Blog | December 05, 2016

China Cyber: Stepping Into the Shoes of a “Major Power”

In November 2016 the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) hosted the third “World Internet Conference,” in the ancient water town of Wuzhen, near Shanghai. The CAC is the organization that staffs the Central Leading Group for Internet Security and Informatization, which is chaired by President Xi Jinping and coordinates Chinese cyberspace policy across the government. This year’s conference was smaller than last years (1,600 vs. 2,000 participants), more focused and substantive, and generally more serious. It included a large expo featuring dozens of Chinese cyber companies and several major U.S. firms.

The conference is the flagship of Chinese cyber gatherings, as evidenced by the substantial infrastructure investment made in the past year, including a new capacious and functional conference center. This “Wuzhen Conference” is here to stay, not least because of the personal attention of Jack Ma, whose Alibaba is headquartered in nearby Hangzhou.

One major innovation this year was the involvement by CAC of other ministries to run various tracks of the conference, such as Mobile Internet, Internet+Logistics, and Digital Economy. This shift deepened the content and participation across the public and private Chinese cyber establishment.

Although the conference opened with a video from Xi Jinping, and was presided over by CAC Minister Xu Lin (who has replaced the flamboyant Lu Wei), Western governments continued the practice of not sending senior representatives. One reason for this has been chronically late decisions from the Chinese setting the date of the conference. But a more substantive reason for Western reluctance is the concern that the Chinese would see senior Western participation as an acknowledgement of China’s leadership role in cyberspace policy, and, worse, an endorsement of Chinese cyber policies.

The Chinese are aware of these concerns and are working to mitigate them. As a first step, a year ago, the CAC established a multi-stakeholder international advisory committee, co-chaired by Jack Ma and former ICANN chief Fadi Chehade. The committee remains a work in progress, but progress there is. The CAC consulted with the committee on the overall design of the conference, although the agenda and participants remained the CAC’s decision at the end. More importantly, the CAC made a significant change in the public face of the conference.

In previous years the organizers have attempted with varying success to publish a statement of conclusions of the conference, feeding Western concerns about capture. This year the CAC made two changes. First, there is no conference statement. Instead, there is a statement from the advisory committee. Second, the process used to develop that statement was, in the words of Chehade, “a model of participatory process.” Indeed, drafts were circulated well in advance and most of the dozens of comments were accepted.

The results are notable both in the general scope of the statement, which avoids highly contentious issues such as internet freedom, and in particular – in two paragraphs which read as follows (emphasis added):

Third, many countries will continue to pay high attention to cybersecurity and to make generally accepted international Internet rules on the basis of respecting national sovereignty in cyberspace, while recognizing the need for cooperation and agreement based on the UN Charter and international law and fundamental principles of international relations and international cyberspace matters. International norms and regulations will become the common aspiration of international society.

Fourth, multilateral and multi-party participation will become the norm for internet governance. Governments, international organizations, Internet companies, technology communities, civil organizations, academia, and individuals will all take positive actions to safeguard and promote deepening pragmatic cooperation on building the Internet shared and governed by all, and together contribute to its sustainable development.

The term “national sovereignty in cyberspace” replaces a long-used and controversial term “cyberspace sovereignty.” The new language expresses more clearly the obvious point that states should and will exercise responsibility to make cyberspace safer and more secure within their borders. At the same time, it removes the impression that any state should seek hegemony in global cyberspace.

Similarly, the term “multi-party participation,” followed as it is by a list of constituencies that others call “multi-stakeholder,” represents an important shift. The word used for “party” here is 方(fang), which means person or side. Thus the Chinese are signaling their acceptance of the reality that creating a safe, secure, open and efficient Internet requires the participation of many interests, not just states.

Small but important shifts like these illustrate a larger reality. China is becoming a major power on the global stage. As it steps into those shoes, at least in cyber, it is paying attention to the larger implications of its words and actions. This seems to me a promising development.