Reporters Without Borders (RSF) urges the international community and the world’s Internet giants to resist China’s use of the concept of national “cyberspace sovereignty” as a pretext for exporting its Internet surveillance model.
The concept was reaffirmed again this week at China’s annual World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, in the eastern province of Zhejiang, whose participants included Apple CEO Tim Cook and Google CEO Sundar Pinchai.
China is “willing to work with the international community to respect cyberspace sovereignty and promote partnerships,” President Xi Jinping said in a message to the conference.
What Beijing wants is for the world’s governments to follow its example and impose a strictly controlled and monitored Internet in their own countries. RSF calls for no concessions to China’s repeated demands for a clampdown on cyberspace, a space intended to be free and borderless.
“Using sovereignty as a pretext, China is trying to legitimize the online control and surveillance of its citizens although, until now, the Internet was a way of escaping censorship,” said Cédric Alviani, the head of RSF’s East Asia desk. “If a majority of states adopted this vision of the Internet, it would mean the end of the free flow of information worldwide.”
Held annually for the past four years in Wuzhen, the World Internet Conference was dreamed up by the Chinese government with the aim of exporting its censorship model and, at the same time, reminding the world’s Internet giants that it is the Communist Party and not the market that determines how things are done in China.
Although the bosses of Apple and Google took the trouble to go all the way to Wuzhen, President Xi signalled who is boss in China by not attending himself and having his message read out by party propaganda chief Huang Kunming.
Repressive and protectionist model
China has 751 million Internet users – more than any other country and a fifth of the world’s total Internet user population. According to a report published to coincide with the conference, the digital sector now constitutes a third of the Chinese economy, the highest proportion in the world after the United States.
Thanks to a protectionist and strictly regulated model, China has spawned firms such as Baidu, Tecent, Alibaba and smartphone manufacturer Xiaomi that are extremely powerful in the domestic market.
Although banned in China, Google and Facebook are actively wooing the regime in the hope of one day being granted access to its fabulous internal market. Apple recently caused an international outcry by ridding its Chinese store of secure communications apps that journalists need to protect their sources and by withdrawing VPNs, which can be used to circumvent the “Great Firewall.”
RSF condemned these concessions to the Chinese government, as did David Kaye, the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of expression and opinion.
Ever since becoming president, Xi Jinping has proved to be a determined enemy of freedom of information, fine-tuning a sophisticated Internet surveillance system that employs more than 2 million people.
The world’s biggest prison for journalists and civil rights activists, China is ranked almost at the bottom, 176th out of 180 countries, in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index.