China builds a brave new online world behind the wire

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 November, 2016, 8:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 November, 2016, 8:00am

When Baidu showed off its fleet of 18 driverless vehicles in downtown Wuzhen, Zhejiang, on Thursday there were only a few people in the heritage site to see it.

The waterside town, which usually has about 18,000 tourists a day, was cordoned off to host the three-day World Internet Conference, the annual gathering of the country’s biggest internet business players.

Only registered attendees can go into the town centre and the 1,600 guests and reporters must pass strict security checks to get in the exhibition centre during the event, which ends on Friday.

The restrictive mindset is similar to the mainland’s approach to managing cyberspace, with the Communist Party’s top leadership repeatedly calling for “enhanced” internet governance.

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Wuhan University professor Ma Feicheng said users should be allowed to play a big role in the way the internet was run.

Cyberspace management should combine government governance and users’ autonomy
Wuhan University professor Ma Feicheng

“Cyberspace management should combine government governance and users’ autonomy,” Ma said. “We have seen good examples of autonomy under which cyberspace operates through user discipline and integrity. Government’s role should mainly be setting rules.”

The party has set many rules tightening the official grip on cyberspace, including requirements released earlier this month that online broadcasters live-streaming news or entertainment be licensed.

The central government also passed a controversial cybersecurity law demanding that “operators of critical information infrastructure” store personal information and important business data in China and provide unspecified “technical support” to security agencies and pass national security reviews.

But the authorities have also targeted individuals. Outspoken businessman Ren Zhiqiang was stripped of his social media ­accounts after he challenged President Xi Jinping’s insistence that state media be loyal to the party.

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Overseas players like Google, Twitter and Facebook are also among the many websites blocked on the mainland.

Can you imagine any innovation when scientists have no access to Google?
Political analyst Zhang Lifan

Political analyst Zhang Lifan said China wanted other countries to follow its lead – but not interfere – in cyberspace governance. “Eventually, such governance will suffocate innovation. Can you imagine any innovation when scientists have no access to Google?” Zhang said.

Tsinghua University professor Xue Lan said: “The internet is a double-edged sword. Companies, governments and the public should be involved in consultations to help guide development.”