China’s Internet and the West

At a national conference on the work of cybersecurity and informatization held in April, President Xi Jinping spoke about China’s state of technology and Internet. Xi’s thoughts, outlined by Xinhua News, included that the Internet should “spread positive information, uphold the correct political direction, and guide public opinion and values towards the right direction”.

Reuters reported that Xi sees Internet control as key to stability and without web stability “it’s difficult to ensure the interests of the broader masses”. President Xi even believes that the Internet poses an opportunity for martial involvement, with The Wall Street Journal citing Xi as saying the Internet is “the liveliest and most promising area for civil-military fusion”.

Chinese Communist Party controlled media reads even more strongly according to BBC – “The internet has grown into an ideological battlefield, and whoever controls the tool will win the war”.

One way to control the tool is through the so-called Great Firewall of China, backed by professional and volunteer censors who allow the Party to control the Chinese web. China has 750 million Internet users, more than the US and Europe combined, placing 1 in 4 of the world’s online population behind the Firewall.

How far will the Great Firewall reach?

Beijing is now moving beyond the Firewall and paying more attention to what is being said by its citizens on non-Chinese apps and services. And American companies are cooperating. Apple removed software from its China App Store that allowed Chinese citizens to circumvent web censorship. Facebook developed software that can stop posts from appearing in people’s news feeds in specific geographic areas. Facebook also released an app in China without linking its name to the app. And Facebook suspended the account of a self-exiled Chinese tycoon who accused Chinese officials of corruption using the platform, citing that the account published the personal information of others without their consent as the reason for the suspension.

In fact, Mark Zuckerburg has taken bold actions to court President Xi: studying Mandarin, reading Communist propaganda, praising Xi’s book on governance, and even inviting him to suggest a name for his baby. Despite this, Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram, all Facebook-owned, are still banned in China.

China even has a hold on Western companies’ global social media accounts. German carmaker Daimler apologized in February for posting a quote on its Instagram account attributed to the Dalai Lama, who the Chinese government views as a champion of independence for Tibet. Mercedes-Benz not only suffered damage from the Communist Paper official newspaper, deeming it an “enemy of the people”, but Chinese online users also shared their negative views on Mercedes-Benz’s actions. Interestingly, China accounts for about one-quarter of sales and is Mercedes-Benz’s biggest single car market.

With such widely differing views on the state of the Internet, who knows how China will affect the West’s web presence? Carrie Grace of BBC sums it up with her ominous words, “To fully control China’s cyberspace, Xi has had to take action against the world’s.”