Written by David Kurt Herold.

During the decade long reign of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao over the People’s Republic of China, the Chinese Internet flourished and Chinese netizens began to have a measurable effect on both internal and external politics. Foreign researchers repeatedly argued that the Internet was functioning as a precursor to the emergence of a democratic multi-party system of governance in China.

After Xi Jinping took over between November 2012 and March 2013, the situation changed drastically – a development that can be followed by going through Internet regulations posted on Rogier Creemer’s helpful translation blog China Copyright and Media, or by looking at the postings on the China Media Project site at Hong Kong University.

While the Hu/Wen era could be described as a time during which netizens were able to challenge the power of the party-state, in Xi Jinping’s China, the party (re-)established control over the Internet, ironically arguing that “the Internet is not above the law. Where there is cyberspace, there is rule of law”. This rule of law as applied to China’s online spaces has mainly been enforced and emphasised along three interrelated axes:

While increasing the control of the party-state over the Internet in China, the controls are meant to ensure the development of a “positive, healthy cyber culture” in China that promotes the “interests of the people” of China.

1. Chinese sovereignty over the Chinese Internet

Over the past decade, Chinese authorities have repeatedly raised the issue of their sovereignty over the Internet as it is accessed in China. The 2010 Whitepaper on the Internet in China already spelled out that the importance of the Internet to the Chinese economy and to communications between Chinese people required that the government be prepared to protect and to police the Internet.

This sovereignty-based, or multilateral, approach to Internet governance has been attacked widely as being merely the futile attempt of authoritarian governments to establish control over the ultimately uncontrollable online world. Although the attack fits in well with existing interpretive schemes used in discussions of Chinese politics, it is based on less than rock-solid arguments.

The multi-stakeholder approach to Internet governance is often presented as the countermodel to China’s sovereignty-based approach. It basically treats the Internet as something completely new in the history of the world – an artificially created space that can be used to engage in activities outside the strict control of nation states over their national spaces, while being accessible from within these national (offline) spaces. Most famously, this approach is represented by John Perry Barlow’s declaration of independence of cyberspace.

The problem with this is that China has a very different – and in many ways more logical – view of the Internet. As the 2010 Whitepaper and other declarations since illustrate, Chinese authorities view ‘the Internet’ as a conglomeration of communication tools between (offline) people and entities. Any form of online interaction or transmission of data in China thus becomes the action of a person or entity under the sovereign rule of the Chinese state, subject to the prevailing laws of the People’s Republic of China.

Put differently, China’s argument is based on the assertion that online communications are comparable to communications by letter, telephone, radio, TV, etc. all of which are regulated through national laws augmented by multilateral treaties between independent nation states under the supervision of the United Nations. ‘Cyberspace’ does not exist and those posting anything to the Internet or accessing a part of it are subject to the laws of the countries in which they do so.

2. Limiting online life

The crackdown against illicit or ‘unhealthy’ activities online has to be seen in this context. The Chinese government is ‘merely’ applying Chinese law to the Internet and its users – and it is doing so far more consistently than authorities did during the Hu/Wen era. The crackdown should probably not be interpreted as an attack on the Internet by the Xi Jinping government, but rather as one of many areas of Chinese life in which existing regulations are now being enforced with far greater vigour than was previously the case.

From the anti-corruption campaign to the reform of the Chinese military, from the crackdown on the Chinese Internet to the tightened control of the behaviour of local party cadres and government officials, the Xi Jinping government – more than anything else – appears to want to enforce a strict adherence to existing laws, rules and regulations, while also conducting an overhaul of these laws and regulations. This may be not so much a new radicalisation of Chinese politics, but rather a ‘normalisation’ of China’s state, party and society – continuous enforcement of the ideologies supporting the Chinese party-state instead of the waxing and waning of government attention to different topics through ever new and short-lived political campaigns.

3. Lessening foreign influence

Chinese governments have never made much of a secret of their desire to obtain foreign know-how, investment, and products without allowing foreigners to gain too much influence on politics or society in China. Bill Bishop, the author of the popular China info service Sinocism talks about the Chinese government’s “long-term agenda to de-Americanize China’s IT stack”.

China’s actions in this regard are usually treated as oppressive, authoritarian and xenophobic, aimed at shutting out the world and denying freedom to its citizens, yet it might be time to revisit these judgments. Why should access to the corporate offerings of a handful of US Internet companies equal freedom of online information? Why should governments and citizens around the world support the frustrated profit drive of these US corporations in the few countries – China prominently among them – who have preferred to create online environments more conducive to the success of home-grown competitors, at times to the point of even blocking the offerings of the otherwise all-mighty US services? Reading the complaints of a journalist about not being able to access Facebook, Twitter or Google while in China reminded me of drug withdrawal symptoms. It raised the ugly spectre of government-supported monopolies instead of serving as a warning against Chinese censorship. Teaching undergraduates suggests that blocking Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp may actually be a good thing.

I regard all censorship of information as bad, but judging from a number of research projects I have been involved in over the past few years, the so-called Great Firewall of China has left Chinese citizens better informed and more critically aware than the average citizen of “Asia’s world city”, which boasts about its openness and the high speed of its Internet connections.

As David Bandurski points out, it is far too early to arrive at a final conclusion on whether these developments constitute a new and definite Chinese way of managing the Internet, or just another political campaign that will fizzle out like many previous attempts at bringing order to Chinese cyberspace.

However, while these speculations will keep researchers busy for the foreseeable future, it is interesting to note that despite the increased censorship of political aspects of the Internet, other facets are as free as ever: It is still very easy to acquire fake versions of branded products over the Internet, or to download software, music, movies, or TV shows. Online communities dedicated to the (elsewhere illegal) translation of foreign books or magazines and the provision of Chinese subtitles for foreign TV shows and movies still exist openly. Pornography is still openly accessible, as is information on how to ‘jump the wall’ to access censored portions of the world-wide-web. (Non-political) people and companies can be insulted, harassed or lied about online and even (local) politicians are still permissible targets of online attacks. It might be good for future research on the Chinese Internet to revisit their definitions of ‘freedom’ and ‘desirable government control’, when it is less problematic to download the newest Hollywood blockbusters for free in China than in Europe or the USA.

Is the Chinese Internet only ‘free’ if it permits and forbids the same actions European and American jurisdictions do?

David Kurt Herold is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Applied Social Sciences at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Image credit: CC by thierry ehrmann/Flickr