There are worries that India's digital identity program Aadhaar will become a mass surveillance tool for governments and corporates. Photo: iStock
Surveillance spending in China's Xinjiang region has ballooned in recent years, with facial recognition, iris scanners, DNA collection and artificial intelligence deployed across the province in the name of preventing terrorism. Image: iStock

In a key speech in 2000, Bill Clinton dismissed China’s attempts “to crack down on the Internet,” sarcastically wishing Chinese leaders “Good luck” with their draconian effort to “nail Jello to the wall.”

The former US Democratic president also predicted that the Internet would democratize the People’s Republic of China (PRC) because, he argued, “In the new [21st] century, liberty will spread by cell phone and cable modem.”

But, more than 18 years later, under President Xi Jinping’s watch, the communist-ruled PRC has succeeded in doing just the opposite of what Clinton, US president from 1993 to 2001, joked about and envisaged.

This has, in many respects, contributed to the US’s current hostilities with China.

For starters, online censorship in China is almost as old as the Internet itself and has always been strict. The Chinese government has long built and used the so-called Great Firewall of China (GFC) – a very large and sophisticated system that prevents its people from accessing the unwanted websites of tech giants, such as Facebook, Twitter, Google and YouTube, and most of the main Western news outlets.

That said, until 2012, the Chinese had some limited freedom to access information and express their views online. It’s why in July that year, Eric Schmidt, then Google’s chairman, predicted that technology and information penetration in China would eventually bring down its GFC and even lead to the political opening of the one-party authoritarian regime.

Online censorship in China is almost as old as the Internet itself and has always been strict

But again, like Clinton, Schmidt made completely the wrong bet because things have changed radically since Xi came to power in late 2012. Under his rule, not only has the Chinese government fortified its GFC, it has successfully built other tools to harden internet censorship. These include the Great Cannon, which was launched in 2015 to alter and replace online content. Also, China has used draconian regulations, such as the cybersecurity law, to tighten control over the Internet.

To justify its strict Internet surveillance and censorship, the Chinese leadership argues that national governments have the ultimate right to control the Internet within their borders. Addressing China’s World Internet Conference (WIC) in Wuzhen in December 2015, which was attended by a few leaders from authoritarian countries, Xi promoted what he called “cyber sovereignty.” The autocrat asserted that individual countries should have the right to “independently choose their own path of cyber-development, model of cyber regulation and Internet public policies.”

The WIC’s name suggests that it is an international forum that aims to champion internet freedom and connectivity, and part of Xi’s 2015 speech reflected that image. In that intervention, he rightly acknowledged that “The Internet has turned the world into a global village where distance no longer prevents people from interacting with each other” and, thus, urged other countries to “advance opening-up […] in cyberspace and further substantiate and enhance the opening-up efforts.”

He then promised that his government “will develop an uplifting cyberculture … and promote the integration of Internet development with economic and social progress” because its “goal is to ensure that the more than 1.3 billion Chinese people … can all enjoy the benefits of Internet development.”

But, as already noted, it’s now commonplace that in his era, when Xi talks about openness, his country does the opposite. Instead of opening its cyberspace, China seeks to squeeze it. The annual WIC has become a platform for Beijing to assert and even promote its cyber governance model. At its fifth event, which ended on November 9, Huang Kunming, head of the Communist Party’s propaganda department, restated its right – and every country’s right – to manage the Internet its own way.

It is why Xi’s promise to liberalize China’s cyberspace is, as some noted, now ringing hollow, leading to “commitment fatigue” among executives from top US tech firms, such as Google and Apple. This is reflected by their notable no-show at China’s Internet conference this year.

Undeniably, the annual event came at a time when China’s Internet freedom reached rock bottom. The tightly censored country “was the world’s worst abuser of Internet freedom in [Freedom House’s 2018] Freedom on the Net for the fourth consecutive year.”

What’s more, according to the US-based watchdog, China has not just pursued “digital authoritarianism” at home but also exported it globally. This is a key reason why, it said, “the Internet is growing less free around the world, and democracy itself is withering under its influence.”

China has not just pursued “digital authoritarianism” at home but also exported it globally

As usual, China rejected such findings and remarks, calling them “purely fictional, unprofessional and irresponsible.”

Still, many observers, including liberal-minded people in China and other undemocratic countries, would certainly agree with Freedom House’s assessment.

In any case, it is now clear that the US is very wary of China’s strict cyber control and its advocacy of “cyber sovereignty.”

In remarks at the Bloomberg New Economy Forum in Singapore last week, Henry M Paulson, Jr, US Secretary of the Treasury from 2006 to 2009, said the US and the European Union, “while not in perfect agreement with one another, both reject” China’s argument “for cyber sovereignty and the right of the state to control data and cross-border data flows.”

What’s more, according to Paulson, there are a number of “messages [or intentions and ambitions] from Beijing over the last five years” (i.e. after Xi assumed power) that have heightened the US’s confrontation with China. One of these is that Beijing “exports aspects of its model – and its standards – through initiatives like the Belt and Road [Initiative].”

Paulson added, “For example, while most of the headlines about the Belt and Road focus on ports, power generation, and highways, the unsung story may be the “Digital Silk Road,” an initiative that could export China’s model of cyber-governance — the very model that I earlier mentioned as a source of tension with the US and the EU.”

In “remarks on the [Donald Trump] administration’s policy toward China” last month, US Vice President Mike Pence also noted that “in recent years, China has taken a sharp U-turn toward control and oppression of its own people.”

Pence explained, “Today, China has built an unparalleled surveillance state, and it’s growing more expansive and intrusive … What they call the ‘Great Firewall of China’ likewise grows higher, drastically restricting the free flow of information to the Chinese people.”

What particularly heightens American resentment toward China is that the latter has now gone in the opposite direction that Bill Clinton and many other American politicians believed it would 18 years ago.

Clinton ardently and confidently supported deep engagement with China. He made the “Jell-O” comments in his speech on the China Trade Bill that paved the way for the US to normalize trade relations with China and for the latter to join the WTO in 2001.

In that address, while recognizing that the US “[cannot control] the path that China takes to the future” and that its membership in the WTO “will not create a free society in China overnight,” Clinton believed that his country could “work to pull China in the right direction” and its WTO membership would “move China faster and further in the right direction.”

This is because, by joining the organization, “China is not simply agreeing to import more of our products; it is agreeing to import one of democracy’s most cherished values: economic freedom,” Clinton said. “The more China liberalizes its economy, the more fully it will liberate the potential of its people… And when individuals have the power, not just to dream but to realize their dreams, they will demand a greater say.”

In his comments on China last month, Pence recalled, “America agreed to give Beijing open access to our economy [and] brought China into the [WTO] … in the hope that freedom in China would expand in all of its forms – not just economically, but politically. But that hope has gone unfulfilled.”

In his intervention, Paulson also stated that the US “played the decisive role in facilitating” China’s WTO entry. “Yet 17 years after,” he said, the country “still has not opened its economy to foreign competition in so many areas,” adding, “This is simply unacceptable.”

What makes the US even more resentful is the fact that while it has not really opened up economically and, especially, politically, the PRC has greatly benefited from its WTO admission. Pence highlighted that fact, pointing out, “Over the past 17 years, China’s GDP has grown nine-fold; it’s become the second-largest economy in the world,” while Paulson was more precise, stating, “Its $1 trillion economy in 2001 has become a $13 trillion behemoth.”

On this reading, it is not surprising that Pence delivered what is regarded as the strongest and broadest indictment of China’s behavior by any American leader since the Cold War, while other present and former US officials, as well as the American public in general, increasingly view China negatively.

Indeed, as Paulson noted, such a “negative view of China unites politicians from both left and right who agree on nothing else.”

Against this background, while there is some thaw ahead of the Trump-Xi meeting in Argentina later this month, the US’s present antipathy toward China won’t go away easily – unless Beijing makes significant changes to its domestic and foreign policies.

The problem is, under Xi’s watch, China is unlikely to make the changes and reforms that the US long hoped for and now urgently insists on. After all, Xi’s authoritarian and forceful rule is a – if not the – main factor behind the current stalemate in the relations between the world’s two biggest powers.

Xuan Loc Doan

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.

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