From ‘Chinanet’ to ‘Internet Sovereignty’: Historical Development of China’s Internet Policy

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.

At the end of 2013, with over half a billion people connected online, China boasted the world’s largest online population and became one of the most prominent global Internet actors. The past two decades witnessed not only China’s rise as a great power in Internet infrastructure and technology, breeding a booming digital industry, but also the country’s establishment and development of the most sophisticated information control system.

Chinese Internet use began in 1987, but full Internet service connecting China with the world was not provided until 1994 (Liu, 2012). Exponential increases in Internet usage since then have driven Internet regulation through multiple government entities. Before analyzing the specific discourse the Chinese government uses to frame the Internet, it is necessary to review the historical development of China’s Internet policies. This development, which will be discussed in seven phases, reveals the evolution and rationales underlying China’s Internet policy discourse.

First phase (1994 – 1996)

Prior to the introduction of the Internet, all Chinese mass media outlets, including newspapers, magazines, television, and radio, were at least partially state owned. Unsurprisingly, once introduced in China, the Internet also fell under state control. Initially China viewed this new technology with caution as it opened a gateway for its population to connect with the world. China’s first Internet regulation came in February 1994. Without directly mentioning the Internet, the “Regulation of the People’s Republic of China for the Protection of the Safety of Computer Information System,” issued by the State Council on February 18, 1994, placed the construction and development of ‘computer information systems’ under the supervision of the Ministry of Public Security.[1] In 1996, the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications promulgated a regulation in which the word ‘Chinanet’[2] was coined, making it clear that Internet use within China’s territory was subject to state control.

Though the 1994 regulation prohibited activities “endangering the safety of computer information systems” and “detrimental to the interests of the State or collectives, or the legitimate rights of the citizens,”[3] it did not specifically ban certain speech or information. The 1996 regulation, however, clearly listed four categories of information that, if produced or transmitted online, would either harm national security, disclose state secrets, threaten social stability or spread pornography.[4]

Second phase (1997-1998)

Soon the Internet swept the world and China recognized that embracing the Internet was an inevitable trend. On one hand, China was eager to modernize and globalize itself, and saw an increasingly high demand for the Internet for business, education, government and social purposes. On the other hand, the state imposed strict online controls by registering Internet users and tracking their activities. However, as Yu Renlin, the Deputy Secretary General of the State Council Steering Committee of National Information Infrastructure, told U.S. Embassy Beijing officers in December 1998, Chinese policy-makers recognized that it was impossible to block all objectionable Internet sites and that there were multiple ways around Internet blocks.

In 1997, China formulated measures for administering Internet domain name registration for the first time,[5] placing the domain names system under state control. In 1998, China officially introduced a licensing system for Internet businesses. Comprehensive and detailed rules on licenses, together with a thorough approval process, resulted in China’s thriving Internet business environment, which continues to heavily rely on the government’s support.

Third phase (1999-2000)

At the turn of the century Chinese authorities formulated more online information restrictions, which continue to influence China’s online regulatory arena. In August 2000, former Chinese President Jiang Zemin drew attention to the dangers of spreading “unhealthy” information online and appealed to the international community to develop common mechanism for safe information management.

In November 2000, the Press Office of the State Council and Ministry of Information Industry issued the “Administration of Engagement by Internet Sites in the Business of News Publication Tentative Provisions,” which, in principle, prohibited the production of news on the Internet unless the news was published by an authorized source. On September 20, 2000, the State Council issued the “Measures for Managing Internet Information Services,” which significantly extended the scope of prohibited content. The regulation made it clear that Internet service providers (ISPs) should not produce, reproduce, release, or disseminate information that goes against the Constitution’s basic principles, endangers national security, divulges state secrets, subverts the government, undermines national unity, is detrimental to the honor and interests of the state, disseminates rumors, disturbs social order, or undermines social stability.[6]

Fourth phase (2001-2004)

After China joined the World Trade Organization, it became clear that efforts to control individual accesses to the Internet were neither impossible nor contradictory to its commitment to open up the economy to foreign investment and trade. During this phase the focus of Internet regulation shifted from content to ISPs, leaving Internet content to indirect control and supervision.

In 2001, the Internet Society of China was established as the main “self-regulation” body, which involved co-opting ISPs, and academic and research institutions. In 2004, the “Self-disciplinary Convention on the Network Copyright on the Internet of China” was published. This transition to self-regulation indicates the State’s implementation of statutory regulation, as opposed to hard law which the State determined might not be appropriate for the Internet  (Endeshaw, 2004).

Fifth phase (2005-2006)

Through both regulation enforcement and technological resources, China began to intensify its long-term Internet security battle. The December 2005 release of “The Provisions on the Technical Measures for the Protection of the Security of the Internet” was intended to enhance and regulate technical prevention for the sake of Internet security. This measure was intended to guarantee Internet network and information security, promoting the sound and orderly development of the Internet and safeguarding state security, social order and public interests. During this phase China also expressed that U.S. firms dominated the hardware and software sectors, and that China was the biggest cybercrime victim. Responding to U.S. technological domination, the “2006 Medium to Long Term Plan on Science and Technology (MLP)” stated that, “‘Facts have proved that, in areas critical to the national economy and security, core technologies cannot be purchased.”

Sixth phase (2007-2009)

In the pre and post 2008 summer Olympic period, China became very sensitive of its international image. China relaxed some of its stringent policies, especially in 2008 when only 10 regulations related to the Internet were passed by different government institutions, the lowest in number of regulations passed in 10 years.[7] In 2007, however, there were several important government campaigns.  In February 2007, the General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP) intensified the proofreading of electronic and Internet publications. In December 2007, the Sate Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) announced the “Administrative Provisions on Internet Audio-Visual Program Service.” Both of these two regulations required ‘gatekeepers’ – which ranged from news and book editors to administrators in GAPP and SARFT –  to stick to strict standards and maintain certain level of censorship.

Seventh phase (2010-present)

In the six previous phases of Internet regulation development, China had a limited capability to influence the global Internet structure and a marginal space within the structure itself (Liu, 2012). However, as China emerges as a leading power in world politics and economics, the Chinese government and other private Chinese actors are playing an increasingly important role in international fora, such as ICANN and the IGF, where Internet governance is discussed (Arsène, 2010). Since the publication of China’s “Internet White Paper,” which declared that, “the Internet is an important infrastructure facility for the nation. Within Chinese territory the Internet is under the jurisdiction of Chinese sovereignty,”[8] China has been assertive in addressing “Internet Sovereignty” to a global audience.

Over past three years, China has been paying much more attention to articulating its Internet policy in the international arena. Bilateral roundtables and dialogues are held between China and the US, UK, South Korea, and other emerging nations. China is not only more visible in the global debate on Internet governance, but also more confident in delivering its opinion and approaches of dealing with the Internet.

The advent of the Internet and its exponential expansion has required a new order of global governance. While Internet governance models are still developing, China is becoming more and more influential on world stage, especially amongst its neighbors in South East Asia, its BRICS partners, and its friends in Africa. The institutions and principles concerning who should govern the Internet and in what way represent a typical example in which China has attempted persistently to reorganize, or at least reform, the almost exclusively US-dominated Internet structure (Liu, 2012). The agenda China presented at IGF 2013 portrayed itself as supportive of citizen’s rights in the face of Western democracies’’ mass foreign surveillance programs. This is a new sign of China amplifying its influence in global Internet governance, though it remains to be seen what new frameworks China will present to the world and how the world will in turn react.


Arsène, S. (2012). The Impact of China on Global internet Governance in an Era of Privatized Control. Chinese internet Research Conference. Los Angeles.

Endeshaw A. (2004) Internet regulation in China: the never‐ending cat and mouse game. Information & Communications Technology Law 13: 41-57.

Liu Y. (2012) The Rise of China and Global Intenet Governance. China Media Research 8(2).


[1] See Section 6 of The Regulations of the People’s Republic of China for the Protection of the Safety of Computer Information Systems of 18 February 1994.

[2] China public computer interconnected network measures for the administration of international networking of 9 April 1996.

[3] See article 7 of the Regulations of the People’s Republic of China for the Protection of the Safety of Computer Information Systems of18 February 1994.

[4] See article 13 of China public computer interconnected network measures for the administration of international networking of 9 April 1996.

[5] Interim measures for the administration of Internet domain name registration in China of 1 June 1997.

[6] Measures for Managing Internet Information Services of 20 September 2000.

[7] Based the search of ‘Internet’ and ‘Net’ in ‘Chinalaw’ database.

[8] State Council Information Office, The Internet in China, June 2010

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