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How the Chinese Authorities View the Internet: Three Narratives

July 9, 2010

What is the Chinese government’s vision of Internet development? There are at least three versions: the government’s internal narrative, a made-for-export narrative, and an official narrative for the Chinese people. Together, these three narratives offer an overview of the Chinese government’s real strategic vision, the international spin it is trying to sell, and what the government is willing to tell its own people.

The made-for-export narrative

The made-for-export narrative was released on June 10, 2010, in the form of a white paper titled The Internet in China, issued by the Information Office of the State Council, China’s cabinet, in both its Chinese original and an official English translation. The policy paper set forth three key points: 1) China intends to maintain its tight control over the Internet which, as an important infrastructure facility for the nation, is “under the jurisdiction of Chinese sovereignty”; 2) China “guarantees the citizens’ freedom of speech on the Internet as well as the public’s right to know, to participate, to be heard and to oversee in accordance with the law”; and 3) China provides a safe environment in which international businesses can operate. The white paper was hardly news, merely a formal policy articulation of what the Chinese authorities have already been saying in international settings.

The government’s internal narrative

The government’s internal narrative was presented on April 29, 2010, in a report titled Concerning the Development and Management of Our Country’s Internet (关于我国互联网发展和管理) by Wang Chen (王晨), the highest government official responsible for managing online information in China, who is also the Party’s top official in charge of external propaganda work. The report—delivered as a speech by Wang before the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, China’s legislature—lays out the official strategic vision for the “scientific, healthy, and orderly development of the Internet” in China and contains what amounts to an official battle plan, complete with outlines of the risks, campaign objectives, command structure, and legislative reform agenda, for how to bring the Internet under control while accelerating its development. The report also stresses the value of the Internet as a crucial propaganda tool for guiding correct public opinion, “unifying thinking,” and countering “the hegemony of Western media.”

In this narrative, the problems with the Internet lie in its very nature of openness:

As long as our country’s Internet is linked to the global Internet, there will be channels and means for all sorts of harmful foreign information to appear on our domestic Internet. As long as our Internet is open to the public, there will be channels and means for netizens to express all sorts of speech on the Internet.

In other words, in this narrative, the Chinese authorities view the most intrinsic values and role of the Internet—as a vehicle for the unprecedented spread of information and knowledge across national boundaries and a mechanism that can bring people together and promote diversity and openness—as dangers to be strategically tackled and managed. Wang’s speech was reported in the official media on April 29,1 and the entire text—in Chinese only—was posted on May 4, 2010, on the Web Site of the National People’s Congress of the People’s Republic of China (中国人大网). Shortly after, it was removed from the site.

The official narrative for the Chinese people On May 5, a new version of Wang’s speech was posted on the Chinese Government’s official website, in which significant portions of the May 4 version—portions that are most revelatory of the official ideological vision and plans for controlling the Internet—were deleted. As such, this version—also posted only in Chinese—suggests that the authorities were not prepared to disclose to the Chinese people precisely how they plan to use and control the Internet.

The deleted sections include:

  • description of domestic propaganda and ideological work to guide public opinion online and unify public thinking and expansion of China’s cultural soft power abroad via news and commercial channels and websites in foreign languages;
  • elaboration of the guiding principles for developing and managing the Internet: Deng Xiaoping theory, the “Three Represents,” and “blaz[ing] a new trail of Internet development and management with Chinese characteristics”;
  • description of the preliminary Internet information security protection system and the policy of “active defense and comprehensive prevention”;
  • description of the need to construct a legal system for the Internet; and
  • description of the overall allocation of responsibility and management structure that integrates regulation, supervision, industry self-regulation, and technological safeguards, and calls for a cross-department mechanism for preventing infiltration and handling harmful information from overseas.

Notwithstanding the stated policy goals of greater government transparency and accountability, and citizens’ supervision over the government, these deletions suggest the authorities’ anxiety about the consequences of informed public debates or pushback by netizens over such issues as implementation of real-name identification for forum moderators and an identity authentication system for bulletin boards.

The government’s internal narrative survives

But despite being removed from the government’s official website, the May 4 version of Wang’s speech has survived on the Internet as repostings on several websites, including on a forum at the Anqing, Anhui municipal government’s website.

Perhaps the lesson is that it is extremely difficult to take back information once it has been distributed on the Internet, just as it is difficult to push the fresh air—and the inevitable flies—back out the window once it has been opened.

Human Rights in China is providing the following translation of the May 4 version of Wang’s speech which shows the text later deleted as well as the additions to the May 5 version.

Notes

1. Chang Hong and Gao Xing [常红及高星], “Wang Chen: Woguo hulianwang fazhan chengxian chu si ge fangmian xin bianhua” [王晨: 我国互联网发展呈现出四个方面新变化], People’s Daily Online [人民网], April 29, 2010, http://npc.people.com.cn/GB/11490270.html. ^