As U.S. Confronts Internet’s Disruptions, China Feels Vindicated


At the same time, China anticipated many of the questions now flummoxing governments ranging from the United States to Germany to Indonesia. Where the Russians have succeeded in turning the internet into a political weapon, China has created an effective shield.

In fact, when it comes to technology, China has prospered. It has a booming technology culture. Its internet companies rival Facebook and Amazon in heft. To other countries, China may offer an enticing top-down model that suggests technology can thrive even under the government’s thumb.

“It doesn’t matter how efficient the internet is,” said Zhu Wei, deputy director of the Communications Law Research Center at the China University of Political Science and Law, which advises the government on internet laws. “It won’t work without security.”

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An electronic display showing recent cyberattacks in China at the China Internet Security Conference in Beijing last month.

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Mark Schiefelbein/Associated Press

China, to be sure, is neither gloating nor resting on its laurels.

In the weeks leading up to the major party congress that opens in Beijing on Wednesday, the country’s internet regulator, the Cyberspace Administration of China, has issued a raft of new regulations.

They include one that took effect last week that holds the creators of online forums or group chats responsible for any comments made by participants. Another banned anonymous users, targeting bots or deceptive accounts like those on Facebook and Twitter that distributed false stories aimed at American voters.

“If our party cannot traverse the hurdle presented by the internet, it cannot traverse the hurdle of remaining in power,” a department of the cyberspace administration wrote in a top party journal last month.

The article was in keeping with President Xi Jinping’s early recognition of the power of the internet. Mr. Xi created and empowered the cyberspace administration, which has subsumed many of the overlapping agencies that once governed content in cyberspace.

The administration is now seen as an institution as important as the defense ministry. Since last year, it has been led by Xu Lin, 54, a party technocrat and former propaganda official, who, like other influential officials who previously worked beside Mr. Xi in Shanghai, has soared through the ranks.

Samm Sacks, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the cyberspace administration was a core part of Mr. Xi’s vow to make China a cyber superpower, on par with the United States.

Before the agency was created, she added, China’s internet was far more fragmented and haphazardly regulated than it might have appeared from outside the country’s “Great Firewall.”

Some of the newest restrictions were announced after the security services already moved against users, revealing what the authorities here saw as gaps in the legal framework that needed to be promptly plugged.

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People in Beijing walked past a foster showing President Xi Jinping with the slogan “Chinese Dream, People’s Dream” on Monday.

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Greg Baker/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Last month, for example, the police raided the home of a university professor, Liu Pengfei, who had hosted a forum on another social media platform, WeChat, called “Global Report,” in which he and others discussed current affairs. The new regulations, which took effect only on Oct. 8, were made public the next day.

“There’s a recognition that technology has advanced more quickly than the government’s ability to control it,” Ms. Sacks said. Russia’s interference with Facebook, to cite only one example, was “justification for exactly what they are doing here.”

China’s homegrown internet companies are key to its top-down approach. Tech firms are expected to keep content on file for 60 days and report anything that is forbidden to the police. The government is pushing them to give it stakes in exchange for board seats.

In September, the administration imposed the maximum fine allowable on three of China’s biggest social media operators — Tencent Holdings, the Alibaba Group and Baidu — for failing to stop the circulation of fabricated rumors, violence and pornography. Although the amounts of the fines were not disclosed, the law states that network operators can be fined up to $76,000 and have their business licenses canceled if they cannot prevent the transmission of banned content.

In exchange, China internet companies were allowed to grow while their rivals abroad were shut out of the country. They can now claim their own technology successes. Tencent owns WeChat, mobile software that has transformed social life in China: people use it to chat, pay bills, transfer money, book a cab and hook up romantically.

China is now embarking on an ambitious project to dominate fields like artificial intelligence, and some say China could be at an advantage. The country’s more than 700 million internet users, coupled with its relatively new data privacy laws and a history of lax enforcement, could provide a strong basis for A.I. research.

Still, China’s advantage could be double-edged. Chinese internet companies have struggled to expand abroad, which experts say stems in part from their dependence on their government at home.

“To a large extent, the competitive advantage is the political relationship they have with the government there and that’s not something you can carry across borders,” said Lokman Tsui, an assistant professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

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In September, the administration imposed the maximum fine allowable on three of China’s biggest social media operators, Tencent Holdings, the Alibaba Group and Baidu, for failing to stop the circulation of fabricated rumors, violence and pornography.

Credit
Reuters

Not all of the new restrictions have been welcome here. Some of the companies — and internet users — balked at the registration requirements, for example. Weibo’s announcement that it was seeking 1,000 recruits to become supervisors to report illegal content online — the definitions of which can be expansive — was met by derision on its own site.

“Online and offline, Big Brother is watching,” one user, who used the handle mingxinjianxing, wrote.

When it comes to the controversy over Russia’s intervention, there has been very little discussion here. Among the few who are discussing it on Weibo, some expressed shock that the United States does not censor its information.

Mr. Zhao, the young volunteer on Weibo, is typical of those here who believe government control is justified.

In a restaurant called Europa, Mr. Zhao — who declined to disclose details of where and how he works — described China’s system not as “Big Brother” so much as a younger brother, which he is, protecting children, like those of his sister, from harmful material.

“Even though the internet is virtual, it is still part of society,” he added. “So in any space I feel no one should create pornographic, illegal or violent posts.”

In his new capacity, he scours Weibo in search of the lurid and illicit. Some posts, he explained, are thinly veiled solicitations for pornography or prostitution, including one message he reported to the police the other day for using what he said was an euphemism for selling sex.

When he reports abuse, it is the police that follow up. He excitedly displayed his smartphone to show the latest of his more than 3,000 followers on Weibo: the division of the Beijing police that monitors the internet.

“Normally, if you don’t do bad things, you don’t get followed by the police,” he said. “I think this — for someone who has been online for so many years — is really special.”

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