China and Taiwan's Newest Disputed Territory: The Internet

The cross-strait schism re-emerges in a quarrel over website URLs.
Reuters/Nicky Loh

A new territorial dispute is emerging between China and Taiwan. But this time the territory is in cyberspaceAs we explained on Wednesday, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which manages the Internet’s addressing system, recently added Chinese characters to the mix of possible “generic top-level domains.” That puts .政府 (zhengfu, pronounced “jung-foo”), which means ”government,” up for grabs.

Now, .政府 is a plum digital property. It’s the equivalent of the “.gov” suffix to U.S. government sites. Too bad for China’s government, then, that a Taiwanese government-affiliated company called Net-Chinese Co. Ltd. already has dibs on .政府. Though ICANN hasn’t granted it final approval, Net-Chinese’s application to manage .政府 passed the initial evaluation in June 2013.

What happens if Net-Chinese gets .政府? China probably couldn’t stomach renting .政府 from a country whose existence it denies. What’s more, Net-Chinese would probably grant the domain to Taiwan, not China. That would mean every time one of China’s 500 million Internet-using citizens typed in a web address with a logical domain name for China’s government, they’d be whisked to the homepage of the island democracy to the south. China would likely block .政府 sites, as it currently does “.gov.tw” sites, leaving a conspicuous absence in the new Chinese Internet landscape.

China isn’t pleased. Via the Hong Kong regional government, it complained to ICANN that there’s no need to allow .政府 to exist. Just as governments other than the U.S. often have web addresses ending in, for instance, gov.cn or gov.uk, it said, countries could issue Chinese-language versions using the same principle. (In Chinese, gov.cn would look like 政府.中国.) China also claimed to be worried on the U.S.’s behalf: It said that allowing .政府 as a top-level domain for sites that don’t correspond to a U.S. government site (e.g. state.gov) could mean that Chinese visitors would face “a confusion that owners of ‘.gov’ websites would fret."

Finally, it complained that Net-Chinese isn’t “vested with the authority or mandate to endorse claims of government status on behalf of all governments."

Meanwhile, Japan, which also uses Chinese characters in its language, added to the complaints. And in an attempt to hedge its bets, China has filed for and gained rights to the top-level domain .政务 (zhengwu, “jung-woo”), meaning “government affairs.” That in turn prompted a formal complaint from Taiwan’s government that .政务 was unnecessary since it might be confused with .政府.

China’s move might seem strange given that .政务 (zhengwu) is a poor substitute for .政府 (zhengfu); the rough English equivalent would be claiming “.adm,” for “administration.” And China doesn’t really need it; since it has rights to the .中国 domain, China could authorize use of the .政府.中国 (i.e. “gov.cn”) string for its own government websites. However, China now says it will use .政务 exclusively for Chinese government sites.

In practical terms, the debacle could cause the kind of confusion Internet browsers experience when seeking out the government of Georgia (the country) online but landing here instead. Symbolically, though, .政府 is just one more obstacle to China realizing its dream of One China.

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Gwynn Guilford is a reporter and editor for Quartz.

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