Whither The Inter- Intra-net In China?
I’m part of a ChinaFile debate on Where Is China’s Internet Headed after Cyberczar Lu Wei was replaced. The full debate is here. My contribution is:
WHITHER THE INTER- INTRA-NET IN CHINA
By David Schlesinger
China’s internet is huge – 700 million+ users – and at only some 52% penetration of the population poised for yet more growth. But China’s internet is also at the nexus of an extraordinary experiment: to how great an extent can the cyberspace, that great tool for openness and connectedness, also be a tool for control, for curation and for autarky.
Lu Wei was merely the face of China’s cyber control. Whether in his role as a Vice President of the state news agency Xinhua, or in his position as Vice Mayor of China’s capital, Beijing, or in his most recent roles as Deputy Director of the Propaganda Department and Director of the State Internet Information Office, he was the classic apparatchik: executing tough policies with gusto but without much apparent personal lofty strategic planning beyond the accumulation and use of power.
It is possible that Lu’s ambition has now come back to bite him – certainly Lu has many enemies and many who have been offended by his manner and his actions over the years. That matters not to cyberpolicy. That was never personal to Lu.
I think given all we have seen since the 18th Party Congress, China’s internet policy has been – and will be – personal to Xi Jinping, an extension of his need for control, for caution, for personal trusted networks and for nativism.
In Xu Lin (Lu’s successor as Internet Czar), Xi Jinping has appointed someone he knows, he trusts and has worked with – someone who will make internet policy even tighter and tougher.
Tighter and tougher: these may not be words that intellectuals, journalists or foreigners want to hear. But to Xi, they are vital.
With the economy no longer powering automatic legitimacy to the Party, Xi needs to shore up the instruments of control to ensure that the natural discontents and grumblings that accompany slowdowns, layoffs, restructurings and reforms stay quiet, stay disconnected and stay confined.
In happier economic times, the internet was a useful escape valve for pressures and discontents, where commentators could trade jokes and barbs on weibo and a cyberclass of discussion could swell up.
The times are different.
To Xi’s eyes, the internet brings only dangers and unwelcome influences.
Much safer to control it, limit it, restrict it.
The question is whether the strategy will work.
My money is on yes, for the medium term.
Those who need access to the world beyond the restricted Chinese internet can still get at it through VPNs, though they too are often restricted and usually frustrating. Chinese internet companies fill most needs for most users. Chinese language information and entertainment sites abound with content. Innovation and experimentation take place in a Chinese way within a Chinese world. That may not be ideal, but it is still a huge market and a growing one.
The upcoming Wuzhen internet summit in November will be a chance for China to focus more on how to govern the Internet and to seek global allies. U.S. or European observers often forget that China is not alone in its fear of a free internet.
There are, of course, many in China who grumble about the restrictions – but they tend to be exactly the same people who grumble about the rest of the state of the country and Party anyway, so to Xi they can be easily dismissed.
As long as Xi remains in power and remains convinced of the need for a top-down, controlled society, China’s internet will be in his image – restricted, rule-based, and inward looking.