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China and Global Cyber Governance: Main Principles and Debates.

China's participation in the global governance of cyberspace is no surprise. After more than twenty years of development, China has become a de facto cyber power, with the world's largest body of Internet users and e-commerce transactions amounting to 22.97 trillion RMB (about US$3.534 billion) in 2016 (China E-Commerce Research Center 2017). Of the top twenty most visited websites in the world, seven are owned and operated by Chinese companies; and of the ten most popular social media sites in the world, six are China-based (Grumbach 2013). Chinese e-commerce giants such as are now growing rapidly beyond China and Asia, extending their market shares to North America and Europe. Moreover, tremendous room remains for China to develop e-commerce and Internet infrastructure, as its Internet penetration rate has only just exceeded 50 percent. (1) In addition, since 2008 and particularly after Xi Jinping took office in 2012, China's involvement in global governance has increased significantly.

Drawing upon official documents and key academic writings, this commentary first outlines and explains the main principles adopted by the Chinese government in international meetings and negotiations regarding global cyber governance. I argue that the Chinese approach to global Internet governance can be labeled as "multilateral pluralism based on cyber sovereignty." I then present the main criticisms of the principles underlying this Chinese approach, principles that diverge from the existing norms of global governance and seemingly contradict Western understandings, such as Internet freedom and the idea of multistakeholders. My aim is to bridge the gap between the Chinese and Western understandings, for it is an obstacle to consensus on global cyber governance.

Key Principles in China's Approach to Global Cyber Governance

Safeguarding Cyber Sovereignty and Security

Cyber sovereignty is the core principle that China promotes in global cyber governance. Many other arguments and positions of the Chinese government on the issue originated from this core idea (Shen 2016). The new version of the National Security Law of the People's Republic of China, promulgated on July 1, 2015, defined the concept of cyber sovereignty officially for the first time:

Countries should respect each other's right to choose their own path of cyber development, model of cyber regulation and Internet public policies, and participate in international cyberspace governance on an equal footing. No country should pursue cyber hegemony, interfere in other countries' internal affairs, or engage in, condone or support cyber activities that undermine other countries' national security. (Xi 2015)

The concept of cyber sovereignty is also the keyword in many of China's domestic laws and regulations related to cybersecurity. Examples include the Cybersecurity Law, National Cybersecurity Strategy, and the Strategy of International Cooperation in Cyberspace.

China's emphasis on the sovereign rights of states in cyberspace is a strong indication of its stand on global governance in general. From the official point of view, the existing global Internet governance system is still dominated by Western countries, particularly the United States, in terms of Internet resources, technology standards, international norms, and ideological discourse. The Chinese government seeks to resist the influence of Western ideologies via the Internet and, therefore, advocates sovereign control in cyberspace. In the wake of the "color revolutions" and the Arab Spring, Beijing's government is concerned about external influences, transnational activism, and challenges to its regime.

Furthermore, even though cybersecurity is sometimes associated with the rise of nontraditional security problems, the Chinese government puts cybersecurity on a par with traditional security, seeing it as having characteristics typical of nonterritorial threats interwoven with national security concerns (Putra and Punzalan 2013; Srik 2014). As cyberattacks, Internet crime, and digital warfare pose direct threats to military facilities, national intelligence, and the national security system, cyberspace has become a fifth battlefield alongside land, sea, air, and space in reality. To deal with cyberspace problems, states utilize both nontraditional and traditional security means. As the Internet goes deeply into every aspect of our social lives, a serious shortage of security measures cannot be adequately met by corporate or civil society actors. The Chinese people consider it the government's role to safeguard security. This point is closely linked to the next principle.

The emphasis on sovereignty and "security first" for Internet governance also reflects China's regime type, a domestic political culture that prioritizes social order over individual freedom and leadership style. Additionally, the emphasis on sovereignty also reflects China's long-term foreign policy principles of mutual respect and noninterference: countries should respect one another's right to choose their own path of development and modernization. China's unique measures such as a strict Internet firewall and content control also use Internet sovereignty as the basis for policy interpretation.

Role of National Governments in Global Cyber Governance

To the Chinese leadership, sovereignty should be the cornerstone of global governance, and the national government should take the lead in the establishment and operation of global governance based on the UN apparatus. The leadership roles of the national government and the UN's role are emphasized in the Strategy of International Cooperation in Cyberspace:

China supports formulating universally accepted international rules and norms of state behavior in cyberspace within the framework of the United Nations.... Relevant efforts should reflect broad participation, sound management and democratic decision-making, with all stakeholders contributing in their share based on their capacity and governments taking the leading role in Internet governance particularly in public policies and security. (Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Cyberspace Administration of China 2017)

In the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) and in the Internet Governance Forum, Chinese representatives have recommended ways to strengthen the dominant position of national governments in global Internet governance. At the third and fourth WSIS, China proposed a new framework to create an intergovernmental organization under the United Nations to play a leading role in global Internet governance and allow the private sector and civil society to play an advisory role (Galloway and He 2014).

The Chinese people support the view that the state holds the power of making decisions on Internet issues. According to a series of surveys about Internet use in China from 2000 to 2007 conducted by the Research Center for Social Development, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, over 80 percent of respondents said they think the Internet should be managed or controlled. In 2007, when asked who should be responsible for controlling or managing the Internet, 85 percent of Chinese identified the government over any other entity, such as Internet companies, parents, or schools (Guo 2007). This means that most Chinese approve of Internet control and management, especially by the government (Fallows 2008). According to a more recent survey conducted by Horizon-China in 2016, out of 12,600 Chinese respondents from fifty cities who hold university-level degrees, 98.1 percent support the government's legislation about cybersecurity and support its general cyber governance framework (Huanqiu News 2016).

China recognizes that the capacity and role of a country in global governance ultimately depends on domestic development and its own technological strength, as these constitute the basis of the power of discourse in global governance. China believes that the hegemonic power of the United States over the global Internet is largely related to its advanced technology and applications. Global cyber governance competition in the future lies in techno logical innovation. To reduce dependence on the West and increase access to global governance, the Chinese government, therefore, emphasizes the development of innovative Internet technologies.

Accordingly, the Chinese government vigorously supports Internet technology and digital economic development. The report to the Nineteenth Communist Party of China National Congress had a designated section on cybersecurity: "strengthening basic and fundamental research, expanding and implementing major national science and technology projects, highlighting key common technology innovations such as leading technologies, modern engineering technologies and disruptive technologies." The aim of the "Internet+" Plan (issued on July 4, 2015, and led by the "Guiding Opinions of the State Council on Promoting Internet+") is to promote the integration of mobile Internet, cloud computing, big data, and the Internet of things with modern manufacturing industry and the development of e-commerce, industrial Internet, and Internet finance.

According to the China Internet+ index 2017, which was jointly issued by Tencent Research Institute, Jingdong, Didi, and Ctrip, the national digital economy reached about 22.77 trillion yuan, accounting for 30.61 percent of the total GDP of the national economy in 2016 (TRI 2017). In addition, the latest "Report on Digital China Construction and Development (2017)," released on May 9, 2018, by Cyberspace Administration of China, shows that China's digital economy in 2017 reached 27.2 trillion yuan, accounting for 32.9 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) (CAC 2018). It may not be easily accepted by Western democratic society, but the Chinese government believes that solving domestic problems is China's greatest contribution to global governance. There is no point in fighting for global governance if domestic governance has not been done well. Therefore, over the years of gradual participation in global Internet governance, China has always attached great importance to building a domestic Internet management framework by modernizing national governance capabilities, deepening local governmental reforms, and making new cyber laws and regulations beyond the several strategic documents mentioned earlier. Examples from the Cyberspace Administration of China include "Internet Information Services Management Measures," "Internet News and Information Service Management Regulations," "Internet Broadcast Service Management Regulations," "Mobile Internet Application Information Service Management Regulations," "Internet Information Search Service Management Regulations," and "Interview with Internet News Information Service Regulations." With these measures that strengthen the government's role in global cyber governance, China lays claims to being a capable and responsible cyberspace actor.

Multilateralism, Democracy, and Transparency with Different Interpretations

According to the Strategy of International Cooperation in Cyberspace, which is the first and only official international strategy on cyber issues that the Chinese government has released up until now, "China advocates building a multilateral, democratic and transparent global cyberspace governance system through the equal participation and joint decision-making of the international community" (Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Cyberspace Administration of China 2017). China accepts the general understanding of global cyberspace governance as "multilateral, democratic and transparent," but interprets these terms differently from Western countries.

The first concept is multilateral. China's position is that the construction of a global Internet governance system requires multilateral participation so that the needs of different actors are equally respected. While Western countries generally interpret "multilateral" to mean the support and participation of multiple stakeholders, including nonprofit organizations, in global Internet governance, China places more emphasis on the equal participation of all governments in policymaking.

The second concept is democracy. While Western democracies focus on the domestic level of democracy, such as the free flow of information and users' choice to participate in the decision-making process, the Chinese government focuses on the international level of democracy in global Internet governance. It opposes the monopolization of Internet governance and seeks to safeguard state sovereignty and avoid unfair competition that may arise from different levels of Internet development.

The third concept is transparency. While Western democracies emphasize freedom of the network environment and the transparency of network management which is more demanded domestically, China focuses on the transparency level of international rules and governing structures so that all countries, not the few dominant ones, can take part in rule making and the supervision of the development of Internet governance. According to Lu Wei, former director of the Cyberspace Administration of China, who addressed the summer Davos Forum in 2014, transparency for cyber governance means that rules for cyber governance should be set up and should be known to the whole world (Lu 2014). Obviously, there is a gap in the understanding of these concepts for global cyber governance between China and Western democracies.

Main Debates on China's Positions on Global Cyber Governance

Internet Sovereignty, but What About Internet Freedom?

It is not a secret that China's strict control of domestic media, social media, and the Internet has been a major target of criticism by Western and democratic countries and the international nongovernmental organization (NGO) community. Many international human rights organizations such as Amnesty International criticize China's attack on freedom of expression and call on Apple, Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Microsoft to say no to the Chinese market (Rife 2015).

For reasons already noted, the Chinese government is dubious about the role of the Internet (particularly social media and Web 2.0) in information diffusion and generation (Wu and Yang 2017). As the Internet is also an easy place for theft, rumors, vulgarity, personal privacy exposure, intellectual property rights violation, and social mobilization, China argues that Internet freedom should be limited. Even in the United States, freedom of information is not unlimited: it explicitly prohibits the dissemination of information that might harm national security, territorial integrity, religious harmony, or young people's physical and mental health.

The Chinese government highly values domestic stability and national security and will not release its tight grip over information sharing, social control, security provision, and global governance building.

National Security, but What About Global Commons and Common Destiny?

In theory, the term global commons refers to the goods that are publicly accessible, and one party's access does not prevent or reduce others' rights and benefits. However, there has not been a unified opinion on the application of the concept in global cyber governance. In fact, this is a highly contested topic. For example, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) defines global commons as "natural assets outside national jurisdiction such as the oceans, outer space and the Antarctic" (OECD 2001). The US government in its Quadrennial Defense Review Report released in 2010 puts cyberspace alongside the high seas, outer space, and international airspace as four major types of global commons (DOD 2010). Nevertheless, while cyberspace belongs to the global commons, it clearly does not embrace militarization. The United States has tried to use the new concept of the globally connected domain to explain the nature of cyberspace in the National Military Strategy of the United States of America released in 2011 (JCS 2011).

In fact, cyberspace is not a part of the global commons, nor is it a complete domestic public good. Rather, it is a type of mixed common pool resource (Shackelford 2013). This is because cyberspace is an artificial creation that rests on a tangible, physical construct (Lewis 2010). As Joseph Nye argues, cyberspace can be categorized as a "common pool resource," and he believes that the terms public good and global commons are "an imperfect fit" for the cyberspace domain. In his words, "Cyberspace is not a commons like the high seas, because parts of it are under sovereign control" (Nye 2014, 6). Chinese decisionmakers are aware of these debates and understand that international connectivity is the prerequisite for the sustainable development of cyberspace.

Yang Jian, a Chinese scholar, finds it difficult to identify cyberspace as part of a global common. He argues that, on one hand, the US government defines cyberspace as a global common in order to deny foreign governments' rights of Internet public policy making and to promote Western values. On the other hand, the US government opposes NGOs' claim that cyberspace is a self-organizing global common in order to justify its own regulation of cyberspace to improve cybersecurity (Yang 2013).

"Community of Shared Future in Cyberspace" (sometimes literally translated as "common destiny" in cyberspace) is the concept put forward by President Xi Jinping in the keynote speech of the second World Internet Conference held in December 2015. It has now become a buzzword for China as it represents the official Chinese view of global cyberspace, intended especially for international audiences. The concept is a five-point proposal: (1) speed up the construction of a global network infrastructure and promote interconnection; (2) create an online platform for sharing cultural exchanges and promoting mutual exchange; (3) promote the innovation and development of the Internet economy and common prosperity; (4) safeguard network security and promote orderly development; and (5) construct an Internet governance system of fairness and justice (Xi 2015).

How does China reconcile the apparent contradiction between the pursuit of Internet sovereignty and the inspiration of a "Community of Shared Future in Cyberspace"? China's Community of Shared Future in Cyberspace in fact recognizes the transfer of Internet sovereignty, sometimes also called sovereignty lending or shared sovereignty (De Burca 2003; Keating 2003; Krasner 1999). These terms are meant to describe the reality of the networked era of globalization in which the sovereign state, in order to maximize national interests and promote positive interaction with other countries and international cooperation, voluntarily transfers part of its sovereignty to other countries, international organizations, transnational corporations, and other nonstate actors (Liu 2008).

While sovereignty is an abstract concept and cannot be separated from the nation-state, sovereignty power is partly transferable (Liu 2008). Sovereignty power includes basic or core power and derivative power. Derived power is functional power involving management and punitive measures that can be restricted and transferred (Wei and Pang 1999). The voluntary and conditional transfer of sovereign power is also a way of exercising sovereignty, and its ultimate aim is to achieve the maximization of national interests. The same is true for Internet sovereignty, which is the extension and manifestation of sovereignty in cyberspace (Du and Nan 2014). The integration of national interests, regional interests, and global interests in cyberspace provides space for the possible transfer of Internet sovereignty power that is not directly related to territorial integrity and national security (Hu and Che 2016; Zhu et al. 2016). For example, the government transfers some of the functional sovereignty power of the cyberspace management to the enterprises and other related stakeholders with the aim of better safeguarding national interests. In fact, any successful international cooperation cannot avoid certain restrictions on the sovereignty power of the state. And the observance of the international norms of cyberspace entails the transfer of Internet sovereignty power in some sense.

Respecting Internet sovereignty and building the Community of Shared Future in Cyberspace is thus dialectically unified. Internet sovereignty is the premise for constructing the Community of Shared Future in Cyberspace, and the latter is the guarantee of Internet sovereignty (Yang 2009).

Multilateralism, but What About the Multistakeholder Approach?

Since the 2003 WSIS, developed countries and developing countries have debated the benefits and pitfalls of the multistakeholder approach and the multilateral approach. China and Russia are considered by many Western scholars to be the representatives of those countries that oppose a multistakeholder approach to global cyber governance, as both countries advocate government leadership in Internet governance (Lu 2016). This misunderstanding has caused China to often be regarded as being on a different page in the field of Internet governance. In fact, multilateralism as a specific form of practice is not in direct opposition to the multistake holder approach. It is a complementary practice (Corwin 2016; Gady 2016; Mueller 2016).

The multistakeholder approach emphasizes "non-centralized and distributed power balance" among governments, the private sector, NGOs, and other actors integrated in decisionmaking and policy implementation (Lang 2017, 52). The core principles are inclusiveness, balanced responsibility, dynamic involvement, and effective implementation. The multistakeholder concept is not a doctrine but a trend, a norm, and an approach that can be widely practiced (DeNardis 2014).

Officially, China does not oppose the multistakeholder approach. In fact, China has neither the intention nor the capability to change the multistakeholder approach. Milton Mueller, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, believes that China is unlikely to successfully reform the multistakeholder characteristics of global Internet governance (Mueller 2010, 180). The International Strategy of Cooperation in Cyberspace also specifically points out that "China calls for enhanced communication and cooperation among all stakeholders including governments, international organizations, Internet companies, technological communities, non-governmental institutions, and all stakeholders contribute in their share based on their capacity" (Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Cyberspace Administration of China 2017). The Chinese government thus clearly indicates its support of a multistakeholder approach to global cyber governance.

China also advocates the global Internet governance approach of multilateralism. It complements the multistakeholder approach and serves as an institutional interaction model for pluralistic actors involved in global governance (Qin 2001). There are several points to be clarified. First, multilateralism originally referred to coordinating relations between three or more countries according to certain common principles (Ruggie 1993). Second, China's adherence to multilateralism is an act of opposition against hegemony and unilateralism in global governance institutions. Third, the concept of multilateralism is also changing: the actors are not necessarily limited to states (Morse and Keohane 2014). State and intergovernmental organizations are relatively dominant while nonstate actors such as transnational corporations and NGOs have become important collaborators on some issues. In other words, multilateralism does not exclude the role and supervision of other actors in the multistakeholder approach as stated in the International Strategy of Cooperation in Cyberspace.

The relationship between the multistakeholder approach and multilateralism/multilateral pluralism is thus not mutually exclusive. There are both similarities and differences between them. First, both approaches have accepted the diversification of actors and accommodated stakeholders such as government, enterprises, social organizations, technological associations, and Internet users. Second, the emphasis is different in practice. The multistakeholder approach refers to coordination and cooperation among the private sector, the government, international organizations, civil society, academic institutions, and other stakeholders in the absence of central authority. It is a bottom-up, inclusive decisionmaking process. Multilateralism tends to put more emphasis on the relatively dominant position of governments among the various stakeholders, and decisionmaking is more of a top-down process.

Third, considering the diversity and complexity of Internet governance topics, these two governance models can complement each other. For example, the multistakeholder approach is more effective for technical aspects of Internet governance. With the contents of governance gradually moving from low politics to high politics and with the gradual shift of the Internet governance content from technology to economics and politics, the leading role of the government will become more prominent even as other stakeholders continue to be indispensable (Lang 2017). In public policy and national security, the government plays an irreplaceable leading role, since sovereign states have the legitimacy and lawful responsibility, as well as constitute the most effective force, for the implementation and promotion of global governance.


Having explained the core principles of the Chinese government with regard to cyber governance, I also should note that China can be pragmatic from time to time. For instance, in spite of advocating government's leading role in global cyber governance, the Chinese government also explicitly tolerates and implicitly encourages private Chinese companies and business elites to play roles in global cyber governance (Galloway and He 2014). The Chinese state voluntarily withdrew from the Governmental Advisory Committee of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers in 2001 and did not rejoin until 2009. In the absence of the Chinese government, however, the private sector, civil society, and individual participants continued to participate (Huang 2016). In January 2015, Jack Ma, the chairman of Alibaba, was the sole private sector representative in Asia and Oceania who was elected to membership on the Global Internet Governance Alliance Committee (Galloway and He 2014). Therefore, despite the Chinese principles of global cyber governance, the government can be very pragmatic under specific circumstances so as to promote China's overall participation in global cyber governance.

In short, the Chinese approach to global Internet governance can be labeled as multilateral pluralism based on cyber sovereignty. This entails three main standpoints adopted by the Chinese government in international negotiations and institutional building: defending sovereignty and ensuring national security in cyber space; advocating the leadership role of national governments in global cyber governance; and providing alternative interpretations for multilateralism, democracy, and transparency in global cyber governance.


Cai Cuihong is professor of international relations at the Center for American Studies of Fudan University. She is author of Political Development in the Cyber Age (2015), U.S. National Information Security Strategy (2009), Internet and International Politics (2003), as well as many articles and papers on cyberpolitics, cyberspace governance, cybersecurity strategy, and Sino-American relations. She can be reached at This commentary is based on the presentation at the workshop China and Global Norms sponsored by Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, on November 17, 2017. The author would like to thank Professor Fengshi Wu and Ms. Caitriona Heinl for their comments and contributions.

(1.) On August 4, 2017, the China Internet Information Center issued the Fortieth China Statistical Report on Internet Development. According to the report, as of June 2017, Chinese netizens reached 751 million, accounting for one-fifth of the total number of Internet users in the world, and the Internet penetration rate is 54.3 percent. See /t20170804_69449.


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Title Annotation:COMMENTARY
Author:Cuihong, Cai
Publication:Asian Perspective
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Oct 1, 2018
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