Double standards: China’s push to develop internet for economic gain tempered by strict censorship
Critics say Beijing is using this week’s World Internet Conference in Zhejiang province to influence global internet governance in ways that would curb freedom of expression and exacerbate rights abuses
Nothing typifies Beijing’s double standard towards new developments more than its approach on the internet. On the one hand, Beijing is relentless in its push to develop the new industry, seeing it as an engine of future growth. On the other, the leadership severely restricts the flow of information and expression of dissent online.
That is why the world was watching what next step President Xi Jinping would promise to take as he delivered the keynote speech at the World Internet Conference on Wednesday morning.
Before he stood up to address senior executives of global tech firms who gathered in the ancient town of Wuzhen, in Zhejiang, many observers were wondering whether he would push to fortify the Great Firewall or promise to bring it down, brick by brick.
Since coming to office, Xi has showed keen interest in developing the industry, paying frequent visits to hi-tech companies, meeting industry executives and delivering speeches on the area.
He has also personally taken charge of a new panel overseeing internet security and IT development, through which he apparently hopes to help China’s traditional enterprises transform and adapt to the information age.
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Hao Hong, chief China strategist at Bocom International in Hong Kong, said Xi’s attendance and speech at the forum reflected the internet’s strategic importance in the country’s overall development plan. “The challenge is how to use the internet to better improve China’s productivity gains as the population ages and new workforce shrinks,” Hong said.
To that end, the government has gone all out to support the internet industry. In his annual state-of-the-union-style work report this year, Premier Li Keqiang introduced the Internet Plus plan concept aimed at fostering growth in traditional industries and regional economies. And in May, the government said it would plough 1.13 trillion yuan (HK$1.3 trillion) over five years to ramp up internet speeds across the country.
The internet has become a bigger force in the economy in the past five years, accounting for 7 per cent of the nation’s gross domestic product last year, a percentage point higher than that in the US.
While internet giants, such as Facebook, Google and Twitter, are banned on the mainland, Chinese online platforms, like messaging service WeChat and online shopping network Taobao have reaped huge rewards in the enormously profitable market. In 2014, the total value by revenue of China’s internet sector was 637.73 billion yuan.
Market players were watching to see if Xi’s address contained any new ideas that would encourage the kind of entrepreneurialism and innovation needed to ensure the growth continues, especially as other parts of the economy face headwinds.
For the past few decades, China has relied on exports and capital investment to keep the economy ticking over. But that model is unsustainable and the leaders are looking to the country’s 668 million internet users – equivalent to about half the population – as the greatest potential source of consumption-driven expansion.
The official enthusiasm for the internet’s economic potential is in sharp contrast to the government’s fears about its political power. Xi has imposed the strictest censorship on online discussions and launched campaigns to crack down on dissenting opinions.
Yang Peidong, postdoctoral fellow at Nanyang Technological University, in Singapore, said that the governing of the online discursive space during Xi’s era involved not only censorship, but also the mobilisation of more constructive and proactive tactics, such as guiding public opinion under the catchphrase “positive energy”.
“The latter represents a more sophisticated approach compared to censorship, because it seeks to create consensus and identification between the state and netizens,” Yang said.
Li Xigen, associate professor at City University’s department of Media and Communications, said that while all the attempts to further develop the internet to facilitate information exchange for various purposes was plausible, the blocking of a sizable number of information websites through the internet Great Wall put China back to the starting point.
“Free access to information through the internet becomes a challenge to the Chinese leaders when they face a dilemma constantly, to open the internet at the price of losing ground in public opinion or block the internet to guarantee safety through the mainstream media-led party line,” Li said.
While the government says its campaigns are designed to eliminate slander and pornography, state censors have often focused on removing information they believe might undermine the Communist Party’s credibility and affect social stability.
As a result, Freedom House puts China 58th out of 60 countries in its “Freedom on the Net 2013” report, ahead of only Iran and tied with Cuba. The international media freedom group Reporters Without Borders had called for a full boycott of China’s hosting of the internet conference, describing China as the world’s No 1 “enemy of [the] internet”.
“It remains a question whether the Chinese leaders will realise that free flow of information is not only the foundation of economic development, but also for social advancement,” Li said.
Beijing sees the conference as China’s “coming out party”, with organisers intent on making the annual event the internet industry’s equivalent of Davos’ World Economic Forum.
China has been working hard to strengthen its vision of the internet as a space, like physical territory, that should be divided up along national lines and governed however each country sees fit.
However, human rights groups say Beijing is using the forum to influence global internet governance in ways that would curb freedom of expression and exacerbate rights abuses.
At the inaugural World Internet Conference last year, also held in Wuzhen, a last-minute effort to issue a declaration with a statement calling on the international community to “respect the internet sovereignty of all countries” and “widely spread positive energy” failed to pass.
The question this year is will that be the end of it?