- China’s cyber sovereignty narrative is attractive to many small and mid-size cyber players, particularly countries which are seeking to challenge the US hegemony and need competitively priced digital products and services.
- Despite Beijing’s focus on cyber sovereignty, China’s position on cyber governance is not simply determined by government authorities, but rather the interaction between state agencies and businesses.
- The potential to synthesise China’s sovereignty-oriented approach with the more open approach promoted by Western countries may lead to countries from the Western bloc becoming more receptive to China’s cyber norms.
Global cyber governance is arguably dominated by a Western-centric approach, which is characterised by commitments to multi-stakeholderism. In this vision, cyber governance takes place in a multi-stakeholder structure based on openness, inclusion, bottom-up collaboration and consensual decision-making. Another common principle shared by Western countries is that global cyber governance should promote fundamental rights, particularly freedom of expression and the free flow of information. Nevertheless, this Western-centric cyber governance approach has been challenged by a group of non-Western countries, including China.
China is the world’s second-largest digital economy after the US. In 2020, China’s digital trade hit USD 203.6 billion. Meanwhile, China has been at the forefront of commercialising digital business models. The past decade has seen the rise of Chinese tech giants, such as Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent. Moreover, the outbreak of COVID-19 at the end of 2019 boosted the growth of digital businesses, further contributing to the digitalisation of the Chinese economy.
Using its fast-growing ICT industry, China has implemented a strategy to establish itself as a cyber norm entrepreneur. For instance, at the Second World Internet Conference, President Xi declared that the construction of Internet governance norms was the key to making China a cyber great power. Similarly, an article in leading party journal Qiushi stressed the importance of strengthening China’s influence on shaping global cyberspace norms.
China’s cyber norms
A cornerstone of China’s normative position on cyber governance is the concept of cyber sovereignty. This concept first appeared prominently in China’s 2010 white paper outlining its approach to cyberspace. In this document, China stressed that cyber sovereignty was the guiding principle in cyberspace and all countries should cooperated “on the basis of equality and mutual benefit”.
The most comprehensive description of cyber sovereignty can be found in China’s 2017 International Strategy of Cooperation on Cyberspace. This strategy stressed that the principle of sovereignty covers all aspects of state-to-state relations, including cyberspace, and that “countries should respect each other’s right to choose their own path of cyber development, model of cyber regulation and Internet public policies, and participate in international cyberspace governance on an equal footing”.
Another cyber norm promoted by China is the principle of multilateralism. Different from multi-stakeholderism promoted by many Western countries, China calls for a multilateral approach to governing cyberspace, stressing the importance of government involvement and a leading role for the UN. For China, the multi-stakeholder approach, which is promoted by the Western bloc, contributes to the construction of a private, distributed architecture of the Internet which poses a potential threat to state sovereignty.
China’s attempts at establishing global cyber norms
To promote these cyber norms, China has proactively used state-led multilateral and regional fora to shape global discourse on cyber governance. For instance, China has enforced its norm-promoting role under the UN’s framework. In its 2010 white paper, China argued that “the UN should be given full scope in international Internet administration”. An example of China’s efforts to act as a cyber norm entrepreneur was China’s opposition to the US’s proposal to apply the laws of armed conflict and the right of self-defence to cyberspace in the UN Group of Governmental Experts (GGE). Partly due to China and Russia’s opposition, GGE-participating countries failed to reach a consensus on a follow-up report on a related US proposal in 2017.
In addition, China’s norm-promoting efforts are bolstered by the Belt and Road Initiative, in particular the Digital Silk Road (DSR). For instance, China has established cyber sovereignty as the guiding principle when conducting DSR projects. “Full respect for cyber sovereignty” is identified as one of the fifteen general principles of the DSR, and principle thirteen encourages “cooperation and respect for independent development”. Moreover, when conducting DSR projects, China has actively promoted multilateralism and government involvement. For instance, in the report “The Belt and Road Initiative: Progress, Contributions and Prospects”, Beijing stressed the importance of establishing a multilateral Internet governance framework.
China has also used regional platforms to promote its cyber norms. The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, for instance, is a major regional forum for China. In 2011, China and Russia, along with other like-minded members of the Organisation, jointly submitted the “International Code of Conduct for Information Security” to the UN. This code of conduct prioritised cyber sovereignty as the guiding principle.
Is China’s approach an attractive alternative?
China’s approach to cyber governance is attractive to a number of developing countries. Some countries outside the Western bloc prefer an Internet based on non-Western standards and values. In particular, they see the sovereignty-oriented cyber governance approach as a way to challenge US hegemony in cyberspace. For instance, Zimbabwe, Djibouti and Uganda have explicitly expressed their concerns over joining an Internet “that’s just a gateway” for Western companies, such as Facebook and Google, to colonise them digitally. In such a context, the Chinese approach appears to be an ideal partner for countries seeking to challenge the US hegemony and needing competitively priced ICT products and services.
The lines between China’s sovereignty-oriented, state-led approach and the Western bloc’s more open approach are more blurred than they might appear
In particular, through the DSR, China offers digital infrastructure and software at good prices. Moreover, DSR-related investment contributes to filling the world’s infrastructure financing gap, which is estimated to reach USD 15 trillion by 2040. By 2018, investment in digital infrastructure projects under the framework of DSR had reached USD 79 billion. One indicator of acceptance of China’s cyber governance approach is the number of countries participating in the DSR. By 2019, China had signed cooperative agreements with sixteen countries under the DSR framework. In contrast, countries within the Western bloc are more reluctant to China’s cyber norms. For instance, US Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information Lawrence Strickling criticised China’s cyber governance approach for pursuing more control over cyberspace.
Nevertheless, in recent years, the lines between China’s sovereignty-oriented, state-led approach and the Western bloc’s more open approach are more blurred than they might appear. On the one hand, despite Beijing’s focus on cyber sovereignty and government involvement in its cyber governance approach, China’s position on cyber governance is not simply determined by government authorities, but rather is a result of the interaction between state agencies and businesses. In particular, recent reforms demonstrate the possibility of Chinese businesses holding increased influence. For instance, in October 2021, China’s State Council’s national strategy for technical standards was released, which called for a larger role for industry actors when setting technical standards.
On the other hand, some countries from the Western bloc have placed more emphasis on digital sovereignty and government involvement to protect their own markets from US and Chinese technology giants. The EU, for instance, believes that digital sovereignty is the key to counterbalancing US hegemony in cyberspace. Despite the fact that there are fundamental differences between the EU’s and China’s approaches to cyber governance, Brussels might arguably serve as a mediator in US-China cyber disputes, facilitating a possible convergence between US and Chinese approaches.
China’s sovereignty narrative is attractive to some small and mid-size cyber players, because the Chinese government may appear to be an ideal partner for countries seeking to challenge US hegemony and needing competitively priced digital products and services. The blurring of the lines between China’s sovereignty-oriented approach and the more open approach promoted by Western countries may lead to countries from the Western bloc becoming more receptive to China’s cyber norms. In particular, despite fundamental differences between the EU’s digital sovereignty and China’s cyber sovereignty, Brussels has the potential to facilitate a possible convergence between the Western approach and China’s sovereignty-oriented approach.
This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the China Foresight Forum, LSE IDEAS, nor The London School of Economics and Political Science.