Internet Sovereignty and China: Beyond the Wuzhen Summit

On 16 November, the third World Internet Conference (WIC) will open in Wuzhen, Zhejiang Province, under the auspices of the Cyber Administration of China. One of the primary goals of the event is the promotion of a multilateral Internet governance model based on the notion that individual nations should be able to independently develop, govern, and use the Internet. Last year the event gained a remarkable amount of media coverage thanks to the presence of President Xi Jinping, who delivered the keynote speech in which he stressed the need for the international community to ‘work together to build a multilateral, democratic, and transparent global Internet governance system.’

This year, President Xi will not attend the conference in person, but will instead prepare a video-recorded message. Very likely, the proposed narrative will be in line with the one that has emerged from his previous official speeches on Internet-related topics, including those that he gave at the Brazilian National Congress in July 2014, at the Work Conference for Cybersecurity and Informatisation last April, or, more recently, at the study session of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CCP) in October 2016. In all these circumstances, President Xi highlighted the importance of ‘Internet sovereignty’ (wangluo zhuquan), an issue that can be considered a pillar of the CCP’s new approach towards the Internet.

Defining Internet Sovereignty

‘Internet sovereignty’ generally refers to a ‘bordered Internet based on territorial sovereignty’. This notion came to prominence in 2010, when the Information Office of the State Council published a White Paper on the Internet in China in the wake of Google’s decision to redirect its server to Hong Kong. In this document, it was specified that ‘within Chinese territory the Internet is under the jurisdiction of Chinese sovereignty’. As such, this concept can easily be misunderstood as being a ploy of the Chinese authorities to achieve their own end of maintaining strong control over what the Chinese netizens can (and cannot) do online. Yet, such an idea has roots in wider international debates, as the Chinese academy has not failed to point out on several occasions. Most notably, in June 2014, the People’s Daily published a set of interviews with five Chinese professors and experts, including Fang Binxing, former president of the University of Post and Telecommunication and main architect of the Great Firewall, the software that up to this day prevents Chinese netizens from reaching out to certain parts of the global Internet.

All five of the scholars and experts in the report agreed on one point: the necessity to make sure that each country maintains the basic principles of private international law, according to which the internet should be regulated by domestic laws. In particular, Professor Fang reminded the readers that in 2004, the United Nations had already established their first group of governmental experts on developments in the field of information and telecommunications in the context of international security. The main goal of this group was to boost cooperation in order to solve potential threats in the field of information security. Fang stressed it was that very international body which in 2013 published a report stating that: ‘State sovereignty and international norms and principles that flow from sovereignty apply to State conduct of [information and communications technology (ICT)] related activism and to their jurisdiction over ICT infrastructure within their territory.’ In other words, the concepts of Internet sovereignty and of a multilateral Internet governance model are already widely accepted at the international level, and they, therefore, cannot be simply labelled as a strategy adopted by Chinese government.

Promoting Internet Sovereignty and the Multilateral Internet Model

In such a context, the WIC has become an important platform to promote a multilateral model of Internet governance that best suits the needs of the Chinese government. Surprisingly, this attempt to further the cyber-interests of the Chinese authorities has seen the involvement of not only prominent politicians from several foreign countries, but also international executives and scholars. The title of the third WIC draws on high-flying rhetoric: ‘Innovation-driven Internet Development for the Benefit of All—Building a Community of Common Future in Cyberspace.’ The organisers are expecting around one thousand two hundred guests from every corner of the world, including several government representatives and more than three hundred delegates from business and academic institutions.

According to the official website of the event, ‘the Conference, for the first time, will release cutting edge scientific achievements in the Internet sector to the world stage, displaying globally leading state of the art Internet techniques.’ This should not be discounted as pure wishful thinking. Indeed, in recent years, the Chinese academic community has been very active in researching Internet governance. During a conference held in Wuhan last September, Professor Wu Jianping from Tsinghua University acknowledged that ‘before 2013 in China there were [already] ninety-six colleges and universities specialising in fields related to information security.’ Nevertheless, he advised the Chinese government to establish more high-level masters and doctoral degrees on these matters in order to compete at the international level.

In more general terms, the academic attention to Chinese Internet governance has been growing steadily since 2012, after the rise to power of the current leadership. According to data provided by the Chinese academic database CNKI, from 2011 to 2015 the number of publications on issues related to Chinese Internet governance jumped from sixty to 317.



Data collection, 20 October 2016 (CNKI database)

This growing scholarly attention is not limited to the Chinese academia. A similar trend can also be observed in the global academic database Scopus.



Data collection, 20 October 2016

This growth in the interest toward Internet governance took place both in China and abroad after Xi Jinping started his mandate. This situation may be due to several factors. First, it might be related to a series of new policies adopted by the Chinese leadership in the field of Internet governance with serious ramifications at the international level. Particularly notable in this regard is the establishment of the Central Leading Small Group for Internet and Informatisation (zhongyang wangluo anquan he xinxihua lingdao xiaozu), announced in November 2013. According to Xinhua, it was at the opening ceremony of the first session of this Leading Small Group that Xi declared that the ‘[Chinese government] must vigorously launch bilateral and multilateral cooperation and exchange concerning the Internet.’ Second, it was in the same year that Edward Snowden made important revelations about United States cyber-security programmes, raising global concerns over the way governments can use the Internet to survey and control their citizens.

Pushing Forward the Multilateral Model

Since the beginning of his mandate, Xi has not only stressed the importance of promoting a multilateral model of Internet governance, but has also repeatedly emphasised the necessity to reform the status quo with the direct involvement of companies, academia, and civil society. This point was raised during both the first and the second gathering of the WIC. In Xi’s view, the Internet model is currently managed by a limited numbers of parties—especially the United States—but it should, instead, be actively regulated by all countries. It is safe to predict that the upcoming WIC will draw on similar themes.

In the meantime, institutions like the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN)—the non-profit organisation responsible for the coordination, maintenance and procedures of several databases related to the namespaces of the Internet—are going through important changes. Recently, the US government has let a contract lapse that gave it control over part of the ICANN for decades. At the same time, the Chinese promotion of the multilateral model is finding growing international support. One of the most important developments in this direction comes from a draft International Code of Conduct for Information Security jointly submitted to the United Nations in 2015 by representatives from China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, the Russian Federation, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. The eighth point of the document is particularly poignant as it states that:

All States must play the same role in, and carry equal responsibility for, international governance of the Internet, its security, continuity and stability of operation, and its development in a way which promotes the establishment of multilateral, transparent and democratic international Internet governance mechanisms which ensure an equitable distribution of resources, facilitate access for all and ensure the stable and secure functioning of the Internet.

To conclude, the Chinese government has been able to get both academia and private actors involved in promoting the ideas of a multilateral model of Internet governance both at a domestic and—to some extent—international level. In this way, the CCP has taken advantage of the crisis of the status quo of Internet governance, as highlighted by the continued participation in the WIC by global Internet companies such Facebook, Apple, and LinkedIn, as well as by the appointment of Fadi Chehade, former head at ICANN, as a formal advisor to the WIC. The scholar Milton Muller labelled Chehade’s decision to leave ICANN a ‘mistake’ and criticised ‘the logic or practicality of helping President Xi promote a sovereigntist vision for the Internet.’ With the future of the current status quo increasingly in doubt, it remains to be seen which forms Internet governance will take in the future—both globally and in China.


Gianluigi Negro
Gianluigi Negro

Postdoctoral Researcher at the Faculty of Communication Sciences of the Università della Svizzera Italiana (USI). His research focuses on the regulation and governance of the Chinese Internet, as well as on web 2.0 platforms in China.