China signals a doubling down on cybercontrol

'Pervasive weakness' in China Beige Book

Chinese President Xi Jinping emphasized in a speech this week that it was his country's right to control the Internet landscape within its borders — and he will not entertain any criticism on the subject.

Meanwhile, that control over Internet content was on on display as Chinese prosecutors tried civil rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang for seven microblog posts he wrote between 2011 and 2014. While Western observers may decry the apparent crackdown, Xi's Wednesday address at the Beijing-sponsored World Internet Conference left little doubt that he would not be swayed by outside criticism.

"No country should pursue cyber hegemony," Xi said, according to the Financial Times, defending "the right of individual countries to independently choose their own model of cyberspace governance."

China's President Xi Jinping speaks during the opening ceremony of the 2nd annual World Internet Conference in Jiaxing, China, on Dec. 16, 2015.
Aly Song | Reuters

Xi's speech served to reinforce China's trend toward greater cyber control, according to Rob Atkinson, founder and president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation think tank.

"He's basically saying to the world, 'We're doubling down here, and moreover stop complaining about it because it's none of your business,' " Atkinson said.

The president's remarks were hardly the first time Xi's administration had pushed for tighter restrictions on information technology. Earlier this year, Beijing pushed for important domestic sectors to use "safe and controllable" technology, potentially meaning that any tech firm would need to hand over its relevant source code and encryption keys.

The push for Internet censorship and rules covering secure hardware and software may seem like separate issues, but Atkinson said he sees Xi's comments as pushing for increasing tech control in part "as a guise to discriminate directly against U.S. companies."

A Chinese policeman stands guard in front of a portrait of Mao Zedong at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China.
China may try to force US tech firms to give up code

It's well publicized that U.S. firms have seen their Chinese fortunes affected by the disclosures from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden's about American surveillance. And many have conjectured that Beijing has sought to take advantage of the situation to push its own domestic technology sector.

But American companies are still doing plenty of business in China: Apple's revenue in Asia's largest economy has soared, and Microsoft announced Wednesday that it had formed a joint venture with state-owned China Electronics Technology Group. That partnership seeks to "license, deploy, manage and optimize Windows 10 for China's government agencies and certain state owned enterprises," Microsoft said in a statement.

While one report suggested Microsoft's joint venture "shows that China's bullying tactics work on U.S. tech firms," the partnership apparently stands up to Beijing's desires by withholding key details of the software.

"Importantly, we will maintain ownership of the core Windows 10 technology while working, as we've always done, to allow customers and partners to build components that plug into our platform," Microsoft executive Yusuf Mehdi wrote in a statement. "We'll continue to keep Windows 10 secure and sustain our strong privacy standards, while recognizing that public sector solutions may differ from technology offered to private sector enterprises and consumers around the world."

Wikipedia's censorship pressures

A Microsoft spokeswoman declined to comment on the matter.

The Redmond, Washington-based tech giant isn't the only firm to work with Beijing. Executives from IBM, Apple, Facebook and LinkedIn joined Wikipedia's Jimmy Wales at the same Internet conference at which Xi outline his plans for cyberspace control, according to the Los Angeles Times.

But irrespective of whether these companies are signaling a willingness to bend on Chinese demands, Atkinson emphasized that firms should not be criticized for doing business with Beijing.

"We've made a mistake to criticize companies working in China," he said. "We'd be better off having U.S. companies there, and at least having some resistance (to increasingly strict control over cyberspace)."

The "interesting question" for the future, Atkinson said, is how much control they are willing to cede to Beijing. At some point, compromising in China may be too harmful to global reputations to justify the benefits of market access, he said.

And while U.S. firms will weigh those consequences against losing ground to increasingly serious Chinese tech competition, Beijing has not shown any signs of letting up on its goals.

"The signal Xi is sending is, 'We've gotten tougher, we're very happy with that, you have no right to tell us not to, and we're going to keep getting tougher,' " Atkinson said.