Essay / Stuck between Internet Sovereignty and a Multi-Stakeholder Place: Exploring Chinese power practices and value cleavages in the global governance of internet policy

by Caroline Wesley
edited by Lily-Cannelle Mathieu


I. Introduction

            The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is home to the largest population of internet users in the world, touting over 731 million connected in 2017; it is estimated that another 400 million are soon to follow, further illustrating the immense presence of Chinese online.[i] Moreover, technological giants such as Baidu, Alibaba Group, Tencent (referred to in China as ‘BAT’), and take four places on the list of the world’s top ten largest internet companies.[ii] This research paper will further elucidate the long-term effects that building such powerful CCP state-controlled enterprises will have on Chinese geopolitical capital.

            In reality, China’s new social credit system is just an aspect of its new internet governance strategy. As such, this essay aims to explore the oft-overlooked other aspect of this strategy, as well as to outline their domestic and international goals, and to elucidate the value cleavages and anchoring practices of their conduct within the field of global governance. More importantly, this essay will highlight the impact of two major turning points in Chinese internet governance, the first being the 2014 creation of the Cybersecurity and Informatization Leading Group and the second being the creation of China’s first standalone cybersecurity policy in 2017. I find that these turning points signify the primary impetus for China’s continued political evolution from “fragmented authoritarianism” to a more centralized form of rule. As such, this paper concludes that, while fragmented authoritarianism continues to most accurately explain modern Chinese bureaucratic structures, Xi Jinping’s pragmatic re-centralization of certain bureaucratic structures has enabled China to both adjust to evolving technological standards and to assert itself as a new diplomatic player in the global governance of the internet. Essentially, modern Chinese legislation and international-facing initiatives will be the country’s springboard to immense political capital and influence in the coming decades. These initiatives are inseparably tied to the Chinese technology sector, thus enabling Chinese political influence and perhaps even imposing censorship to populations beyond its sovereign lines.

            This essay is divided into six parts. First, I will present a literature review on the current academic research on the topic of internet governance in China. In Part II, I will outline and justify the empirical framework for my research and conclusions, which jointly employs a modified version of Lieberthal’s theory of “fragmented authoritarianism” and Pouliot and Therien’s value cleavages framework for global governance. In Part III, I elucidate the primary value cleavages and anchoring practices in the global governance of the internet.  Part IV explains the largest value cleavage debate in global internet governance: internet sovereignty versus the multi-stakeholder model. In Part V, I outline the crucial bureaucratic and legislative changes that have inspired this research, notably in China’s adoption of its first standalone Cybersecurity law in 2017. Part VI will conclude by explaining Chinese long-term geopolitical strategy through the Internet Plus strategy and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).


II. Literature Review

            In recent years, the debate concerning the control of information by authoritarian leaders has been dominated by two major camps. On one side, we find those that model the determinants of internet governance policy as a trade-off scenario in which dictators must choose between information openness and closedness. This is commonly referred to as the “Dictator’s Dilemma,” wherein the state leader is treated as a unitary actor and in complete control of their selection of a level of censorship optimal to their interests.[iii] Lieberthal’s theory of fragmented authoritarianism runs in direct contrast to this theory, as it posits that power is placed within fragmented bureaucratic siloes with their own leaders, hierarchical structures, and horizontal and vertical cleavages. In this way, the formal modelling of this theoretical dictator’s scenario does not take into consideration the reality of immense bureaucratic structures: leaders, albeit authoritarian, are restricted due to bureaucracy itself and will not be able to attain their ideal balance between censorship and information freedom.

            The other side of the debate is centred upon informal study of authoritarian information control wherein academics situate a leader within a more realistic framework of limited political agency due to inter-departmental bureaucratic friction and disharmony (see Lynch 2011; Esaray and Xiao 2011; Fu, Chan and Chau 2013; Howard and Hussain 2011.) Due to the fragmented distribution of censorship roles with this system and the lack of public transparency, this framework models well the practice utilized by Chinese netizens to identify which Chinese government agencies are tasked with the censorship.[iv] Some scholars have even classified this relationship as a “cat and mouse” game between Chinese internet users and government censorship departments.[v] As will be further explained in Part IV, the section in which China’s information technology capabilities are outlined, this framework is not a realistic depiction of the modern Chinese censorship scheme and cannot account for the advanced technology and methods it employs. Moreover, the vast majority of proponents of this political framework employ a legal perspective, which does not adequately capture the informal practices and cross-sector relationships that have been cultivated and are essential to the CCP’s operations. In light of the above political frameworks proposed in recent literature, the framework in this research paper is indeed more similar to the second camp of the informal study of authoritarian information control due to its use of realism when analyzing bureaucratic structures and inter-departmental relationships. Relationships of this nature will be further explored in the following section as it expands upon the pragmatic importance of Xi Jinping’s development of SOE-CCP relationships.


III. Empirical Approach

i. Fragmented Authoritarianism, and other Conceptions of Chinese Governance

            In the late 1970s, Deng Xiaoping’s reformative era culminated in the figurative “opening up” of Chinese society to the outside world, providing previously unseen scholarly access to PRC government agencies and insight into the bureaucratic relationships and policy processes therein.[vi] Until that point, the PRC’s mysterious internal framework has often been caricatured as “a system of red telephones all ultimately connected to the desk of Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping.”[vii] Thereafter, a multitude of frameworks aiming to unravel the mysteries of Chinese governance has emerged. Zeng, Stevens, and Chen outline this issue most succinctly: they argue that a key difficulty in unpacking political theory in China is that “many political ideas are still developing and have yet to cohere into stable bodies of theory that can be more rigorously tested.”[viii] This affords China scholars with a certain theoretical wiggle room against traditionally strict frameworks of governance.  Nevertheless, while it is true that CCP General Secretary Xi holds immense political clout, further examination of the country’s political structure has revealed that it is more siloed into thematic “clusters” of bureaucratic hierarchies with respective vertical and horizontal cleavages.[ix]

            This essay employs the political framework set out by Kenneth Lieberthal in his 1992 seminal work, “The ‘Fragmented Authoritarianism’ Model and Its Limitations” within the larger tome of “Bureaucracy, Politics, and Decision Making in Post-Mao China.” This theory has proven foundational to the study of Chinese politics; it sheds light on the fragmentation of Chinese bureaucracy into core organs that self-organize into clusters of political bodies: Economic; Propaganda and Education; Organization and Personnel; Civilian Coercive; Military; and the Communist Party Territorial Committees.[x] In the post-Mao period, fragmentation in decision-making increased within these clusters due to a number of factors; first, Chinese leadership reduced its use of coercion seen typically in staff purges, labelling, and demotions against those who proposed ideas contrary to the leadership’s, thereby emboldening staff to defend their proposals and to compete with their peers.[xi] Second, the reduced usage of ideology as a means to maintain control increased looseness within the bureaucratic system.[xii] Finally, personnel management was decentralized, bringing increased fragmentation of teams within these clusters. A number of mixed results were recorded following the implementation of such decentralizing practices. Notably, coherence was maintained within particular clusters in the form of what Lieberthal calls “policy communities,” which rallied around projects and issues, cutting across bureaucratic divisions. Over time, these factors all contributed to the fragmentation of a previously unitary authoritarian bureaucratic structure.

ii. Value Cleavages and Anchoring Practices in Global Governance

            As this essay will discuss internet policy within the context of global governance in later sections, it is crucial to outline a framework detailing the interactions between states on the issue. As such, Vincent Pouliot and Jean-Philippe Thérien’s value cleavage framework will be employed herein.  They cite “normative divisions” as a hindering factor to policy coordination in global governance.[xiii] Global actors cite “universal value claims” to justify and legitimize their positions in global policymaking forums.[xiv] However, this practice is inconsistent with modern realities:  defining global issues and developing communal solutions are all highly political processes plagued by conflict and disagreement. This brings to question the feasibility of true “universal” values.[xv] A unified stance on what the common good entails is rarely achieved, nor is a concrete method to get there. Any resulting global policy vision, often presented as a consensus to the public by respective coalitions of governments, in reality masks a series of internal divisions and disagreements. This will be outlined in further detail in Part IV.

            Pouliot and Therien’s framework ties well into Lieberthal’s fragmented authoritarianism model as it stresses the political capital that is bestowed to values and ideology in historical and modern China. In the Maoist era, top political leaders of China’s fragmented bureaucracy employed “massive doses of ideological indoctrination as a vehicle for achieving greater fidelity to the goals of the leaders even in the absence of informational and other resources adequate to assure the desired level of compliance.”[xvi] Put simply, achieving value consensuses can reduce the need for additional political capital and resources, both in domestic and international contexts. As was explained earlier with the help of Lieberthal, the post-Mao era of bureaucratic decentralization featured a reduction in leadership’s use of ideology as a means to exert control over their personnel. In contrast, a central feature to Xi Jinping’s revival of centralized bureaucratic practices comes alongside the resuscitation of Maoist norms; in a 2013 speech commemorating Mao’s 120th birthday, Xi gave wide praise to Mao for “establishing the fundamental socialist order, obtaining the fundamental achievements of socialist construction, as well as accumulating the experience and providing the conditions for our exploration of the path of building socialism with Chinese characteristics.”[xvii] Moreover, further evidence of this notion lays in Xi’s encouragement of the CCP’s propaganda department to intensify its ideological movements warning citizens of the dangers of Western “anti-Chinese forces” attempting to upend and infiltrate China’s socialist order through espionage.[xviii]

            Returning to practice theory, while this tendency to appeal to the common good is an attempt to “depoliticize” global governance, as Pouliot and Thérien argue, the “idiom of universal values” highlights the inherently political nature of all global public policymaking.[xix] Unpacking the idiom provides insight on the most salient internal disputes and obstacles to collective action. As such, identifying the value cleavages underlying a given policy, and seeing how disagreements are temporarily and insincerely resolved to create a façade consensus, can help scholars analyze the future prospects for policy coordination. Internal conflict and policy disharmony are central features of the global governance of the internet; global actors’ values diverge at every stage of policymaking, from defining the nature of the issue (for example, cybersecurity), to envisioning an ideal outcome, to developing a concrete action plan for achieving it. This issue is exacerbated further by the clandestine nature of state-sponsored intelligence and hacking operations that have become a central feature of national defence for a number of powerful states. For example, both the U.S. government and American businesses have been the victims of Chinese hacking of confidential information systems. Moreover, intelligence leaks from Edward Snowden revealed that similar internet surveillance operations have been orchestrated by the U.S. against a number of nations, including China.[xx]

            Practices in international relations ultimately make up global politics. As Adler and Pouliot argue, “world politics can be understood as structured by practices, which give meaning to international action, make possible strategic interaction, and are reproduced, changed, and reinforced by international action and interaction.”[xxi] Of course, a myriad of different practices have been employed since the initiation of global governance on the internet, and, while they all offer interesting insight, this paper will focus on a few key practices. Given the theoretical framework presented by Sending and Neumann, this section identifies the anchoring practice which has worked to ground the other practices and made them possible: Xi Jinping’s cultivation of a symbiotic State Owned Enterprise-CCP relationship.[xxii] Ultimately, this relationship provides China with not only an immense data-collecting power domestically, but also with geopolitical influence through a number of initiatives.


IV. The Global Governance of Internet Policy: the Internet Sovereignty – Multi-stakeholder Debate

            The internet is not the first technological revolution to elicit debate on trans frontier communications. As Monroe Price explains, while Gutenberg’s printing press revolutionized information sharing in the 15th century through the media of books and newspapers, it equally incited a centuries-long process over which a common understanding of freedom of expression was developed.[xxiii] This is reminiscent of Pouliot and Thérien’s explanation of practices in global governance: fraught with internal disharmony. As such, similar to the debate on internet governance strategies, these regionally developed norms were far from universal.[xxiv] A number of diverging values are expressed by national- and global-level actors with regards to internet and cybersecurity governance. However, they all want increased security to account for an increasingly insecure technological world. As Joseph Nye explains, “providing security is a classic function of government and some observers believe that growing insecurity will lead to an increased role for governments in Cyberspace.”[xxv] Indeed, a“double-edged sword” remains: governments want to protect the internet so that their societies can continue to benefit from it, but concurrently seek to protect their societies from what may emanate through the internet.[xxvi] In this way, governments tend to establish three primary objectives in securitizing cyberspace within their borders. These include the provision of: security with regards to civilian liberties; security with regards to protecting critical infrastructure and digital assets; and security with regards to preventing a cyberattack. Not all states place the same amount of emphasis on these broad overarching goals, which leads to a divergence of interests in global internet governance policymaking forums. The next two sub-sections will address the value cleavages fundamental to the two major ideological internet governance camps and the institutions and initiatives they have respectively built to support the advancement of their interests. They are primarily exemplified by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the UN’s Internet Governance Forum Multi-Stakeholder Advisory Group.

i. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Internet Sovereignty Model

            As a general rule, differing state priorities lead to conflicting views on how the internet should be regulated. Therefore, many states will seek create coalitions with governments who share similar values and less cleavages. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is a Eurasian political, economic and security entity comprised of members such as China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.[xxvii] Perhaps due to their joint membership within the SCO, both China and Russia developed what Stanislav Budnitsky and Lianrui Jia call “nation branding.” These two nations launched campaigns to portray themselves as resurgent great internet powers.[xxviii] This was an important symbolic precursor to Xi Jinping’s implementation of his re-centralization strategy through the means of internet governance. Both China and Russia strategically employed their domestic digital media companies as counterpoints to what Budnitsky and Jia call an American “technological hegemony.”[xxix] As such, the countries have vocally expressed their value cleavages with the primary tenets of the international internet governance status quo.

            Due to their widespread non-compliance with international multi-stakeholder internet governance standards, members of the SCO have incorporated policies on internet governance regulation within their own regional agreement. SCO states’ main concern with cybersecurity actually deals with “information security,” a concept that overlaps significantly with cybersecurity but is not completely analogous with it.[xxx] Information security aims to protect “information and information systems from unauthorized access, use, disclosure, disruption, modification, or destruction in order to provide confidentiality, integrity, and availability.”[xxxi]  In this way, the SCO protects the online security of their members by creating “a legal framework for cooperation […] in the field of international information security” and stressing the significance of the “ensuring international information security as one of the key elements of the common system of international security.”[xxxii] However, unlike other cybercrime treaties, the SCO fails to address the issue of allowing interference in a country’s internal affairs; this is the notion that is fundamental to internet sovereignty.[xxxiii] Although the SCO is a regional agreement, in recent years its leadership has made efforts to coordinate with other institutions to strengthen and expand its mandate. For example, it has proposed a Code of Conduct through the use of inter-regional working groups for United Nations implementation. This would address information security and develop international norms of behaviours in the digital space in light of their definition of cybersecurity. Many multi-stakeholder governance preferring-states have rejected this proposal, stating that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights already exists with an accompanying internet code of conduct and that SCO states should sign it rather than create their own.

ii. The Multi-Stakeholder Model

            The multi-stakeholder model is best epitomized by the U.S. ‘Internet Freedom’ strategy as described in a 2010 speech by then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Clinton argued that if we use democratic peace theory as the basis of our analysis, a world that is more democratic is more stable, richer, and less likely to wage war with other democracies.[xxxiv] Fundamentally linked to this theory is the freedom of access to information, the freedom to diffuse information, and the empowerment of individuals to seek out information for enhanced accountability.[xxxv] By introducing a new human “right” for all of humanity to access a single internet, the U.S. government  employed an international norm to achieve the outcome they want: a harmonized, non-sovereign internet governance system. Both the multi-stakeholder model and the internet sovereignty model attempt to portray façade consensuses on the issue of internet governance; they embed their political, social, and cultural values deep into their ideologies, thus causing value cleavages and policy disharmony at every stage of the policy development process.

            Moreover, the multi-stakeholder model portrays internet governance as an ordered, non-hierarchical process without a clear beginning or end, and reveals the fact that private actors – who own most of the data and infrastructure pertaining to the internet – are the main actors, who in turn form collaborative practices with the public sector. While collaboration is ultimately the outcome of these practices, the coordination between private companies and public actors is where internet governance lies. This is why the UN’s Internet Governance Forum Multi-Stakeholder Advisory Group and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) are the institutions at the forefront of this internet governance model.


V. Turning Points in Chinese Internet Governance: the 2014 Cybersecurity and Informatization Leading Group, the Social Credit System, and the 2018 Cybersecurity Bill

            This section will outline the process and practices behind Xi Jinping’s re-centralization campaign that began in 2012. It will explain key changes in domestic internet policy that have been notable for their acceleration of China’s bureaucratic evolution beyond Lieberthal’s fragmented authoritarianism framework. When approaching the subject of modern internet governance legislation in China, it is important to highlight the historical information sharing practices in the PRC. Ever since China first connected to the global computer network, Chinese policymakers and analysts have waved red flags, arguing that the internet is a “double-edged sword.” They argue that it is essential for economic growth and good governance, but that it is equally a threat to domestic stability and the legitimacy of the Communist Party of China (CCP) regime.[xxxvi] As indicated by the famous maxim by former Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping: “social stability overrides everything” (shehui wending ya dao yiqie) and as such, instability is not to be tolerated. These factors contribute to a dilemma within Chinese governance: how is the adoption and usage of rapidly evolving information technologies managed in a state that has repressed external ideologies and quashed traditional forms of dissent? The Chinese state has chosen to address this dilemma with a two-pronged internet governance strategy: it includes the re-centralization of top-level leadership to direct China’s cybersecurity and the investment in new information technologies for further censorship and surveillance. The former notion is epitomized by the CCP’s 2014 creation of the Cybersecurity and Informatization Leading Group, an executive internet governance body chaired by Xi Jinping himself. Argued most succinctly by President Xi, “without cybersecurity there is no national security.”[xxxvii] As evidenced by the personal time investment into the development of the sector by China’s own President, internet governance has become one of China’s main priorities and means for centralization.

i. China’s Social Credit System (SCS)

            China’s social credit system is a key example supporting the notion of Xi Jinping’s re-centralization strategy for social stability. Released in 2014, the “Planning Outline for the Construction of a Social Credit System” continues to be the central resource for SCS political strategy and implementation.[xxxviii] In a 2017 report, the University of Toronto-based internet watchdog The Citizen Lab evaluated the security considerations for a Chinese social credit system.[xxxix] The system collects and analyzes Chinese citizen’s personal data, such as their “credit history, behavioural habits, ability to pay off debts, personal information, and social networks.”[xl] The SCS also features proprietary algorithms that have been labeled as trade secrets and thus cannot be deconstructed to reveal their CCP-determined criteria. At the time of writing, the CCP is pilot testing a number of private-sector versions of their proposed social credit system, most notably in Sesame Credit, a creation of Ant Financial, a subsidiary of tech giant Alibaba.[xli] Representatives from Ant Financial have disclosed that big data collection of routine activities such as “late night web browsing, hours spent playing video games,” and purchasing specific items can all lower one’s score.[xlii] Moreover, Sesame Credit is tied to the Supreme People’s Court of China and may have been given access to its blacklists of debtors and of individuals who have violated their court verdicts. While a high Sesame Credit rating may result in advantages like accelerated visa issuances, lower interest rates on loans, and booking rental cars or hotel rooms without paying a deposit, the punitive measures of a low rating have yet to be clarified.

            While shocking to some, the SCS is not a historical aberration for China. The PRC has been no stranger to data collection driven social signifiers for the maintenance of social stability: the regime enforced centralized control over the use of the telegraph under the Qing Dynasty, and more recent decades have seen the importance of the dang’an (personal records of all citizens) and hukou (internal passport) systems.[xliii] [xliv] In the present era, however, China has equipped itself with advanced tools such as big data analysis, widespread surveillance and facial recognition technology, and the most advanced internet censorship program the world has ever seen.[xlv] With the increasing implementation of seemingly dystopian forms of surveillance against the Chinese people, it is important to understand the normative disconnect between the Chinese notion of “privacy” (yinsi) and that of cultures outside of the PRC. In China, yinsi evokes definitions such as “illicit secrets and selfish, conspiratorial behaviour.”[xlvi] As Zhizheng Wang explains, the longstanding hukou and dang’an systems have habituated Chinese citizens to the idea that privacy is the necessary protection from each other, not from the government.[xlvii] Across informal interviews with law professors and students at Shantou University, this notion of openness and lack of privacy from government eyes was justified by the majority as a means to an end; in essence, the Chinese tend to value their economic and social safety as paramount to their personal privacy.[xlviii] So, how exactly does China violate its citizens’ privacy as a means to maintain a harmonious, stable society?

ii. The Cybersecurity Law (TCL)

             Reports carried out by Freedom House’s internet freedom project called Freedom on the Net identified the three ways in which states may control access to internet content and transmission of information. Methods include creating obstacles to user access, for instance by blocking specific applications or technologies; limits on content, such as filtering and blocking websites and/or manipulating online content; and violating user rights, including placing legal protections and restrictions on online activity.[xlix] As was explained in the above section on the social credit system, the key anchoring practice to China’s internet governance policy’s power to maintain social stability is found in the collection of its citizens’ data. Before delving into the details of China’s 2017 Cybersecurity Law (TCL), it is important to note that a number of laws enabling state collection of private sector data precede it: these include the State Security Law (1993); the Law of Guarding State Secrets (2010 revised version); and the Criminal Procedure Law of the PRC (2012 revised version).[l] Moreover, as Zhizheng Wang explains, this legislative green light for mass data collection extends across nearly the entire legal system: “constitutional law, penal laws, penal litigation laws, state security laws, and other public-sector laws […] grant government extensive rights and sizeable flexibility for investigation, seizure, and search, especially in the matter of state security or keeping social order.”[li]

            China’s Cybersecurity Law primarily focuses on the securitization of personal information and other important data that have been collected in China, whether that data passes through government agencies, state-owned enterprises (SOEs), or network operators. While this has been touted as a means to protect internet sovereignty and security in general, many critics have asserted that the law aims to hinder the success of international businesses in their dealings in China and to impose its ideology upon internet companies aligned with the multi-stakeholder model of internet governance.[lii] This is exemplified by the law’s more ambiguous obligation for those who carry out business in China to “respect social morality, abide by commercial ethics, be honest and credible, perform obligations to protect cybersecurity, accept supervision from the government and public, and bear social responsibility.”[liii] Granted, the above ethical and legal frameworks are interpreted at the discretion of the Chinese bureaucracy, affording them a considerable amount of control over international institutions. Other critics have argued that the TCL would be utilized as a protectionist measure against foreign competition. Moreover, paired with the 2015 National Security Law and the 2015 Counterterrorism Law, which both exert control on other information sectors and personal freedoms for national security ends, they argue that TCL is an effort “to secure the regime and its power” legislatively.[liv]

            Another notably problematic section of the TCL is Article 28: it asserts that network operators must bestow Chinese public security agencies with regulatory powers, enabling them to monitor and investigate the data that crosses through the operator’s servers. Not only is this article criticized for the potentiality of personal data leakage, it also may mean that the regulatory agencies could force internet companies to provide access to a user’s confidential information or to  assist them in decrypting that information.[lv] [lvi] Furthermore, linking this back to China’s aforementioned massive data-collecting social credit system, control over data is a strategic priority for China’s internet governance strategy. This is reflected in Article 37, in which China’s controversial data localization policy is outlined. The article stipulates that foreign firms and internet companies must choose to either invest in new servers located in China or to utilize one of China’s local service providers, such as Alibaba, Huawei, and Tencent.[lvii] Both options subject the firm to data access by the regime: in the former case, the Chinese government’s regulatory authorities would be able to access these tech giants’ data in routine government checks, and in the latter case, the Chinese government already has regulatory authority over their data. This article also speaks to the anchoring practice of China’s symbiotic relationship with its SOEs and local tech giants as it has enabled them to monopolize and control all avenues of data storage within the PRC’s borders. This is an especially pragmatic move for China, as it is not only expanding the reach of its SOEs and associated firms internationally, but it has noted that with China’s growing market, investors and multinational corporations want to establish branches in the PRC, and that those institutions can be data mined. In Part VI, I will elaborate on how China’s data control internet governance strategy may even move beyond its borders.


VI. Conclusion: Exporting Chinese Internet Governance Models to Global Governance

            In the preceding parts of this essay, I aimed to outline the issue of internet governance in China using a unique empirical framework due to the purview of issues encompassing both domestic and international governance. Lieberthal’s fragmented authoritarianism model was employed as it remains the most accurate model for internal Chinese bureaucratic structures. However, this essay importantly clarified that under Xi Jinping’s re-centralization campaign, sectors such as cybersecurity have been pieced back together into executive-controlled bodies and may indicate that China may see government-wide re-centralization. On the international side of internet governance policy, I outlined key value cleavages between the internet sovereignty and multi-stakeholder models that inhibit policy harmonization and the establishment of a truly globally governing internet policy. Moreover, recent turning points in Chinese internet policy in the form of the 2017 Cybersecurity Law and the creation of a social credit system may deepen the aforementioned value cleavages even further.

            China’s Internet Plus plan holds great geopolitical potential. First introduced by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in 2015, the plan aims to integrate mobile internet, cloud computing, big data and the Internet of Things with modern manufacturing and useful economic development tools, such as e-commerce and industrial networks.[lviii] As the Chinese government’s relationship with SOEs and other Chinese tech giants is complementary, China plans for Internet Plus to work in collaboration with Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent, and others to integrate these technologies seamlessly into their immense platforms and to “aggressively establish an international presence, expand foreign users, and push out products suited for different market cultures.”[lix] Moreover, due to China’s widespread investments in key telecommunications and information infrastructures in the ASEAN region through their Belt and Road Initiative, the expansion of the “internet sovereignty” system may be facilitated by their simple presence and usage of Chinese technology. If China can develop ideological supporters for their internet governance system among the ASEAN countries in addition to the current members of the SCO, this could establish considerable leverage against the United States and other supporters of the multi-stakeholder model.  Beyond the geostrategic impacts of these above outlined technological and infrastructural initiatives, it is not yet clear how far China’s internet governance influence will spread.


Caroline Wesley is a 2018 McGill University graduate with a BA in Political Science and International Development Studies and a Minor in East Asian Language and Literature. Currently working as a political analyst in the international aid sector, her research interests focus on foreign relations, human rights, environmental protection, and public policy, specifically in East Asia and developing areas. Impassioned by diplomacy and representing Canada’s interests abroad, she has worked for Global Affairs Canada, the U.S. Department of State, and the United Nations. Caroline served as Co-Editor In Chief for Orientations’ 13th edition.



[i] Dev Lewis, China’s Global Internet Ambitions: Finding Roots in ASEAN, (Delhi: Digital Asia Hub), 4-13.

[ii] Ibid, 4.

[iii] Ronald Wintrobe coins the term “Dictator’s Dilemma” in “The Political Economy of Dictatorship”, where he explains that “the problem facing any ruler, who wants to know how much support he or she has among the general population, as well as among those smaller groups with the power to depose him or her. It is true that dictators have power over their subjects, much more so than do democratic rulers. But his overt power over them breeds a reluctance among the citizenry to signal displeasure with the dictator’s policies. The problem is magnified when the dictator rules by the most basic instrument in the dictator’s arsenal: political repression. The more repressive apparatus stifles dissent and criticism, the less the dictator knows about how much support he or she really has among the people.” (Robert Wintrobe, The Political Economy of Dictatorship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000) 335.)

[iv] Chris Cairns, Fragmented Authoritarianism? Reforms to China’s Internet censorship system under Xi Jinping (Ithaca: Cornell University, September 2016) 3.

[v] Ibid, 3.

[vi] Kenneth G. Lieberthal, “Introduction: The “Fragmented Authoritarianism” Model and Its Limitations” in Bureaucracy, Politics, and Decision Making in Post-Mao China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992) 1.

[vii] Paul Hubbard, ‘Fragmented authoritarianism’ and state ownership (East Asia Forum, 23 January 2017).

[viii] Jinghan Zeng, Tim Stevens, and Yaru Chen, “China’s Solution to Global Cyber Governance: Unpacking the Domestic Discourse of ‘Internet Sovereignty,’” Politics & Policy 45, no. 3 (2017): 436.

[ix] Lieberthal, “Introduction: The “Fragmented Authoritarianism” Model and Its Limitations” 3.

[x] Ibid, 2-3. Lieberthal clarifies importantly that these clusters do not encapsulate all of China’s important bureaucratic systems but instead has outlined those with “nationwide hierarchies that exercise strong executive power.”

[xi] Ibid, 9.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Vincent Pouliot and Jean-Philippe Thérien. “Global Governance: A Struggle over Universal Values.” International Studies Perspectives, online first, (2017).

[xiv] Ibid, 2.

[xv] Ibid, 3.

[xvi] Lieberthal, “Introduction: The “Fragmented Authoritarianism” Model and Its Limitations” 6.

[xvii] Willy Wo-Lap Lam. “The agenda of Xi Jinping: Is the Chinese Communist Party capable of thorough reforms?” in The Routledge Handbook of the Chinese Communist Party (London: Routledge, 2018): 6.

[xviii] Lam. “The agenda of Xi Jinping,” 6.

[xix] Pouliot and Thérien, “Global Governance: A Struggle over Universal Values,” (2017): 2.

[xx] Seen in Jyh-An Lee, “Hacking into China’s Cybersecurity Law,” Wake Forest Law Review 53, (August 2018): 64.

[xxi] Emanuel Adler and Vincent Pouliot, “International practices” International Theory, 3(1) (2011): 5. doi:10.1017/S175297191000031X

[xxii] Sending, O., & Neumann, I. (2011). Banking on power. In E. Adler & V. Pouliot (Eds.), International Practices (Cambridge Studies in International Relations, pp. 231-254). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511862373.014

[xxiii] Monroe Price, “Global Politics of Internet Governance” Technology and World Politics (London: Routledge, 2017) 128.

[xxiv] Ibid, 128.

[xxv] Joseph S. Nye, “The Regime Complex for Managing Global Cyber Activities,” Global Commission on Internet Governance Paper Series, 2014, 5.

[xxvi]Ibid, 5.

[xxvii] Stanislav Budnitsky and Lianrui Jia, “Branding Internet sovereignty: Digital media and the Chinese-Russian cyberalliance,” European Journal of Cultural Studies 21 (2018): 599.

[xxviii] Ibid, 595.

[xxix] Ibid.

[xxx] Roussouw Von Solms and Johan Van Niekerk. “From Information Security to Cyber Security”, Computers and Security Journal 38, 99.

[xxxi] Von Solms and Van Niekerk. “From Information Security to Cyber Security”, 99.

[xxxii] Stein Schjflberg. The History of Cybercrime: 1976-2014, Cologne: Cybercrime Research Institute, 2014. 104.

[xxxiii] Ibid, 8.

[xxxiv] Price, “Global Politics of Internet Governance”, 131.

[xxxv] Ibid.

[xxxvi] Adam Segal, Chinese Cyber Diplomacy in a New Era of Uncertainty (Stanford: Hoover Institution, 2017) 3.

[xxxvii] Seen in Lee, “Hacking into China’s Cybersecurity Law,” 60.

[xxxviii] Shehui xinyong tixi jianshe guihua gangyao [Planning Outline for the Construction of a Social Credit System (2014-2020)], State Council (Beijing: 14 June 2014). A useful translation is available online here:

[xxxix] According to reporting by Foreign Policy, this system is scheduled for nation-wide implementation in 2020. Moreover, a document released by the State Council in 2014 asserted that the social credit scheme should “allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.”

[xl] Shazeda Ahmed, Cashless Society, Cached Data: Security Considerations for a Chinese Social Credit System (Toronto: The Citizen Lab, January 24, 2017)

[xli] Ahmed, Cashless Society, Cached Data.

[xlii] Ibid.

[xliii] Yongming Zhou, “Historicizing Online Politics: Telegraphy, the Internet, and Political Participation in China. Stanford University Press (2016).

[xliv] Zhizheng Wang, “Systematic Government Access to Private-Sector Data in China,” International Data Privacy Law 2 (4): 243.

[xlv] Lam, “The agenda of Xi Jinping,” 17.

[xlvi] Wang, “Systematic Government Access to Private-Sector Data in China” 243.

[xlvii] Ibid.

[xlviii] While no formal interviews were conducted for this research paper, throughout my month at Shantou University I questioned students, professors, and new friends on their opinions of domestic internet governance. I found that the vast majority Chinese I met preferred enhanced convenience and security over the protection of their data.

[xlix] “Freedom on the Net Methodology,” Freedom House, Accessed August 20, 2018, .

[l] Wang, “Systematic Government Access to Private-Sector Data in China” 245.

[li] Ibid, 244.

[lii] Lee, “Hacking into China’s Cybersecurity Law,” 62.

[liii] “Cybersecurity Law of the People’s Republic of China,” Chapter 1, Article 9. Translation found at : .

[liv] Lee, “Hacking into China’s Cybersecurity Law,” 66.

[lv] “Cybersecurity Law of the People’s Republic of China,” Chapter 3, Article 28.

[lvi] Lee, “Hacking into China’s Cybersecurity Law,” 72.

[lvii] Jack Wagner, “China’s Cybersecurity Law: What You Need to Know,” The Diplomat (June 1 2018)

[lviii] Lewis, China’s Global Internet Ambitions: Finding Roots in ASEAN, 7.

[lix] Chinese State Council General Office cited in Lewis, China’s Global Internet Ambitions: Finding Roots in ASEAN, 7.


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