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Three Layers of China’s International Strategy on Cyberspace

China’s newly released International Strategy on Cyberspace is marked by three distinctive layers with different degree of priority: (1) sovereignty (or cybersecurity, or UN Charter), (2) globalization (or digital economy, or WTO rules), and (3) fundamental freedoms (or human rights, or UDHR). The good point of the strategy is that it tries to make the three layers peacefully co-exist in one document. The failure, however, lies in the intentional ranking of relevance/importance of the three layers and their corresponding fields/international instruments. Reversing the order of ranking will make the strategy a real success.

First Layer: sovereignty/cybersecurity/state actors

The strategy devotes half of its 4 basic principles, one-third of its 6 strategic goals, and one-third of its 9 plans of action on the promotion of sovereignty, UN Charter, or multilateral model of Internet governance. This is the largest portion among the three identified categories. The two principles regarding cybersecurity simply say no to all bad actions ranging from the use of force, arms race and conflicts, to acts of hostility and aggression.

China’s single-minded promotion of sovereignty and state leadership originates from its historical experiences accumulated from its thousands of years of defending against the nomads, followed then by the colonialists, and now by the perceived new invaders in cyberspace. While all nations, as diverse as the United States and Iran, claim they are victims of hacking, the Chinese version of victimhood in cyberspace is strengthened by its frequent failures on self-defense in the agrarian years.

Second Layer: globalization/digital economy/business actors

The promotion of sovereignty goes against China’s globalization project since its reform and opening-up policy in 1978. So the second layer of the strategy has to reverse its own verdict on sovereignty by promoting openness, global commons and multistakeholder model. The strategy devotes at least one basic principle (“The Principle of Shared Benefits”), one strategic goal (“Promoting Cooperation on Digital Economy”), and one plan of action (“Digital Economy and Sharing of Digital Dividends”) on digital economy.

The importance of this layer is second only to cybersecurity. It recognizes “the overall and revolutionary significance” imposed by the integration between the Internet and other sectors upon “the economic structure, social formation, and innovation system”. The strategy opposes “trade barriers and trade protectionism” and tries to ensure that “the Internet serves the economy and innovation”. The language sounds like music for the global IT business players.

Third Layer: fundamental freedoms/civil society actors

The strategy has a rare treatment of fundamental freedoms. This is historically unprecedented. The two official documents issued at the 2015/2016 World Internet Conference—the Wuzhen Initiative and Wuzhen Report—did not even bother to mention UDHR, let alone the two words “fundamental freedoms”. In this sense, it is worth repeating. The strategy’s strategic goal (Protecting Legitimate Rights and Interests of Citizens) says “China supports a free and open Internet”. It goes on to say that China “fully respects citizens’ rights and fundamental freedoms in cyberspace and safeguards their rights to be informed, to participate, to express and to supervise…”. This articulation does not fully pass the reality check now. Hopefully, it will work out in the future.

To sum up, China’s International Strategy on Cyberspace has brought together all the stakeholders in cyberspace, shown awareness about the importance of Internet, but its way of ranking the stakeholders, and the weight it has assigned to each of them, unfortunately, let the power of states/market prevail over the people.

By Peixi (Patrick) Xu, Professor, Communication University of China

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Good summary and analysis Anthony Rutkowski  –  Mar 8, 2017 11:03 PM

Your article is balanced and thoughtful.  China’s international strategy in many ways is consonant with it having now assumed the global multilateral leadership role with a certain wisdom and graciousness.

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