Officials aim to control online discourse and reduce U.S. influence
by James T. Areddy • Wall Street Journal
As social media helped topple regimes in the Middle East and northern Africa, a senior colonel in the People’s Liberation Army publicly warned that an Internet dominated by the U.S. threatened to overthrow China’s Communist Party.
Ye Zheng and a Chinese researcher, writing in the state-run China Youth Daily, said the Internet represented a new form of global control, and the U.S. was a “shadow” present during some of those popular uprisings. Beijing had better pay attention.
Four years after they sounded that alarm, China is paying a lot of attention. Its government is pushing to rewrite the rules of the global Internet, aiming to draw the world’s largest group of Internet users away from an interconnected global commons and to increasingly run parts of the Internet on China’s terms.
It envisions a future in which governments patrol online discourse like border-control agents, rather than let the U.S., long the world’s digital leader, dictate the rules.
President Xi Jinping—with the help of conservatives in government, academia, military and the technology industry—is moving to exert influence over virtually every part of the digital world in China, from semiconductors to social media. In doing so, Mr. Xi is trying to fracture the international system that makes the Internet basically the same everywhere, and is pressuring foreign companies to help.
On July 1, China’s legislature passed a new security law asserting the nation’s sovereignty extends into cyberspace and calling for network technology to be “controllable.” A week later, China released a draft law to tighten controls over the domestic Internet, including codifying the power to cut access during public-security emergencies.
Other draft laws under consideration would encourage Chinese companies to find local replacements for technology equipment purchased abroad and force foreign vendors to give local authorities encryption keys that would let them control the equipment.
Chinese officials referred questions about Internet policy to the Cyberspace Administration of China, a recently formed government body. That agency declined to make an official available to comment for this article.
Such a strategy would have been impossible a few years ago when Western companies dominated the Internet. That has started to change with the rise of Chinese powers such as e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., online conglomerate Tencent Holdings Ltd. and information aggregator Sina Corp., which enable Chinese citizens to enjoy most services Westerners use, plus some unique to China, without needing Google Inc. or Facebook Inc. Chinese companies are easier for Beijing to control and have a history of censoring users upon demand.
The government is directing financial and policy support toward domestic firms that are developing semiconductors and servers that can replace ones provided by Western players. Earlier this year, Premier Li Keqiang unveiled Internet Plus, a strategy to incubate Chinese companies that integrate mobile, cloud and other types of computing with manufacturing and business.
Many Western companies are surrendering to Beijing’s rules so they can build a position in China, with an online population nearing 700 million.
LinkedIn Corp. structured its Chinese operation as a domestic company and agreed to censor content its customers see there. It said it respects freedom of expression but must comply with Chinese rules.
Hewlett-Packard Co., recently sold a majority stake in its China server, storage and technology services operations to a Chinese company after it came under political pressure in China following revelations that U.S. officials collected information abroad using infrastructure produced by American companies. A spokesman for H-P described the deal as a partnership formed to drive greater innovation for China.
Apple Inc. said in August 2014 it has been using the country’s primary Internet platform, run by state-controlled China Telecom, to store its Chinese users’ data. Apple says the data are protected by encryption.
China is seeking international validation for its efforts. Earlier this year, China led Russia and some Central Asia governments in proposing the United Nations adopt an Internet “code of conduct” that would effectively give every government a veto over technical protocols interlinking the global Internet.
China has argued such controls are necessary on national-security grounds, especially following allegations by former U.S. defense contractor Edward Snowden about American cybersleuthing. The code wasn’t adopted.
Some other countries share China’s vision of an Internet with borders. Turkey at times has temporarily blocked YouTube and Twitter. Russia has pressed U.S. social-media companies to erase content. The European Union’s top court ruled last year that search engines including Google must in many cases scrub links containing personal information from search results for individuals’ names upon their request.
“More and more countries are enforcing their own requirements,” says Rebecca MacKinnon, director of the Ranking Digital Rights Project for New America, a Washington think tank. “Nations enforcing their own Internet restrictions present a tension between national interests and participation in a global marketplace.”
China’s determination to promote an alternative to the borderless Internet embraced by Americans marks yet another way the country is challenging a U.S.-led world order under President Xi. It is asserting claims in the South and East China seas, building up its military, and setting up an Asian infrastructure bank to rival the U.S.-governed World Bank.
“In the next two decades, China will become the center of cyberspace,” predicts Fang Xingdong, a tech pioneer who a decade ago introduced blogging to China and now runs a Chinese technology think tank called ChinaLabs.
President Barack Obama and other U.S. leaders have called on Mr. Xi to curb controls that American officials say appear aimed at boosting Chinese companies or restricting freedoms, not at defending national security.
The Internet Association, a Washington-based trade group whose members include Google, Facebook and Yahoo Inc., says policy makers should advocate for U.S. tech companies in China and not accept restrictions.
“Global Internet companies born in the United States must have the opportunity to compete on a level playing field in China,” says Michael Beckerman, president of the association.
China’s push could backfire. By further constricting Internet freedoms, Beijing could alienate users and foster distrust of the government. It could also hold back China’s development by making it harder for businesspeople, doctors and scientists to access research and other tools that make the Internet a powerful force for innovation.
China’s approach marks an escalation from its original, defensive response to the Internet when it began spreading into China in the 1990s.
At the time, China built systems, collectively dubbed the Great Firewall, to filter Internet content entering China.
Services that gained popularity overseas faced outright bans in China, including Facebook and Twitter. In 2010, Google cited censorship and pulled its servers and some services out of mainland China. In recent years, many foreign publications have been blocked in China. The Wall Street Journal’s websites have been fully blocked since last year.
But as more Chinese became active online, censors struggled to keep up.
In July 2011, China’s public used social media to expose signs of official ineptitude after the deadly collision of two bullet trains, alarming leaders who were used to controlling information through state media.
China’s leaders also were growing uneasy about developments in countries like Tunisia and Egypt, where social media helped spread democratic passions that toppled governments. Reports that U.S. and Israeli cyberspies frustrated Iran’s nuclear ambitions with an Internet virus triggered further worries.
It was against this backdrop in mid-2011 that Col. Ye wrote that China needed to do more than simply block what it doesn’t like.
Calls for a more expansive Internet strategy picked up as Mr. Xi prepared to assume Communist Party leadership in 2012. Voices in government, academia and business pointed to China’s expanding know-how, which they said could dislodge U.S. technology from dominance.
Computer engineer Ni Guangnan gained fresh traction for a long-held position that Beijing should challenge U.S. software “monopolies,” as he described them. Credited with developing a method to input Chinese characters into computers in the 1980s, a breakthrough that helped him co-launch what is now Lenovo Group Ltd., Mr. Ni argued that imported technology is often unsafe—and replaceable.
Mr. Xi in early 2014 elevated the importance of Internet policy, taking charge of a newly formed Central Leading Group for Cyberspace Affairs and pledging to “build China into a cyberpower.” Little is known about the inner workings of the group, which includes top leaders, military and police chiefs, China’s central banker and telecommunication, science, broadcast and education regulators.
Mr. Ni’s call on the government to muscle out foreign technology appeared answered in May 2014 when Beijing prohibited use of Microsoft’s Windows 8 operating system on many government computers. Microsoft said it had taken steps to protect data for users but otherwise didn’t protest publicly.
China ramped up hacking and cyberwarfare capabilities, expanding the Third Department of the PLA’s General Staff Department, a cyberspying outfit estimated to have 100,000-plus hackers, linguists and others, according to Western intelligence experts.
U.S. investigators believe a recently disclosed breach of millions of employee records at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management originated in China. Beijing has denied involvement.
To translate China’s new Internet philosophy into day-to-day policy, the government tapped Lu Wei to head the Cyberspace Administration of China, set up to coordinate technology goals throughout the country’s vast bureaucracy.
The position makes Mr. Lu the nation’s primary online censor, even though the former journalist for state-run Xinhua News Agency began his career evading media controls. He recalled in an autobiography that when a China Southern Airlines flight in 1992 crashed with 141 people aboard, including his sister-in-law, he told white lies to get closer to the wreckage so he could photograph what local authorities worked to suppress.
Mr. Lu later developed business opportunities for Xinhua, sometimes by challenging foreign competitors with regulatory restrictions that he said were meant to address an “unfair information order.”
“The Internet is rife with problems, all of which are related to subjectivity, bias, imbalances and asymmetry of information dissemination,” Mr. Lu told a British audience in September 2013.
Under Mr. Lu, Beijing intensified pressure on Western media and on local activists and social-media users. He invited a number of the country’s most prominent users of a microblogging service called Weibo to dinner at a posh Western-style restaurant and warned them against spreading rumors, one attendee recalls.
That was followed by a series of detentions of popular Weibo users. Others became more timid about using the service. In February, the government announced new rules that require users to register real names and refrain from posting information that violates national interests.
This April, after complaining that Weibo users were spreading rumors harmful to the state, Mr. Lu’s office threatened to shut down services operated by Weibo parent Sina if it didn’t work harder to police content online. Sina executives quoted by Xinhua pledged to intensify censorship. Its service remains operational.
A 2014 Wall Street Journal survey found that Tencent was deleting popular accounts that sent political-news updates to users on its WeChat mobile messaging application. Tencent said it follows the law by targeting violent, pornographic and other illegal content.
Mr. Lu has lobbied for an expanded China role on Internet governing bodies such as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which assigns website addresses and is managed by the U.S. Commerce Department.
At a World Internet Conference organized last year by Mr. Lu’s office, he canvassed support for an Internet-sovereignty proposal. It included a nine-point manifesto, slipped under hotel-room doors of attendees, saying countries should have the right to govern Internet traffic within their borders.
Western delegates protested, and the manifesto was dropped, though similar language appeared in the proposal later submitted to the U.N.
Mr. Lu didn’t respond to questions for this article. He frequently has deflected criticisms of China’s tight controls by using a folksy expression: “It’s my house.”
Foreign-government officials and technology-industry executives say Mr. Lu’s office has led efforts to ensure that if Web giants outside China, including Facebook, want to tap China’s huge user base, they must operate through Chinese partnerships and infrastructure they don’t control. China is advising government agencies and banks to avoid mainframe servers from foreign suppliers such as International Business Machines Corp. and make do with more basic equipment from domestic companies like Inspur Group Co., a Jinan-based technology firm.
Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg met with Mr. Lu in December when the Chinese regulator visited the U.S. A much-debated question in Chinese technology circles is whether Facebook, to reach the world’s largest population, will allow itself to be regulated the same way Chinese Internet companies are.
Facebook has said it is interested in the China market but has made no decisions. It declined to comment about Mr. Lu’s visit, which included stops at other U.S. tech firms.
These days, after long denying it controlled the Internet beyond scrubbing social ills such as pornography, China’s government celebrates its strategy.
“The rising prominence of China is one of the most important developments shaping the Internet,” Xinhua said in a commentary last year. “Behind China’s Internet boom is Beijing’s unique way of management.”
Jeff Elder in San Francisco and Yang Jie in Beijing contributed to this article.