It’s Official: Washington Thinks Chinese Internet Censorship Is a ‘Trade Barrier’

That doesn't mean Beijing will change its behavior.

The Google logo is reflected in windows of the company's China head office as the Chinese national flag flies in the wind in Beijing on March 23, 2010 after the US web giant said it would no longer filter results and was redirecting mainland Chinese users to an uncensored site in Hong Kong -- effectively closing down the mainland site. Google's decision to effectively shut down its Chinese-language search engine is likely to stunt the development of the Internet in China and isolate local web users, analysts say.  AFP PHOTO/LI XIN (Photo credit should read li xin/AFP/Getty Images)
The Google logo is reflected in windows of the company's China head office as the Chinese national flag flies in the wind in Beijing on March 23, 2010 after the US web giant said it would no longer filter results and was redirecting mainland Chinese users to an uncensored site in Hong Kong -- effectively closing down the mainland site. Google's decision to effectively shut down its Chinese-language search engine is likely to stunt the development of the Internet in China and isolate local web users, analysts say. AFP PHOTO/LI XIN (Photo credit should read li xin/AFP/Getty Images)

In its annual report on the challenges U.S. exporters face in foreign markets, released in April, the office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) listed Chinese Internet censorship as a trade barrier for the first time. The move is likely to please U.S. businesses that operate in China or that are considering doing so. But previous U.S. attempts to encourage China to dismantle the so-called Great Firewall of Censorship, which keeps out certain foreign content Chinese authorities deem harmful, have had little effect. Will describing censorship as a trade barrier make a difference? In this ChinaFile conversation, experts discuss the implications of the new report, and how might China react to this pressure from Washington.

Susan Shirk, research professor of political science at the School of Global Policy & Strategy at U.C. San Diego:

USTR’s labeling of the extensive system of censorship that the Chinese Communist Party has built between the Chinese Internet and the global Internet, sometimes called the Great Firewall, as a barrier to international trade is good move by the Obama administration.

Foreign governments have frustratingly few tools with which to influence domestic human rights practices in China. Our public statements criticizing the worsening repression of civil society and the mass media have little effect. When China bans Western newspapers or denies visas to journalists and scholars whose views it dislikes, we are reluctant to retaliate against Chinese journalists and scholars because we don’t want to further impede the free flow of information to Chinese people. My own experience working in the State Department from 1997 to 2000 taught me that U.S. efforts to induce improvement in human rights by shaming China in international forums such as the U.N. Human Rights Commission, or linking human rights to other issues in the U.S.-China bilateral relationship, don’t succeed.

Calling the Great Firewall a trade barrier also has the benefit of being patently true. The barrier restricts market access for foreign media organizations and Internet companies. And it produces what U.C. San Diego China Internet scholar Molly Roberts calls “friction” in international communication and information that raises the cost of doing business in China for all firms, Chinese as well as international ones. Jumping over the firewall requires special software such as a virtual private network (VPN). The Chinese authorities continually are harassing the VPNs and periodically shut them down entirely. As a result, searches for information and communications with an office overseas are exasperatingly slow and plagued by interruptions. China-based companies also are unable to take advantage of platforms for collaboration such as Google+ that have led to major improvements in efficiency for companies outside of China.

The quasi-official Chinese newspaper Global Times (in its Chinese as well as English editions) has published a rejoinder to the USTR critique of the Great Firewall as a trade barrier with an interesting defense of what we could call “import substitution informatization.” While acknowledging that the Firewall creates “some inconvenience when China and the outside world try to understand each other,” it praises China’s “sophisticated capability to impose online limits to a tiny number of foreign websites or their harmful content while at the same time retaining connectivity between China’s Internet and the world so as to ensure the global flow of information. China has achieved this — it can communicate with the outside world, meanwhile, Western opinions cannot easily penetrate as ideological tools.”

The Global Times’ argument is that the Firewall is a form of protection needed until the time that “China and the West share an equal footing in terms of soft power.” For now, China needs to protect itself from the Western values embedded in the global Internet to give it “time to empower ourselves with soft power and strength.” But like other forms of protectionism, import substitution informatization will weaken a country’s power rather than strengthen it.

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, assistant editor at Foreign Policy magazine’s China channel Tea Leaf Nation:

The idea that Chinese Internet controls harm foreign companies operating in China is not new. In early 2016, an annual survey by the American Chamber of Commerce in China found that 79 percent of U.S. companies in China complain they have been negatively affected by online restrictions; surveys from previous years yielded similar results. Internet blocks have proven costly to U.S. companies already operating in China — the New York Times lost an estimated $3 million in the year after its website was blocked in China in 2012 — and serve as a significant deterrent to foreign companies considering investing in operations there.

Yet the National Trade Estimate report from USTR is the biggest move that the U.S. government has taken towards recognizing that Chinese Internet censorship may constitute trade barriers that violate World Trade Organization (WTO) regulations. But while it’s an interesting development, the report has no teeth. Only three sentences in the report address China’s Internet restrictions, essentially labeling them a nuisance but doing little to lay the foundation for any future related case to be submitted to the WTO.

International Internet law and governance is still in the early stages of development. While the United States has championed an open and free Internet based on principles of free expression and universal values, China has framed Internet regulations as issues of national sovereignty and national security, arguing that each country has the right to determine what should or should not be allowed to pass its virtual Internet borders. The United States has worked to promote its vision for the Internet by incorporating its emphasis on free flow of information into several major free trade initiatives. The U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement in 2011, for example, was the first to raise the issue of cross-border data transfers. The Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership — two sweeping trade agreements which would, if approved and enacted, aim to guide trade practices for the 21st century — also include provisions which discourage or prohibit restrictions on cross-border data transfers.

If, in the long term, USTR were to take further steps towards building a case that Chinese Internet restrictions constitute a trade barrier, and eventually file a WTO case against China challenging the restrictions, this could further bolster the U.S. position — although even if the WTO ruled in favor of the United States, Chinese compliance seems extremely unlikely.

But such a move could also have unforeseen consequences, depending on the specific language used to craft such a ruling or agreement. Currently, the legal line dividing acceptable from unacceptable Internet censorship in the realm of international standards is fuzzy. A ruling from the WTO, or some other type of multilateral agreement establishing international standard practices, would help define that line. And while that would provide protection for companies harmed by Internet restrictions deemed unacceptable, it could legitimize censorship that goes right up to that line without crossing it, thus granting official legal status to some censorship. From the perspective of those who wish to see the Internet remain a free and open international space, this would be at best a compromise.

Emily Parker, a Future Tense Fellow at the New America Foundation:

It is notable that the USTR office has described China’s Internet censorship as a trade barrier. China, however, is clearly not in the mood to heed Washington’s concerns about Internet freedom. Nor is it a secret that Internet censorship hurts foreign businesses. Beijing might be more persuaded by the case for how Internet censorship affects Chinese businesses.

China continues to defend its style of Internet governance, as well as the Great Firewall’s ability to protect China from “harmful content” from overseas. The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), which oversees Internet regulation, has already responded to USTR, saying that censorship does not violate trade commitments. “The aim of the Internet security inspection system is to guarantee the security and controllability of information technology products and services, safeguard user information security, and strengthen market and user confidence,” CAC told Reuters. “China scrupulously abides by [WTO] principles and its accession protocols, protects foreign enterprises’ lawful interests according to law, and creates a fair market environment for them.”

Chinese authorities would likely be more receptive to evidence of the economic costs of censorship. Sure, some will argue that blocking websites can actually protect Chinese start-ups from foreign competition. But barriers to online information can have a negative impact on Chinese companies as well.

A 2014 New York Times article, for example, described how Google’s troubles in China were not only creating problems for the U.S. company, but for Chinese companies as well. “Chinese exporters have struggled to place Google ads that appeal to overseas buyers. Biotechnology researchers in Beijing had trouble recalibrating a costly microscope this summer because they could not locate the online instructions to do so,” the report said. A few years earlier, Robin Li, CEO of Baidu, China’s most popular search engine, remarked on the costs of domestic self-censorship, suggesting that such costs gave Google a competitive advantage. “We have to spend a lot of resources to make sure our content and services abide by Chinese law,” while competitors don’t, Li said.

China is currently in the midst of a start-up fever. It would be useful to illustrate how a less restricted Internet would bring China closer to its goal of becoming a center of innovation.

Photo credit: LI XIN/AFP/Getty Images

Susan L. Shirk is the chair of the 21st Century China Program and Ho Miu Lam professor of China and Pacific Relations at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at UC San Diego.

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a journalist covering China from Washington. She was previously an assistant editor and contributing reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BethanyAllenEbr

<p> Emily Parker is a senior fellow and digital diplomacy advisor at the New America Foundation, where she is writing a book about the Internet and democracy. She is a former member of the policy planning staff at the U.S. State Department. </p>