China's online superhighways are firmly under lock and key. Image: iStock

President Xi Jinping talked about “open” societies during his keynote address at the Conference on Dialogue of Asian Civilisations in Beijing last week.

Layered on a big brushstroke canvas of geopolitical colors, he painted China as a picture of enlightenment in a world where dark shadows are lengthening.

“Today’s China is not only China’s China. It is Asia’s China and the world’s China. China in the future will take on an even more open stance to embrace the world,” he told his audience of dignitaries.

But that “embrace,” it appears, does not include the world’s superhighways of online debate.

Even while Xi was speaking on May 15, media reports confirmed that the world’s second-largest economy has now added Wikipedia to the banned list of websites, scorched by China’s Great Firewall.

According to a statement issued to the BBC, the Wikimedia Foundation revealed: “In late April, the Wikimedia Foundation determined that Wikipedia was no longer accessible in China. After closely analyzing our internal traffic reports, we can confirm that Wikipedia is currently blocked across all language versions.”

Ironically, Wikipedia had earlier disclosed that up to 10,000 domain names had been culled by Beijing as of September 2018, including major Western media sites and online behemoths such as Google.

In a report entitled Freedom on the Net 2018: The Rise of Digital Authoritarianism, author Adrian Shahbaz said:

“China was once again the worst abuser of internet freedom in 2018, and over the past year, its government hosted media officials from dozens of countries for two- and three-week seminars on its sprawling system of censorship and surveillance.”

The research director for technology and democracy went on to illustrate the gaping holes in Xi’s ‘open society’ approach in the annual online survey from Freedom House, an independent advocacy organization based in the United States.

He pointed out that the Communist Party of China is not only turning cyberspace into a “dystopian” wasteland, but exporting its sterile model abroad.

‘Silk Road’

“One key avenue for China’s multifaceted expansionism is the Belt and Road Initiative,” Shahbaz said. “The BRI includes a ‘digital Silk Road’ of Chinese-built fiber-optic networks that could expose internet traffic to greater monitoring by local and Chinese intelligence agencies, particularly given that China is determined to set the technical standards for how the next generation of traffic is coded and transmitted.

“To this end, China has organized forums where it can impart its norms to authoritarian-leaning governments, like the 2017 World Internet Conference in Wuzhen,” he added.

On the home front, the controversial Cybersecurity Law has virtual jaws of reality steel.

At the heart of the legislation is a draconian clause, forcing domestic and overseas companies to keep their network data in China. For individual netizens, it is the equivalent of Big Brother peeping over your keyboard.

“Internet controls within China reached new extremes in 2018 with the implementation of the sweeping Cybersecurity Law and upgrades to surveillance technology,” the Freedom on the Net 2018 report stated.

Shades of an Orwellian future have already clouded Xi’s vaunted vision with the language coming out of Beijing resembling the doublespeak nightmare of 1984.

In part, the trade war with the United States has exasperated the situation with internet freedom deteriorating as tensions between the two nations continue to rise.

“Absolute freedom leads to freedom for no one,” the state-run Global Times newspaper stated in a commentary. “Compared to US-style internet regulation which is full of problems, China’s approach showed its worthiness.

“Labeling China as an authoritarian country and calling countries that are learning from China authoritarian is dividing the internet into two completely different fronts, and splitting the internet in two,” it added.

“US media needs to know that if more countries start to follow Beijing’s footsteps in internet governance while pursuing democracy in social media, it means China must have done something right,” Global Times concluded.

‘Closed sign’

Indeed, an online world fragmenting into two spheres of influence is gaining traction. One, of course, is destined to always have a “closed sign” hanging over what the CCP deems as undesirable portals.

Apart from controlling what the vast internet population can and cannot read without a VPN, or Virtual Private Network, blocking Western search engines and social media sites has allowed China’s cyber giants to flourish.

The big four of Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu and JD.com have a virtual monopoly. Outsiders are not tolerated unless they are home-grown.

Unfortunately, that is unlikely to change in the future.

Adam Segal, an expert in emerging technologies and national security at the Council on Foreign Relations, outlined the options in an essay entitled When China Rules the Web for Foreign Affairs:

“China’s continued rise as a cyber-superpower is not guaranteed. Top-down, state-led efforts at innovation in artificial intelligence, quantum computing, robotics, and other ambitious technologies may well fail. Chinese technology companies will face economic and political pressures as they globalize.

“Chinese citizens, although they appear to have little expectation of privacy from their government, may demand more from private firms. The United States may reenergize its own digital diplomacy, and the US economy may rediscover the dynamism that allowed it to create so much of the modern world’s technology.

“But given China’s size and technological sophistication, Beijing has a good chance of succeeding – thereby remaking cyberspace in its own image. If this happens, the internet will be less global and less open. A major part of it will run Chinese applications over Chinese-made hardware. And Beijing will reap the economic, diplomatic, national security and intelligence benefits that once flowed to Washington.”

Maybe, after all, this is Xi’s “open society,” ensconced in a Great Firewall inferno of public opinion?

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