The Pivot in Chinese Cybergovernance

By Creemers, Rogier | China Perspectives, October 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

The Pivot in Chinese Cybergovernance


Creemers, Rogier, China Perspectives


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Introduction

The Internet has become a central element of the Chinese government's ambitious reform agenda as presented in the Third and Fourth Plenums of the 18th Party Congress. In March 2015, Premier Li Keqiang unveiled the "Internet Plus" plan, an ambitious agenda that leverages the power of information technology for economic growth and development. (1) A specific, elaborate implementation plan was published in July. (2) Similar, more detailed plans address the development of sectors as diverse as e-commerce, online finance, and tech entrepreneurship. Big data has been enlisted in an effort to enhance the Party's governing ability.

Nevertheless, following the accession of the Xi leadership in 2012, the Internet and information technology were viewed with considerable suspicion. Social media had provided a platform for raucous political debate, criticism of Party authorities and revelation of corruption and official abuses. It was also seen as a channel for "foreign hostile forces" (guowai didui shili ...) to undermine China's political stability. Consequently, significant institutional, regulatory and policy changes were made in order to regain control over the Internet and pave the way for the strategies outlined above. A new Central Committee apparatus was created, led by Xi Jinping personally. Second, new rules were introduced for the domestic Internet, ranging from social media and audio-visual content to technology suppliers.

This paper will review these changes and discuss their implications for the role of the Internet in governance and social management. This taps into two academic debates and two important policy areas that are increasingly coalescing: the notion of the Internet as a space for communication and organisation on the one hand, and information technology as a facilitator of government intervention, surveillance, and control on the other.

Increasing censorship during the second half of the Hu era notwithstanding, the Internet became a vibrant space for social interaction and public exchange with, as Hu Yong phrases it, a "cacophony" (xuanhua ...) of voices. (3) Scholars have disagreed about the degree of intentionality with which this space was created or condoned. Jonathan Sullivan, for instance, claims that social media tools enabled the Party to better monitor its agents and respond to particular, specific concerns while ignoring their systemic causes. (4) Rebecca MacKinnon, for instance, argues that Internet blogs could serve as a "safety valve" by permitting opinions and dissent to be vented before they transform into mobilisation or political action. (5) Others, such as Milton Mueller (6) and Li Yonggang, (7) argue that the state's response to Internet developments was more characterised by improvisation and learning in continuously changing contexts. Nevertheless, most scholars agreed that the leadership's attitude towards the public discourse element of the Internet, and particularly social media, was ambivalent. In Alice Miller's view, this was one of the major symptoms of the political stasis that characterised the second half of the Hu administration.

Such ambivalence is completely absent from the state's stance on the technological and economic aspects of Internet development. As Gudrun Wacker already claimed in 2003, a Promethean optimism about the transformative role of technology in development, going back to the early days of industrialisation in late-Qing China, is common in Chinese governing circles. (9) Through state-funded initiatives, such as the 863 programme and the indigenous innovation agenda, China has sought to rapidly enhance domestic high-tech capabilities. Informatisation (xinxihua ...), the process of enhancing economic efficiency, improving governance, and strengthening social services through the application of information technologies, has been a priority for more than a decade. (10) Information technology was listed among the "Four New Modernisations" that the new leadership put forward in January 2013, mere weeks after its installation. …

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