The Wuzhen Summit and Chinese Internet Sovereignty

China's concept of Internet sovereignty seems likely to result in a diplomatic cul-de-sac. However, Chinese officials will continue to employ sovereignty issues to occupy conference agendas and stall real progress on international cooperation in cyberspace.
12/09/2014 05:01 pm ET Updated Feb 07, 2015

In late November 2014, the People's Republic of China hosted the first state sponsored World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, China. Organized by the State Internet Information Office (SIIO), the event gathered around 1000 participants from Chinese and foreign Internet firms to discuss, "An Interconnected World Shared and Governed by All."

Perhaps reflecting the nocturnal habits of Party apparatchiks, a draft titled "Wuzhen Declaration" was delivered to the hotel rooms of the participants late at night. In principle, this declaration reflected the Chinese Communist Party's perspective on what a "Communist Party-friendly" Internet might look like. However, participants passed over the declaration during the closing speeches that concluded the summit. The attempt to co-opt Western participants in sharing the Communist Party's perspective had clearly failed.

The most interesting--albeit not surprising--aspect of the declaration was its emphasis on Internet sovereignty and the related existence of the Golden Shield Project (the "Great Firewall of China"). The declaration states: "Second, respect Internet sovereignty of all countries. We should respect each country's rights to the development, use and governance of the Internet, refrain from abusing resources and technological strengths to violate other countries' Internet sovereignty."

In a message at the beginning of the summit, Chinese President, Xi Jinping, also called for other countries to "respect sovereignty on the Internet." One of the principle motivations behind the launch of this state sponsored cyber-summit series (the conference is planned annually or bi-annually) is to promote the Chinese Communist Party's vision of Internet governance to an international audience. This vision is directly opposed to the West's idea of Internet freedom: the Chinese Communist Party leadership sees the Western idea of Internet freedom as tantamount to Western "cyber-hegemony." This Western cyber-hegemony is perceived to constitute a real danger to the stability of Chinese society and more importantly a threat to one-party rule in the People's Republic. For China --despite high profile and much publicized international cyber-espionage cases--domestic considerations in cyberspace are paramount.

With the launch of the Internet Security and Informatization Leading Small Group in the first half of 2014 (a similar and less senior group, in the past headed by the Chinese Premier, has been in existence since 1993), after Xi Jinping's announcement in February of that same year to build China into a "cyber power," cybersecurity has increasingly featured more prominently in Chinese senior policy makers' deliberations. While no official Chinese national cybersecurity strategy document exists to this date, China is more actively trying to pursue an international cyber engagement strategy.

The key aspect of this strategy is to promote the idea of Internet sovereignty through international forums (e.g., the World Economic Forum, NETmundial, ICANN50, etc.) in order to gain de jure international support for China's de facto Internet censorship policies. At the World Conference on International Communication (WCIC) in 2012, China tried to push through a resolution that would have established the applicability of international telecommunications regulations to the Internet. This was vehemently opposed by the United States and other Western countries, which saw this move as a veiled attempt to impose China's state-centric approach to Internet governance to the wider world.

In addition, China has skillfully exploited the worldwide outcry and criticism of the United States and Western Europe following the Edward Snowden revelations. The PRC has continuously cast itself as the world's greatest victim of cyber-attacks, while at the same time dismissing Western accusations of cyber-espionage and human right's violations by criticizing the West's double standards during any discussions.

At the same time, China continues to point out the "trust deficit" in cyberspace, an ambiguous phrase created to emphasize the need for international dialogue on cybersecurity issues, the context favored by China to advocate for its concept of Internet sovereignty. However, despite nearly 60 countries (the supporters of the WCIC resolution described above) sharing China's vision of Internet sovereignty, this approach has yielded very few perceptible results thus far. One reason for this may be that China--with the possible exception of Russia-- has no military allies in cyberspace and therefore does not wield the influential power of the United States.

China's concept of Internet sovereignty seems likely to result in a diplomatic cul-de-sac. However, Chinese officials will continue to employ sovereignty issues to occupy conference agendas and stall real progress on international cooperation in cyberspace. China's sees its national interest at stake due the perceived dominance of Internet infrastructure by the United States. The fault here lies partially in the West's projection of a dominant U.S. military information doctrine and technological superiority, which is deeply frightening to China.

For China it is essential to buy time to ramp up its domestic informatization campaign (part of Xi Jinping's "Chinese Dream"), streamline cyber policies across a diverse group of domestic stakeholders, build up technical surveillance capabilities and strengthen its cyber defenses. In the meantime, China will focus its international cyber engagement strategy on trying to convince like-minded countries of the superiority of its vision to Western concepts of Internet governance. Consequently, it is fair to assume that we can expect more discussion of Internet sovereignty at the next SIIO-sponsored cyber conference in the near future.

This article was published at chinausfocus.com.