with its actual policies and aggression in the international cyberspace. China is banning websites and mobile applications from the United States within its cyberspace while protesting against India imposing similar measures Chinese app. China has also been accused of engaging in cyberattacks against countries such as the United States and other countries in the Asia-Pacific region, with the goal to acquire sensitive information such as coronavirus vaccine data and gather geopolitical intelligence.
Through protectionism and self-interest directed policies, China is not only utilizing its controls over the domestic cyberspace to remain in power, but also offering internet companies monitored and controlled by the regime the chance to develop in a domestic market with little or no competitors from other countries. The move helped the Chinese internet giants such as Tencent, Alibaba, and Bytedance to secure their initial successes in China, and thereby facilitated their path to expanding into markets beyond Chinese borders. In recent years, these companies have been having greater impacts in the domestic politics of liberal democracies around the world.
With mobile applications such as TikTok and WeChat landing in democratic countries such as the United States, Canada, and Australia, they also extended the coverage of China’s political censorships in regions beyond China’s actual borders. TikTok, for example, has been found to censor content that challenges the Chinese government, and was caught censoring short videos calling for justice for ethnic minority Uyghurs detained in re-education camps in Xinjiang.
As for WeChat, the application was reported to use data on users outside of China to develop a censorship apparatus. It has became a social media platform that propagates fake news, misinformation, and censored content – all in line with Beijing’s preferred narratives — to citizens in the United States, Canada, and Australia. Those contents promoted greater division, fear, and bias, and potentially impacted election outcomes in liberal democratic countries.
Nonstate actors such as TikTok and WeChat play a role in democratic elections, but these Chinese-owned mobile applications are not held to the same standards as Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram when it comes to combating misinformation, documenting political content and advertisements, and more importantly, respecting and upholding freedom of expressions. Both Bytedance and Tencent have attempted to defend themselves by denying any censorship, despite clear and numerous evidence. When questioned by Canadian media outlet CBC, WeChat, and its parent company Tencent, underplayed the app’s stake in Canadian politics by stating that the Chinese-controlled social media platform does not accept or support political ads.
Products from Chinese companies such as Bytedance and Tencent have played critical roles in influencing election outcomes and public policy discussions in liberal democracies. But unlike other notable social media outlets, these China-originated social media platforms are not facing the same level of scrutiny and regulations needed to uphold election integrity and fairness. Regardless of their intentions, the fact is that they have become the latest tools for the Chinese state to continue its censorship beyond its own border, including the regime’s attempt to change the narratives on issues such as the anti-extradition bill in Hong Kong and the notorious re-education camps in Xinjiang.
These applications target vulnerable user groups, such as those who face significant language barriers to read news stories from local media outlets or youth populations who may lack media literacy. Without actions to protect the vulnerable, liberal democracies are at constant threat from disinformation and foreign interference.
While the internet should be free and open, it is a reality that authoritarian state actors such as China and Russia have drastically different approaches. The idea of cyberspace sovereignty is no longer just an excuse for authoritarian states to uphold their censorship apparatus, but rather a concrete gap that liberal democracies need to fill in to protect democratic values and institution integrities.
Maintaining and upholding cyberspace sovereignty does not mean limiting or undermining key constitutional rights such as the freedom of expression and the freedom of assembly. By adopting the idea of treating domestic cyberspace as part of the nation’s sovereignty, countries can better protect these rights from predatory actions from countries such as China. Social media platforms that are operating within democratic countries should be held accountable for protecting the constitutional rights of citizens in those countries, regardless of the app’s place of origin, or the parent company’s affiliations. It is time for all countries to recognize the urgency to protect their respective integrity and sovereignty against aggression.