Does China Have an Internet Strategy?

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What the country's web restrictions mean for its foreign policy

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Customers at an Internet cafe in Anhui province, China / Reuters

This week the China-watching twitterverse was surprised to discover that Hu Xijin, the editor of the Global Times, was now tweeting. That the editor of the Global Times, an "angry government mouthpiece"  that supports China's policy of Internet censorship, was accessing a site blocked in China raised a few eyebrows and provoked several people to ask what VPN (a Virtual Private Network) he was using to evade the controls. Somewhat defensively, Hu responded to a characterization of him by The Wall Street Journal's ChinaRealTime blog as a "staunch defender of China's need to censor" by tweeting that he supported the gradual lifting of controls and believed "speech freedom is inevitable in China."

A very long discussion in the December 2011 issue of Foreign Affairs Review, the journal of the Foreign Affairs University, provides some context for what Hu's tweeting might be about. The article, entitled "Global Politics in the Web 2.0 Era" is a discussion about how communication technologies are changing politics. The cases cited are the usual ones--the protests after the Iranian elections, the Arab Spring, SMS being used to organize protests against Philippine President Joseph Estrada, the Obama campaign's use of Facebook and other social media--and political dynamics described are also now well known--web 2.0 empowers the individual to spread information, flattens hierarchies, and lowers the cost of mobilizing groups. Democratization and the growth of civil society are trends difficult to control, and as a result China must have a strategy for bringing about gradual change.

Online expression by Chinese netizens, according to the article, can be "immature, aggressive, or empty." But if China can develop an effective legal system and internal controls, resolve complaints from society, urge people to contribute policy suggestions and better understand national conditions, and strengthen the capacity of the state and the Party, then web 2.0 technology should be viewed "at least [as] an opportunity that outweighs the challenges."

There is a foreign policy component of the strategy as well. China must defend its Internet sovereignty. It must raise cybersecurity. It must be on guard against a Wikileak-style strategic crisis. It has to be vigilant against malicious rumors and outside interference. China must oppose America's Internet Freedom agenda, but it also must do more than be reactive. The Chinese government must develop a diplomacy 2.0. The United States and Europe are already using microblogs like Sina Weibo to spread their message within China. During bilateral exchanges, diplomatic negotiations, and international conferences, Chinese officials should use Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to spread their policy views. Use of social media will be an important part of building soft power.

Two years ago the Beijing-based techology analyst Bill Bishop argued that it would be hard for China to build soft power successfully without a global Internet strategy: hard to win hearts and minds when you censor Twitter and Facebook, language would be a barrier, and no major Chinese Internet firms would succeed in foreign markets. This seems right, but perhaps the Chinese have lowered their sights. The goal may be to stay safely in the Chinese Internet (and ensure the safety of the Chinese Internet from the outside) while only occasionally dipping in and out of the Internet in the West. At this point it is hard to tell if Hu Xijin thinks he can actively engage outside of China. As Tom Lasseter notes, right now Hu is only following one account on Twitter: The Global Times.

This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.

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Adam Segal is the Maurice R. Greenberg Senior Fellow for China Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He writes at Asia Unbound.

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