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Jun 20, 2018 | 09:00 GMT

3 mins read

Bending the Internet: China Weighs Commercial Growth Against Government Control

A demonstrator shows support for the Chinese government at a counterprotest held in response to an Amnesty International demonstration over human rights abuses and online censorship in China.
(BEN PRUCHNIE/Getty Images)
  • China's government will try to drive economic growth with the Internet Plus initiative, a plan to integrate innovations such as automation, big data, artificial intelligence and the internet of things into all aspects of the country's economy.
  • In doing so, Beijing will maintain a firm hand over the internet using an array of strict laws and interventions.
  • The Chinese state, however, will also try to avoid restricting tech companies to the point of discouraging the innovation it needs to bring Internet Plus to fruition.

From a Western perspective, the internet in China is as locked-down as it gets. The country's massive firewall has been filtering global content for decades, and the Communist Party is as committed as ever to centralizing control of the internet and the information it transmits. To achieve that end, the Chinese government uses every trick in the book, deploying bots on social media platform Weibo — where the automated accounts make up an estimated 40 percent of the user base — devising rules to govern internet use and arresting violators.

The Big Picture

The internet is constantly evolving — and with it, national and global policies to regulate the technology's use. Unfiltered access to and unmonitored movement of information pose a strategic risk for many states. Now that most countries have roughly 25 years of experience honing their strategies to handle the freedoms and cultural changes that the internet unleashed on the world, their tactics for manipulating its use are becoming more sophisticated. This is the third installment of a five-part series examining the policies and tactics Iran, China, Turkey and Russia have devised to mitigate the threats — and exploit the opportunities — of the internet.

Yet Beijing considers the internet an opportunity as much as a threat. The economic incentive to keep it free enough to foster innovation is huge for China. Some of the world's most technologically proficient internet and tech firms, in fact, operate behind the "Great Firewall." The rise of companies such as Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent has helped sustain China's economic growth, and their continued success is a central component in the country's long-term online strategy, dubbed Internet Plus by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.

Launched in 2015, Internet Plus is a five-year plan to integrate technologies such as automation, big data, artificial intelligence and the internet of things into nearly every aspect of China's economy. The government will maintain a firm hand over the process and is even using its internet monitoring to build a social credit system for evaluating its citizens. Since the internet will be central to China's economic growth from now on, striking the right balance between control and innovation in its internet policy will be crucial for Beijing.

A chart shows the trends for Freedom on the Net scores for Russia, China, Iran, Turkey and the United States.

As President Xi Jinping relies on China's formidable cybersecurity laws in his quest to centralize power and cement the Communist Party's supremacy, he will also have to weigh the effect of Beijing's bureaucracy on innovation. The question won't be so much what freedoms citizens have online, but rather how much the hoops Chinese businesses have to jump through limit the connectivity they need to thrive. So far, the government has left domestic internet companies to grow practically unchecked while ensuring that the Communist Party and its support play a central role in their success. But if the interests of the tech sector diverge from those of the Party, the state will be able to step in as needed, thanks to its control over the internet, and the assortment of tools Beijing has cultivated to enforce it.

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