China must keep internet secure and free

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 March, 2014, 4:27am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 March, 2014, 9:33am

The internet is crucial for development. President Xi Jinping has elevated its importance to that of national security by leading a new cybergroup that will take charge of all aspects, among them economic, political, military and cultural. By developing technologies and ensuring security, the goal is for China to become a "powerful internet country". The benefits will be considerable, but it has to be done carefully so as not to damage equally important advantages that the online world brings.

Only 28.6 per cent of China's 618 million internet users live in rural areas, despite almost 48 per cent of people being outside cities. The digital gap is being reduced with investment and urbanisation, but if the benefits are to be attained, the network has to be properly managed and well protected. Innovation and funding are necessities. Xi is well aware of the challenge: he told the first meeting of the central leading group on internet security and informatisation that these aims were "two wings of a bird" that had to be developed simultaneously.

But the global nature of the internet also means that networks have to be kept safe - last year, nearly 900,000 Chinese IP addresses were attacked by foreign trojan-horse viruses and zombie programs. Co-ordinating government departments responsible for internet security is an essential part of any strategy. The group's formation follows similar moves by the US and Japan, both conscious of the valuable role of the internet in stimulating growth by providing jobs, improving communication and lifting the quality and delivery of services.

With propaganda tsar Liu Yunshan also a member of the group, further strengthening China's "great firewall" will be tempting. But killing off discussion with crackdowns, as has been happening with social media, is detrimental to development. An open internet leads to the sharing and improvement of ideas, helps ensure official transparency and aids solving problems. Allowing Chinese the freedom to make the best possible use of the internet is the wisest strategy.