Re-Defining Cyberspace

At China Media Project, David Bandurski looks at the political implications of China’s Internet security law, a new law proposed earlier this year that aims to strengthen China’s Internet control and further restrict Internet access and online expression.

When finally unveiled sometime later this year, China’s Cyber-security Law could mark the beginning of a new and aggressive phase of information control in the country — one in which the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) is empowered by law to conduct widespread suppression and surveillance of networks and users under a broad mandate to preserve “” as a core function of national security.

The new law would provide a legal framework for the overarching project of media and information control in the digital age, furthering a crucial shift toward centralisation of cyberspace controls under the CAC and the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Leading Group for Cyberspace Affairs, formally established in March 2014 with President Xi Jinping as chairman.

[…] We should understand the Cyber-security Law as part of a series of legal and institutional changes designed to consolidate the Chinese Communist Party’s control of ideology and public opinion in a networked world. 

These changes also mean, of course, that those propaganda ministers President Xi spurred to action with his “August 19” speech two years ago will be increasingly sidelined as the business of information control, and its attendant power, transitions to the Central Leading Group and its enforcement arm, the CAC. The Central Propaganda Department, in other words, may be gradually dissolved or marginalised under a new control infrastructure with immense authority over the social, cultural, political and economic fabric of Chinese cyberspace. [Source]

China Change translates an essay by Mo Zhixu, in which he writes that the “fear of losing control” and the desire to maintain social stability are the primary motivating forces driving the Chinese government to implement the new cybersecurity law:

That the “” would be such should come as no surprise. For the last several years, Beijing has upped its control of the Internet; the purge of two years ago [in which famous users of Sina Weibo who were critical of the government were publicly humiliated and in some cases jailed] is still in the memory of many. In the eyes of the authorities, control of the Internet is not just a matter of regular social management; it involves the so-called “national security,” or in other words, the stability of the regime. Control of the Internet has enormous strategic significance.

In my view, Internet control is of supreme importance for a totalitarian regime because of the social consequences of marketization and modernization: the regime on the one hand needed to introduce markets in order to keep the country running, but on the other hand, the social fallout of this process could also be subversive. Since the Internet is the most likely space in which this subversive effect would begin, it has become something that the Chinese rulers must control with utter thoroughness.

[…] After the roll-out of the “ Law,” the Internet will never have the same freedom, tolerance, and anonymity which have been steadily diminishing anyway. As a result, mainland China’s voices for liberalization and opposition will gradually lose their only platform. And then, even if there are the right social and economic conditions, Beijing will still be able to prevent the Internet from becoming a platform for people and ideas to coalesce, thus lowering the possibility of sudden large-scale gatherings, and stopping the Internet from acting as a source of revolutionary mobilization. The so-called “shut down the Internet according to law” article in the new legislation makes clear this intent.

There is no suspense or uncertainty about the goal of the “Internet Security Law”: it is to keep the dictatorial system in power. Since its entry to China, the Internet has been heralded as the agent of “change in China,” but as the “Internet Security Law” is enacted, this virtual space will fall under the same strict control as real space, and all the romance will depart like a dying breath. [Source]

Internet sovereignty, which is the notion that cyberspace constitutes a portion of a state’s territory, is a key concept underpinning the Chinese government’s self-legitimization of its online censorship and Internet governance tactics. In another China Media Project post, David Bandurski analyzes a Communist Party article on the issue to help elucidate how Internet sovereignty is understood within the Party itself:

Back in July, Ye Zheng (叶征), a member of the Strategic Advisory Committee of the People’s Liberation Army, published an article called, “Thoughts on Internet Sovereignty,” addressing three key points:

1. Internet sovereignty directly impacts national security and stability.

2. Internet sovereignty can easily be neglected and infringed upon.

3. China needs to constantly raise awareness about the protection of Internet sovereignty.

[…] One of the first points Ye Zheng makes in his recent China Information Security article is that “Internet sovereignty” represents China’s own refinement of the concept of national sovereignty, and that this is something of which China should be proud:

Lately, China has taken the lead in raising and supporting the use of the concept of “Internet sovereignty,” and this is not just an innovation in the notion of national sovereignty, but also a national mission, and it is gradually being accepted by more and more countries. Naturally, our field of vision should expand further on the question of how to understand and safeguard Internet sovereignty as the primary concern in the building of a strong cyber-nation . . .

Ye later refers to “Internet sovereignty” as “an innovative perspective on sovereignty” (创新性主权观). And we can also sense in this passage the interest (and reputed success) in advancing worldwide China’s unique conceptualisation of sovereignty in the digital age. [Source]

At TaoSecurity, Richard Bejtlich highlights portions of a People’s Daily article titled “Cybersovereignty Symbolizes National Sovereignty,” which provides further insights into China’s views on cyber security:

Western hostile forces and a small number of “ideological traitors” in our country use the network, and relying on computers, mobile phones and other such information terminals, maliciously attack our Party, blacken the leaders who founded the New China, vilify our heroes, and arouse mistaken thinking trends of , with the ultimate goal of using “universal values” to mislead us, using “constitutional democracy” to throw us into turmoil, use “colour revolutions” to overthrow us, use negative public opinion and rumours to oppose us, and use “de-partification and depoliticization of the military” to upset us.

This article demonstrates that, four years after my first post, there are still elements, at least in the PLA, who believe that China is fighting a cyber war, and that the US started it.

I thought the last line from the PLA Daily article was especially revealing:

Only if we act as we did at the time of the Battle of Triangle Hill, are riveted to the most forward position of the battlefield and the fight in this ideological struggle, are online “seed machines and propaganda teams”, and arouse hundreds and thousands in the “Red Army”, will we be able to be good shock troops and fresh troops in the construction of the “Online Great Wall”, and will we be able to endure and vanquish in this protracted, smokeless war. [Source]