Mo Zhixu: Fear of Losing Control: Why China Is Implementing an Internet Security Law

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Published: October 4, 2015

“[T]he existence of a relatively free, relaxed, and anonymous Internet for the regime is ‘the root of all evil.’”

August 5 was the last day that opinions were solicited by the government for its new Internet Security Law, meaning that in the near future the legislation will be formally unveiled. In draft form, many of its clauses have already attracted scrutiny: for example, the draft stresses that Internet sovereignty is the extension of state sovereignty into cyberspace; it also takes as its objective “protecting the sovereignty of cyberspace and national security,” granting almost unlimited powers to the administrative organs in charge of the Internet. Many think that the Chinese government is setting up a “national Intranet.”

The draft law holds website operators primarily responsible for the content on their websites, with detailed and comprehensive rules, particularly on cyber security. For instance, website operators have a duty to deal with illegal information (Article 40), they must prevent the transmission or publication on their platforms or software information that violates regulations (Article 41), and they’re required to provide all necessary support to investigatory organs (Article 23), and so on. The draft law also gives the relevant departments the power to punish those transmitting information found to be in violation, as well as to block such information (Article 43), and even to “shut down the Internet according to the law” (Article 50).

But what has attracted the most attention from regular Internet users is the real name registration system, which ensures that all information posted to the Internet can be traced to its origin (Article 20). With all this—granting state agencies extraordinary powers, forcing website operators to take total responsibility and dutifully follow the law, and funneling Internet users into a monitored real-name system—a cyberspace is created in which strict control is exercised, and from which there is no escape.

That the “Internet Security Law” would be such should come as no surprise. For the last several years, Beijing has upped its control of the Internet; the purge of two years ago [in which famous users of Sina Weibo who were critical of the government were publicly humiliated and in some cases jailed] is still in the memory of many. In the eyes of the authorities, control of the Internet is not just a matter of regular social management; it involves the so-called “national security,” or in other words, the stability of the regime. Control of the Internet has enormous strategic significance.

In my view, Internet control is of supreme importance for a totalitarian regime because of the social consequences of marketization and modernization: the regime on the one hand needed to introduce markets in order to keep the country running, but on the other hand, the social fallout of this process could also be subversive. Since the Internet is the most likely space in which this subversive effect would begin, it has become something that the Chinese rulers must control with utter thoroughness.

Before market reforms, the totalitarian system in China had no civil society to speak of, and the movement of resources, information, and people were all under its absolute control. The work unit (单位) and People’s Communes (人民公社) were the basic social structures, and every individual was integrated into a system of direct management and even personal control. Through this, the system gained extraordinary stability. Of course, such a system also lost its vitality, falling into stagnation and want which not only exemplified the differences with the free world in terms of economic, scientific, and military development, but also brought general dissatisfaction, including inside the the ruling group itself.

This apparatus saps the energy from the system, and in extreme cases can become another threat to it. The massive changes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe to a large degree demonstrated this. In this regard, mainland China’s limited introduction of market economy can be seen as a need for self-repair to overcome its own systemic deficiencies, narrow the gap between it and the rest of the world in the development of its economy, science and military, and boost the vigor and lifespan of the dictatorship.

Over the last 30 years the market reforms in China have to a very large degree achieved those goals: markets have brought economic development, they’ve overcome general stagnation and underdevelopment, and have indeed lessened the gap between China and the rest of the world on the economic, scientific, and military fronts. This is the basis of the so-called “Three Self-Confidences.” It’s also clear that reforms have since the beginning all been about preserving the dictatorship, not what some wishful observers think — a step in the transformation of China’s polity toward a democracy.

However, while the regime gained all these benefits, markets have indeed brought new challenges for the maintenance of dictatorship.

First, market reform requires the free movement of capital, information, and people, so members of society need to be granted personal rights, economic rights, and cultural (and consumption) rights. This also inevitably brings about the dissolution of the work unit and commune system, and removes the vast majority of the people from direct, personal control by the state.

Secondly, marketization has brought about new constellation of interests and resulted in new social groups, who each have their own interests and demands, one after another. For instance, statistics from varying sources all indicate that mass incidents [protests involving between dozens and tens of thousands of people] have gone straight up in recent years.

Finally, marketization and opening up have the inevitable effect of stimulating demands for rights from newly emerged classes, spreading liberal ideas, and expanding the social base of people who harbor fundamental suspicions about the status quo.

All these changes on the one hand bring endless pressure for the authorities to engage in “stability maintenance,” and on the other become a primordial fear they will never be able to shake: The vast masses, who are not under direct administrative control and who are free to move, have a natural desire for rights and interests that stand in opposition to the system; they have a natural affinity for freedom. As soon as the social and economic conditions appear—that is to say, once a crisis descends—this vast group is entirely capable of turning around, questioning the fundamental legitimacy of the system, and setting off a subversive social movement.

This fear has stalked China’s marketization, and the result of it is the increasing rigidity of the stability maintenance system and the covering-all grid of social management.

A relatively free, relaxed, and anonymous Internet has offered just such a suitable platform for such a possibility, and has thus become a thorn in Beijing’s eye. On the one hand, the mainland does not have freedom of speech; all media are still owned and controlled by the government, making the Internet the most important platform for the spreading of liberal thought. On the other hand, China has no freedom of association, and no formal opposition group can form, so cyberspace offers the tools for all kinds of informal associations and opposition networks, and facilitates protest actions. For the authorities, the Internet is the most important, or even only, platform for people under no direct control to assemble together. Not only that, but as soon as the right social conditions arise, and doubts about the system bubble up widely in society, the Internet is the only place it could converge, potentially becoming a platform for revolutionary mobilization. Because of all this, the existence of the Internet for the regime is “the root of all evil.”

Over the last few years, Beijing has launched wave after wave of attacks against the spread of all manner of ideas and protests on the Internet. These attacks have first of all targeted activists that are known to the authorities: through implementing the grid of stability maintenance system, and through a continuous purge from the Internet [through account deletion or censorship], activists have been put under thorough control and pressure. This is evident in the recent mass arrest of lawyers since July 10. After years of continuous repression, they have already eliminated the possibility of any organized resistance developing; and because of this, in the eyes of the authorities, they have already reduced to the utmost the possibility of an organized and subversive movement.

But just eliminating the threat of organized resistance doesn’t mean Beijing can sleep peacefully; there’s still the possibility that under certain economic and social conditions, mass incidents could take place, forming a social movement that topples the regime. If such a movement were to happen, cyberspace and Internet tools again become crucial—their immediacy and scope give them explosive and revolutionary possibilities. For the authorities, getting rid of this is like buying the ultimate insurance policy; or put another way, like finding the final puzzle piece for regime security. This is precisely the base reason for the “Internet Security Law,” and the draft version completely displays Beijing’s intent.

The regime’s claims about Internet sovereignty being the enbodiment and extension of state sovereignty are just a means to block information inflow from the world, and eliminate the voices of support for China’s civil resistance and social movement. Pushing the responsibility onto Internet operators is to thoroughly purge the voices that call the legitimacy of the regime into question, and to get rid of all manner of dissent and protest. And finally, the real name registration system is a means for ridding the Internet of anonymity, allowing the authorities to identify the activists and dissenters, driving them completely out of cyberspace.

After the roll-out of the “Internet Security Law,” the Internet will never have the same freedom, tolerance, and anonymity which have been steadily diminishing anyway. As a result, mainland China’s voices for liberalization and opposition will gradually lose their only platform. And then, even if there are the right social and economic conditions, Beijing will still be able to prevent the Internet from becoming a platform for people and ideas to coalesce, thus lowering the possibility of sudden large-scale gatherings, and stopping the Internet from acting as a source of revolutionary mobilization. The so-called “shut down the Internet according to law” article in the new legislation makes clear this intent.

There is no suspense or uncertainty about the goal of the “Internet Security Law”: it is to keep the dictatorial system in power. Since its entry to China, the Internet has been heralded as the agent of “change in China,” but as the “Internet Security Law” is enacted, this virtual space will fall under the same strict control as real space, and all the romance will depart like a dying breath.

After losing this important, or even sole platform, what form will China’s civil resistance take? Without the Internet as a meeting place for people and ideas, what form will sudden, mass protests take? None of these questions have ready-made answers, but there is no doubt that the “Internet Security Law” will bring the gradual silencing of the Internet, the herald of an unendurable ice age. This will profoundly influence, and even transform, the development of Chinese society.

Mo Zhixu (莫之许)

Mo Zhixu (莫之许), pen name of Zhao Hui (赵晖), is a Beijing-based Chinese dissident intellectual and a frequent contributor to Chinese-language publications, known for his incisive views on Chinese politics and opposition. He is the co-author of “China at the Tipping Point? Authoritarianism and Contestation” in the January, 2013, issue of Journal of Democracy.
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