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China's plan to control the future of the internet

Man uses cell phone to take picture of Christmas lights, which are out of focus
A man takes a photo in Beijing. Photo: Wang Zhao/AFP/Getty Images

President Xi Jinping is ramping up China's efforts to control speech on the internet at home and export that more restrictive model abroad, Adam Segal details in Foreign Affairs.

Why it matters: "Given China’s size and technological sophistication, Beijing has a good chance of succeeding — thereby remaking cyberspace in its own image," Segal warns. "If this happens, the internet will be less global and less open."

China is trying to pioneer what it calls “cyber-sovereignty,” Segal writes, or "a world of national Internets, with government control justified by the sovereign rights of states." That's in direct conflict with the U.S.-led vision of the internet as open, interoperable, reliable, and secure.

  • To that end, Xi is introducing strict regulations on Chinese tech and telecom companies, while seeking to cut China's dependence on foreign technology to maximize control.

Government control: Xi founded the Cyberspace Administration of China in 2014 to control online content and enhance cybersecurity.

  • Last year, the government told Tencent and other tech companies to freeze websites which included discussions about history, the military, and international relations. It later fined Tencent, Baidu, and Weibo for hosting banned content.
  • Officials have ordered telecom companies to block virtual private networks (VPNs) used to skirt censorship. Apple complied and removed VPNs from its App Store in China.
  • The government has mandated that private companies store their data in China, which means the government will likely have easy access to it.

Reducing foreign dependence: This year when ZTE, which relies on U.S.-made microchips and other equipment, had to shut down temporarily due to U.S. sanctions, Chinese concerns about foreign dependence deepened.

  • China is pushing its firms to develop 70% of the microchips used in China by 2025 and is investing $150 billion in the next decade to improve the design and manufacture of microprocessors.
  • China has ramped up its attempts to buyout U.S. semiconductor companies in recent years, biding 27 times between 2013-2016. Compare that to just six deals between 2000-2013.
  • China is also investing heavily in artificial intelligence and quantum computing, which could help it bypass conventional encryption.

What to watch:

  • China is graduating more science and engineering students than any other country and contributing 20% of the global investment in research and development. Experts say China could well become the dominant force in artificial intelligence within a decade.
  • China's efforts at information control are shaping the way even massive U.S. companies conduct business. Just today, about 1,000 Google employees signed a letter asking for more transparency about the project to bring a censored version of Google to China.
  • China is exporting data analysis, cloud storage, and surveillance to countries in Africa and the Middle East that are likely to support Beijing's vision of the internet's future.
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