The drawbacks of keeping cyberspace under lock and key

CPPCC vice-chairman Luo Fuhe’s proposal is reasonable and much needed: allow access to overseas websites for scientific and academic purposes

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 March, 2017, 1:36am
UPDATED : Thursday, 09 March, 2017, 1:36am

Internet censorship is a pillar of the country’s state security. President Xi Jinping (習近平) has made a virtue of it as necessary for a balance between “order” and freedom of expression, and asserted sovereign rights in cyberspace. Despite a rising chorus of criticism of internet regulations from foreign firms and governments, Beijing adopted a controversial cybersecurity law last year to tighten control over the internet at the business level.

It is not surprising therefore that officials have played down an attack on the internet crackdown by a senior member of the country’s top advisory body, Luo Fuhe, vice-chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, who proposed easing restrictions on access to foreign websites that are not politically sensitive and considered essential for scientific research. However, the official indifference has not prevented censorship from becoming a talking point.

Luo is executive vice-chairman of the Democratic Progressive Party, one of eight non-communist parties on the mainland. He was particularly critical of the increasing incidence of denial of access to politically benign websites, and slow internet speeds for United Nations and overseas university sites.

A former official in charge of scientific development in Guangdong, Luo warned that heightened internet censorship posed a threat to social and economic growth, and undermined overseas investor and business confidence in the country’s future. Nowadays, when the exchange of ideas is so important, this cannot be good for China’s development in science and research.

In the politically sensitive year of a leadership reshuffle, it is only to be expected that the authorities will tighten control of the internet. Beijing relates cybersecurity to its national security. But Luo’s suggestion of better access to non-political sites for scientific and academic research is reasonable. If China is to make the leap to a knowledge-based society focused on innovation, economic restructuring and globalisation, the Great Firewall of China will present a challenge. Beijing should strive for a balance between national security and openness.