Academic journal article China Perspectives

Becoming a Cyber Power: China's Cybersecurity Upgrade and Its Consequences

Academic journal article China Perspectives

Becoming a Cyber Power: China's Cybersecurity Upgrade and Its Consequences

Article excerpt

On 21 January 2015, Internet users in China who were trying to access blocked websites and smartphone apps encountered difficulties connecting to virtual private networks (VPNs), a popular circumvention tool for bypassing censorship in a country where government control of online space has been notorious. Astrill, StrongVPN and Golden Frog, three major providers of commercial VPN services that reported service disruptions, all blamed the interference on the Chinese cyberspace authorities. The attack, they claimed, was carried out with a level of sophistication unseen before. (1)

Having the world's largest online population with more than 600 million Internet users, China has also been known for its highly restrictive Internet control, which forms an integral part of the government's extensive oversight of information flow, ranging from media to culture. A recent Freedom House report detailed the government's sophisticated techniques to impose information control, including strategic control over key information nodes, censorship outsourcing, stronger Party leadership, ideological re-emphasis, and a crackdown on social media.(2)But so far, the Chinese authorities have kept their hands off the use of VPNs, which leaves a small window for China's Internet users - from ordinary surfers to privileged elites - to enjoy an unfettered Internet for entertainment and professional uses. The clampdown on VPNs hence suggests the government's new thinking with respect to circumvention around the censors, or what is known as the Great Firewall (fanghuoqiang ???). What explains the change? And why such timing? State media later said that the VPN block was due to an upgrade of the Great Firewall,(3)and senior state officials, for the first time, even acknowledged responsibility. According to Wen Ku, director of telecom development at the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), the VPN block was intended to ensure the healthy and lawful development of the Internet. (4) Although VPN providers managed to recover their services by reconfiguring their settings to outwit the Great Firewall, it appeared that Chinese cyberspace authorities are serious and open about clamping down on circumvention tools, and that they are refining their technology to shut off China's Internet and turn it into an Intranet if necessary. The block also appeared as the latest episode in a series of cyber-policing measures over the past few months, including the blocking of Google and Gmail and deliberate attacks on foreign sites such as Microsoft, Yahoo, and Apple. While these measures reflect the continuation of China's long-standing policy to increase oversight on the Internet, they further suggest that the authorities are taking steps to control segments in cyberspace that cannot be readily monitored - channels that were once allowed to leave an open door for Internet users to access information from foreign sources.

This article begins by discussing possible reasons behind the VPN block and linking it to the institutional expansion of the cyberspace authorities, which has resulted in a series of measures to tighten up cybersecurity. It argues that these measures reflect two main strategies: content control and technological self-sufficiency. These two strategies are key building blocks in China's conception of cybersecurity, a notion defined by Chinese officials as technologies and processes designed to protect against Internet-based threats to a wide range of domains, including political and ideological integrity, data, technology, applications, businesses, and communication channels.(5)These strategies are not only aimed at maintaining regime survival and protecting national security, but are also intended to nurture the domestic economy - particularly the technology industry. The increasingly restrictive Internet policies suggest that China is keen to pursue cybersecurity as a national priority, and is doing so regardless of the serious consequences it might entail. …

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