China’s Opportunity: A ‘De-Americanized’ Approach of Global Internet Governance

Leshuo Dong is a Ph.D. candidate specializing in international communication at the School of Journalism and Communication at Tsinghua University in China. She is currently working with CGCS’s Internet Policy Observatory (IPO) conducting research on Chinese internet foreign policy.

On June 23rd at the ICANN 50 in London, the Director of the China State Council Internet Information Office, Lu Wei, asserted in his keynote speech that the future of global internet governance should be a ‘shared space.’ A few weeks before, at a conference on information and internet security co-hosted by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the United Nations deputy minister of foreign affairs of China, officials proposed four principles of internet security : peace, sovereignty, collaboration and benefit. It was previously uncommon for Chinese ministerial level officials to address China’s internet policy to a global audience, but it appears that government strategies surrounding internet policies and rhetoric have changed. These intense articulations of China’s position on internet governance show that China is entering the arena of global internet governance, with a discourse pushing for a ‘de-Americanized’ approach to global internet governance.

While trying to legitimatize governmental control over the internet, the Chinese official discourse framed the internet as a powerful ‘booster’ to China’s reform and a new ‘engine’ to the country’s economic and social development. As a second component, it warns that the internet contains harmful content and that citizens should maintain “responsible” behavior online. The official discourse also explicitly proposes that security trumps freedom, in thata ‘safe’ internet ispreferred rather than an ‘open’ internet. At the state level, one of the major principles of China’s position in internet governance is internet sovereignty, which insists that the internet should be under the jurisdiction of each country, and every country should admit and respect the sovereignty of other countries in cyber space.When it comes to internet industries, the government promotes the self-discipline model, in which it encourages/requires internet companies to censor their own content.

Since the publication of the Internet White Paper in 2010 , an increasingly assertive China has been standing on the world stage and putting forward alternative positions on global internet governance. At the ICANN 50, China was well-prepared to propose its new seven principles of global  internet governance:

1) The internet should benefit people rather than harm;

2)The internet should bring peace rather than become a ‘weapon’ for countries to attack each other;

3) The internet should do more to serve developing countries’ interests;

4) The internet should protect the legal rights of citizens rather than becoming a place for illegal and criminal activities, especially terrorism;

5) The internet should be civilized and reliable rather than used for spreading rumor and fraud;

6) The internet should transmit positive energy;

7) The internet should be helpful to the healthy growth and development of young people.

A belief in internet sovereignty is the foundation and at the core of these principles. All these principles seek to establish legitimacy for a government’s heavily regulation of the internet, as well as the rights and freedoms of its netizens. Unlike in previous iterations of the Chinese internet doctrine, however, through which the government has explicitly argued for government control of the internet, this time China has seemingly learned to express its position in a softer, more rhetorically acceptable way.

With the revelations about the US government’s surveillance regime, over the past year there has been a significant loss of trust in the US’s promise to build an open and free internet. Actors around the world are now seriously questioning the US’s role in global internet governance (IG), leaving a vacuum in IG’s “moral” and “ethical” leadership.The announcement  this year that the US will transition control of ICANN’s IANA function has been seen by many observers as a sign that there is a shift in global power over internet governance. With these events, China is working to capitalize on what appears to be an opportunity to become more engaged as a leader in the international IG debate, promoting a ‘de-Americanized’ global internet and a more ‘shared’ approach to global Internet governance.

The Chinese have begun to engage in these conversations and are now trying to approach internet governance in a new way by balancing the interests of the nation with a rhetoric that will be accepted by the international community. Undoubtedly, as we enter a new chapter in global internet governance, emerging countries will play an increasingly more important role, largely due to their potentially large internet user bases and their emerging economies. It would not be surprising if some countries, especially some weaker states, conflict zones, and strong authoritarian countries, look to China for experiences and examples. If the ICANN 50 is any indication, the ‘internet sovereignty’ approach of internet governance that China favors holds much sway in these countries and is likely to persist in the decades to come.

We should stay tuned, as it is likely that China’s voice in global internet governance debates will only get louder and stronger, and its influence on other states will only grow larger.


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