The Chinese Internet Century

Even as U.S. officials still give a rhetorical nod to the ideal of an open and transparent global Web, it's time to plan for another reality.

Frederic J. Brown/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
Frederic J. Brown/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Few minds in China are likely to change on account of Hillary Clinton’s call for "a single Internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas." Last week, the U.S. secretary of state laid out two competing visions of the Internet: one open and global, the other highly controlled and often used for repression. Given that China is rapidly trending toward the latter, it’s time to start asking: What might a permanently fractured Web look like?

Clinton’s speech was not utopian. Her remarks were fairly measured about the potential political impact of network technologies. Eschewing the exuberant optimism that has characterized so much past thinking about the Internet, Clinton recognized that "modern information networks and the technologies they support can be harnessed for good or for ill." Still, she held out hope that the United States could strategically use Internet technology to advance freedom and human rights around the world. To tip the balance to the good, she said, the United States plans to develop and distribute technologies to help people avoid censors, foster international norms against cyberattacks, cooperate across national borders to identify and prosecute cybercriminals, and exploit public-private partnerships to build a robust cyberdefense at home.

These are noble aspirations, but they will have a very limited impact on China. Censorship, hacking, and economic warfare as practiced in China are rooted in a political and economic calculus that is unlikely to change. From the first introduction of modern information technologies, the Chinese have viewed them as a double-edged sword: essential to economic growth, but a threat to regime stability. Using a combination of old-school intimidation and high-tech surveillance, Beijing has managed to keep most materials it deems harmful off most computer screens in China and still promote economic growth.

The fact is that the majority of Chinese simply don’t care, giving the government even less incentive to change its ways. Technologically savvy Chinese "netizens" — if that term even has meaning in a place like China — find ways to fan qiang (scale the "Great Firewall"), but most users, like their counterparts elsewhere, are more interested in entertainment gossip, pirated MP3s, and updates from their friends than missives from Falun Gong or the latest report from Human Rights Watch. U.S. State Department spending on proxy servers or technologies that hide users’ identities temporarily allow some Chinese greater access to information online, but won’t substantially change the underlying dynamics. 

While the hacking of the accounts of individual human rights activists has garnered the most public attention, the primary objective of the cyberattack on Google was probably intellectual property theft. The Chinese leadership has a strategic view of technology development, and the cybertheft of corporate secrets is married to an industrial policy designed to promote "indigenous innovation" (zhizhu chuangxin). Through local content requirements, tax benefits, government procurement, and the development of competing technology standards for 3G mobile phones, Wi-Fi, and other products, China consistently seeks to free itself from dependence on foreign technology, particularly from the United States and Japan. In a few cases, China has backed down in the face of concerted pressure from more technologically advanced trading partners, but old policies were quietly replaced with new ones designed to forcibly transfer technology to Chinese firms. Cyberespionage is this industrial policy taken to its logical extreme, subsidies in the form of intellectual property theft.

At the same time as it is consolidating its control over the domestic Web, China is also using its market power to create vulnerability for overseas technology producers. Fearing that they might be shut out of the market, foreign firms give in to demands that they would not consider anywhere else. In 2003, for example, after years of Chinese pressure via negative stories in the press and poor performance in the market, Microsoft agreed to share the source code for Windows with a government-run software lab. In addition, most of the world’s IT hardware is manufactured in China, giving intelligence agencies an easy opportunity for inserting spyware at some point along the production chain. Fake chips and routers from China have already showed up in U.S. military and defense contractor systems.

China’s cyberaggression doesn’t mean that the United States should stop all attempts at engagement. In fact, more should be done to draw Beijing into discussions about the rules of cyberwar. It would be especially good if Beijing could be encouraged into an agreement about what types of hacking — say, messing with another country’s electrical grid — constitute an act of war. But because China sees itself as the weaker military power, thinks the U.S. military is vulnerable to cyberattacks, and worries about a conflict in the Taiwan Strait, we should expect that both sides will continue to eye each other warily.

In the end, no matter what provisional agreements can be reached, China’s behavior suggests that there might be no turning back from a world divided into different types of Internets. The emerging Chinese Internet may be less free, but also distinct in other ways: built on alternate technology standards and populated by proxies such as "patriotic hackers" willing to launch Web attacks in service of state goals. These characteristics could shield the Chinese Internet, giving it greater autonomy from and leverage over the more open, global networks described by Clinton. In the end, the United States might find itself locked in a never-ending process of patching vulnerabilities in a network that will always be susceptible to hacking, espionage, and exploitation.

Although Chinese activities on the Web are grounded in a specific political and economic logic, they are not unique. Iran, Russia, and other authoritarian states have also deployed a mix of technological and political tools to control the flow of information as well as project power across borders. If a strategy built around better defense, multilateral cooperative mechanisms to limit cyberconflict, and efforts to promote American values on the Web fails, we may have to rethink both how we try to influence China and the others, as well as what type of Internet we want.

Adam Segal, the Ira A. Lipman Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, writes for the Asia Unbound blog.

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