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On Internet freedoms, China tells the world, 'leave us alone'

China advocates 'cyber sovereignty' in international conference in Wuzhen. But a parallel UN Internet event this week saw most nations advocating universal standards including freedom of expression.

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    Yang Yuanqing, chairman and chief executive officer of Lenovo, speaks during a session of the 2nd annual World Internet Conference in Wuzhen town of Jiaxing, Zhejiang province, China, Thursday.
    Aly Song/Reuters
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China has a very particular view of how the Internet should be run: under a heavy government thumb. And Beijing would like the rest of the world to agree that each government should rule its own Internet territory as it sees fit.

At a three-day international conference in the eastern city of Wuzhen that ended Friday, China's President Xi Jinping insisted that “we should respect the right of individual countries to independently choose their own path of cyber development.”

In other words, China should be left alone to censor its Internet, block websites such as Facebook and Twitter, and lock up political activists who post critical comments on social media.

Tellingly, however, a United Nations conference on Internet governance that also finished this week reached a very different conclusion. In a sign that China is a long way from winning its argument, a 10-year UN review of the World Summit on the Information Society made no mention of Beijing’s pet concept, “cyber sovereignty.”

Instead the final UN document stressed a more open “multi-stakeholder” approach to Internet governance. The approach is promoted by a wide range of developed and developing countries, and embraces civil society groups, technology nerds, and academics as well as governments.

“It is remarkable that we have a document that does not have the word ‘sovereignty’ in it despite many, many efforts over many months by China,” says Peter Micek, a lawyer with Access Now, an international digital rights group.

650 million people online

The Chinese government has made the Internet one of its top priorities. With over 650 million people online and four of the world’s top ten Internet companies, Beijing has publicly set a course to be “an Internet superpower” by the end of this decade.

“Harnessing cyberspace is central to the Communist party’s policy,” says Bill Bishop, a veteran China watcher and Internet entrepreneur. “They have a strategy … to harness the Internet for maximum value for government and business and to control any challenge” from critics.

Most countries in the world share the “One World, One Internet” vision of ICANN, the non-profit that manages the World Wide Web through its stewardship of IP addresses. China, however, insists that each government enjoys the same sovereign rights in cyberspace as it does in its physical territory.

“Within Chinese territory, the Internet is under the jurisdiction of Chinese sovereignty,” declared a 2010 government white paper here that first set out Beijing’s position. That approach has since been bolstered by a slew of laws and regulations.

China has been energetically promoting its view for several years, but the guest list at this week’s Wuzhen conference suggests it has not yet gained much international traction.

Though a scattering of prominent US Internet figures attended, including LinkedIn boss Reid Hoffman, the only foreign leaders to show up came from Russia, Pakistan, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, none of which are countries known for encouraging freedom of expression.

Seductive to authoritarians? 

The timing of the meeting, which clashed with the UN summit in New York, “did not send a good message” either, says Samantha Dickinson, an Internet governance consultant who has closely followed international negotiations on the subject. “China’s message is all about cooperation with the rest of the world, but here it was in competition with the UN.”

“Cyber sovereignty as China is using it is a dangerous concept,” argues Eileen Donahoe, Director of Global Affairs at Human Rights Watch. She argues that Beijing has divorced its cyber concept from any of the human rights obligations that normally constrain sovereignty in the real world.

That approach may be seductive to other authoritarian governments, especially those buying Chinese Internet hardware and censorship software. But it is not catching on more broadly “and I don’t think it will,” says Ms. Donahoe, formerly a US ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

India and Brazil, for example, often align with China on other international issues. But they tend to be enthusiastic supporters of an open Internet, and most other developing countries have followed their lead.

Indeed, in a surprising move, Beijing has itself taken some hesitant steps in the last year or so towards what is known as a “multi-stakeholder” approach to Internet governance. Lu Wei, China’s cyber security czar, has joined the governing body of Netmundial, a governance forum based on Western liberal principles, and Chinese organizations have begun participating more actively in ICANN, Ms. Dickinson notes.

“They are learning to play the multi-stakeholder game so as to have more influence,” she says.

Critics fear that influence will be malign. “They are playing a long term game … pushing their agenda carefully, and it is quite possible that the openness and creativity we have enjoyed will be at risk,” cautions Mr. Micek.

Whether China is seeking to impose its values on the global Internet, or pursuing the more limited goal of securing international tolerance for its domestic policies, is not clear, says Dickinson.

“They have a strong line, but they are engaging” with governments and citizen groups opposed to their line, she adds. “That’s a start.”

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