Lincoln Davidson is a research associate for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. You can follow him on Twitter @.
In an essay published last month on the website of the Communist Youth League—an auxiliary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for young people between the ages of fourteen and twenty-eight—journalist Cai Enze drew a parallel between cyber power and the “Chinese Dream,” Chinese president Xi Jinping’s articulation of his vision for a “rejuvenated” China.
“The Chinese Dream is the hundred-year dream of many millions of Chinese people,” Cai wrote. “Its source is the broad wisdom of the masses…a crowdfunded top-level design, where being a cyber power is one of the parts of that crowdfunding.”
But what is a cyber power?
For the CCP, being a cyber power means having a well-developed Internet and competitive technology and e-commerce companies that aid China’s development. The state must have impressive cyber capabilities to protect the country’s networks from bad actors. And the state must be the sole voice for the interests of the people with regard to the Internet, both domestically and internationally.
In other words, cyber power means the comprehensive expression of state sovereignty in cyberspace.
This emphasis on sovereignty is rooted in China’s historical experiences of a “century of humiliation” that shape the modern perception of China’s leaders that “hostile foreign forces” are attempting to ideologically infiltrate the country and tear down the CCP.
While the CCP’s leadership has been pushing the link between cyber power and state sovereignty in cyberspace for years, the World Internet Conference, held in Wuzhen, China last November, was something of a watershed moment for China’s involvement in global Internet governance. With the CCP’s top cyber official Lu Wei playing host, the party’s conception of the relationship between the Internet, the individual, and the state were on full display. Chinese officials had been airing their grievances with the existing model of Internet governance for more than a decade, but Wuzhen seemed to signal a shift to a new assertiveness backed by the power and wealth of the Chinese party-state. At the conference, party leaders pushed their vision of a state-controlled Internet, even employing a heavy-handed attempt to get conference attendees to sign on to a last-minute declaration of support for the Chinese approach to the Internet.
Since then, the CCP has continued to push these norms for the global Internet, norms that directly conflict with the norms of a free and open Internet led by multiple stakeholders that the United States promotes.
As the second World Internet Conference approaches—while it was originally scheduled for October 2015, it has been repeatedly delayed due to conflicts with other conferences—China is taking a look back at the success of its attempts to promote its norm of cyber sovereignty. Pointing to a September 2015 meeting between Xi Jinping and U.S. tech executives in Seattle, the Cyberspace Administration of China said the country was moving “from participant in the global Internet to constructor of the global Internet order.”
Despite what Chinese bureaucrats and state media might say, China’s preferred norms for cyberspace aren’t making much headway on the international stage, however. For years, China has been pushing at the United Nations a “Code of Conduct for Information Security” signed with its partners in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, to little avail. Meanwhile, an agreement between Xi Jinping and Barack Obama during the former’s visit to the United States in September garnered a Chinese recognition, for the first time, of the United States’ longstanding distinction between economic and political espionage in cyberspace. And the most recent report of the UN Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) affirmed three of the United States’ norms of state behavior in cyberspace. Although the GGE report acknowledges that “state sovereignty and international norms and principles that flow from sovereignty” apply to cyberspace, it doesn’t define exactly what this means, and there’s still disagreement on how exactly sovereignty should play out online.
China’s goals in becoming a cyber power, as mentioned earlier, are threefold: boost economic development, assert China’s role on the international stage, and protect the nation. The incredible success of American tech companies, and the benefits they’ve brought to the American economy, are a product of the free, open, multistakeholder approach to the Internet the United States government has adopted. On the international front, the biggest hit to the United States’ credibility and respected status as a global leader in recent years has been the revelation that the U.S. government’s surveillance apparatus was invading the privacy of both its citizens and people abroad. China’s leadership would do well to learn from these lessons; they might find that they get more respect as a “cyber power” if they express their sovereignty in cyberspace in a way that’s in line with other international norms of the rights of individuals relative to the state. As for security, that’s a challenge that every country is facing right now. China’s leaders should be careful that they don’t risk giving up the first two goals in their rush to achieve the third.