China’s “New Normal” of Sharpened Control

China’s recent, sweeping assertion of its “Internet sovereignty” is part of a still broader program of social and political control under Xi Jinping’s administration which has spread across civil society, higher education, the media, and the Party itself, and is increasingly reaching beyond China’s own borders. At China Media Project, David Bandurski translates a series of observations by Hu Yong which, with illustrative news clippings, conveys some of the scope of this drive over the past year:

1) The formation of a “joint police and propaganda regime” (警宣联动机制) that are far more formidable than the previous stability preservation regime. […]

2) Under the so-called “new normal (新常态), intellectuals enter a period of extreme uncertainty. […]

3) Mo Shaoping (莫少平) and other moderate or relatively progressive figures are embroiled in accusations of serious political crimes. […]

4) For many Chinese aspiring to live globalized lives, the prospect of a total restriction on VPN services in China is dispiriting. Add to this the spectre of pollution and the serious crackdown on dissident ideas, and many Chinese say they feel they are being pushed to the edge. […]

5) On January 6, 2015, the [Chinese-language] Global Times runs a piece called, “The Proper Standard for a ‘Chinese Internet User’” (“中国好网民”应有哪些标准). […] They must, said the article, be forces of positivity on the internet and for mainstream values. […] [Source]

At The New York Times, Helen Gao describes the social effects of China’s sharpening censorship, comparing it with a proverbial thief who plugged his own ears so others would not hear him stealing a bell.

The element of self-deception in China’s attempt to control information has always invited mocking skepticism. In 2000 President Bill Clinton famously compared Chinese Internet to “trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.” But as the ensuing years have proved, Chinese censors’ commitment to this seemingly hopeless enterprise has created a dire reality that imprisons each of its citizens.

[…] Mainstream media and publishing are under similar assault. Gone are the days when industry insiders summarized taboo topics with the “three Ts” — Tiananmen, Tibet and Taiwan. My mother, an editor at a state publishing house, has in the past few months had several book projects — on subjects from Buddhism to homosexuality, which used to bypass censors with relative ease — rejected by higher-ups without explanation. The expurgation does not stop at the politically sensitive. A television drama on China’s first female emperor was recently pulled simply for featuring revealing costumes.

[…] The fragmentation of society, in which individuals sit in solitary confinement with their hopes and complaints, makes a mockery of the buoyant description of “the motherland’s ethnic and cultural unity” that filled my high school textbook. Chinese leaders might believe that isolating grievances helps them contain the society-wide discontent. In reality, however, it only leads to a vacuum of trust that ultimately undermines the Communist Party’s own credibility. [Source]

The Washington Post’s Simon Denyer explains how China’s determination to control information is beginning to affect those abroad:

For a start, Web browsers all over the world now trust the Chinese government to tell it which Web sites are genuine. That is increasingly dangerous as Chinese hackers target foreign Web services to steal users’ data, allegedly at the behest or with the connivance of the Chinese government. An attack on Microsoft Outlook last month underscores that risk.

Then there is the question of China’s growing demands for the keys to global operating systems, which it is making on foreign IT firms as condition for doing business here.

[…] “Foreign companies who wish to do business in China are bending over backwards to comply with the authorities in exchange for market access,” [Greatfire.org’s “Charlie Smith”] wrote, citing examples of LinkedIn submitting to Chinese censorship and Yahoo handing over e-mails to Chinese authorities. “Are there any limits to what companies will do to sell more product? I think history has shown the answer to this question to be a definitive ‘no.’”

This sort of thing might directly affect Chinese dissidents living abroad and their supporters more than its affects ordinary people, but it does extend the tentacles of China’s Internet monitoring operation into Western countries. [Source]

At the Council on Foreign Relations, Adam Segal asks how the U.S. government and businesses might push back. The response to China’s attempt to enforce the partly secret WAPI wireless standard in 2003 might offer an instructive precedent, he suggests:

The WAPI incident suggests three components of a successful strategy that altered China’s approach. First, it was public. It was not the behind-closed-doors effort, sensitive to issues of “face” approach that is so often suggested in negotiations with Beijing. Second, the strategy was unified. There were no defections from companies involved in the Chinese market, and the private sector and the U.S. government applied pressure in tandem. The EU and Japan did the same. Third, the strategy threatened real consequences—a boycott of the Chinese market and a case.

[…] All three of the components are necessary to roll back the regulations but they may not be sufficient. The fact that the regulations come from the central leading group, and that they seem to reflect an ideologically driven effort to control cyberspace at all levels, make it less likely that Beijing will back down. Even if Beijing does step back in this case, there is a need to address the underlying suspicion. Given the security concerns the U.S. government has with Huawei and other Chinese technology companies, Beijing and Washington have an interest in developing transparent global standards for inspecting and sourcing technology products. Unfortunately for the technology companies, the two sides look farther apart than ever. [Source]

At Sinocism, Bill Bishop comments:

If you are Xi, why would you not move as fast as possible to de-Americanize China’s IT stack, especially but not only due to the Snowden revelations? Remember that reducing reliance on foreign IT has been a multi-decade goal for China, via the 1986 863 Program among other initiatives. Under Xi you have a confluence of technical capabilities, indigenous industry stakeholders who will profit, the “cover” of the Snowden revelations, the US treatment of Huawei and the political will. It does not look good for many US tech firms in China, no matter how hard industry groups and the US government are willing to push. [Source]