As someone who spends a good deal of time in China, I find that I can access all I want on the internet here. The search engines are generally better, the scholarly resources superior to elsewhere, and the news services reliable and well-informed. At the same time, China has developed a sophisticated approach to internet responsibility, which is carried out by the tech companies themselves. For example, as a few countries ponder what to do with Facebook after the live-streaming of the Christchurch massacre in New Zealand, the Chinese approach is very simple: it would not happen here. In fact, Facebook is unable to operate in China precisely because of its fundamental approach, which leads to chaos, disruption and insecurity. Instead, one can use Wechat, Weibo and many other platforms, which are socially responsible. Even more, this approach actually fosters democracy – socialist democracy.
And guess what: more and more countries are adopting a version of China’s model, as this article from the Global Times points out:
If targeting Beijing’s internet regulation is the new US strategy to wrestle with China in an imaginary cold war, Washington will be disappointed. Because China’s continuously improving management over the internet is becoming a trend in other countries and regions.
This is the answer to the question why “the US is losing a major front to China in the new cold war,” a topic raised by Bloomberg, which noted that “a swathe of the world is adopting China’s vision for a tightly controlled internet over the unfettered American approach.”
In January 2019, Vietnam passed a tight cybersecurity law, which requires social media in the country to remove offending content from their platforms and store personal data on users. Over a month later, Thailand also passed a similar bill. It is “a stunning ideological coup for Beijing,” said Bloomberg, adding that China is pushing Southeast Asia toward authoritarianism.
Yet, what caused the trend? The answer is the rising problems in those countries given their previous slack approach. The number of fake news spiked months before the just-concluded Indonesian election, in which many were targeting political candidates and electoral institutions. Hate speech and fake news photos flooded Myanmar’s internet after the outbreak of the Rohingya crisis in 2017, exacerbating local clashes. It is not an exaggeration to say the lack of governance jeopardized their social stability.
The situation does not only happen in emerging economies. As Bloomberg pointed out, “Facebook and Twitter manipulated the 2016 US election … American social media allowed a gunman to livestream the worst mass shooting in New Zealand.”
The so-called internet freedom, advocated by the US, has stirred up enough trouble not only for itself, but also for many developing countries, especially in those societies which were already facing sharp ethnic conflicts and social division. Social media has failed to consolidate or promote their democracy, but has facilitated the spread of misinformation and rumors. Take the Arab Spring. It showed the potential of internet freedom at the very beginning and seemed to have temporarily boosted local democracy, but in the end, it tore the society apart and caused long-lasting turmoil.
Developing countries are tightening internet governance, and so are developed nations, which are formulating stringent regulations to crack down on vicious dissemination of political misinformation. Some European countries including Germany even allow police to spy on encrypted messaging services so as to limit dissemination of pornographic, fraudulent and terrorist content.
Absolute freedom leads to freedom for no one. 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.
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.