As if any reminder were needed, delegates to China’s ceremonial parliament were repeatedly told in no uncertain terms this week what job No. 1 is: “Follow the leadership of the Party Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping at its core,” Associated Press reports:
The exhortation carries added weight as China moves toward its most important political event in five years, the ruling Communist Party’s 19th National Congress. The event, this fall, is expected to usher in a second five-year term as general secretary for Xi – China’s most powerful leader in decades – along with a major infusion of new blood into the party’s governing bodies….While there’s little blue sky between the party elites in terms of policies and ideology, the team that Xi assembles could point toward whether China is headed toward an even more authoritarian future or one of greater balance between rivals.
“Many in the establishment are uncomfortable with Xi coming out as a real strongman,” said Steve Tsang, who directs the China Institute at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. “The stakes are therefore very high.”
China’s authorities claim to be committed to a ‘free and open internet’, a Washington forum heard this week. But the ruling Communist Party considers media and technology to be tools to advance state goals rather than resources for informed citizens to hold the state accountable, said Shanthi Kalathil, Director of the National Endowment for Democracy’s International Forum for Democratic Studies.
China is no longer content to simply manage the information space within its borders, she writes in “Beyond the Great Firewall: How China Became a Global Information Power,” a report for the Center for International Media Assistance:
Without much fanfare, it has turned its focus outward, seeking to take its influence over the information environment global. Through a combination of market-oriented mechanisms, propaganda, pressure tactics, and action in international arenas, China is attempting to harness the global information ecosystem in unprecedented ways. It has focused primarily on three avenues: shaping international news media, guiding the evolution of the global Internet, and influencing global culture through Hollywood. The cumulative effect of this global reach has yet to be fully dissected or understood.
China’s use of information resources as power in the global arena is evident in the way that Hollywood producers and other Western media outlets are practicing a form of anticipatory censorship, Kalathil said, tailoring movies in an effort to avoid offending Beijing’s political sensibilities and losing access to a massive market.
Beijing’s growing assertiveness in the information realm is a further indication that, sensing weakness in the U.S.-led liberal democratic order, the regime is positioning itself as a global problem-solver, reports suggest.
China is “attempting to provide an ideological and moral alternative to the United States, the West and liberalism,” said Dan Garrett, a former Pentagon intelligence analyst. The idea is to “sharply contrast their benevolent and more harmonious world view with that of allegedly chaotic, destabilizing and violent free market capitalism, democracy and liberalism,” he said.
But China cannot replace the US as a dependable bastion of a free-trading and rules-based world order, let alone of democratic values, says analyst François Godement.
“China’s political system affords opportunities for sectoral cooperation when it matches Chinese interest,” he writes in a new report for the European Council on Foreign Relations. “But this fickle approach is simply incompatible with principled implementation of international law and global norms. This is even more true of the post-1989 ambitions for a global liberal order.”
Leveraging market power can have ideological benefits, the regime believes. Propaganda chief Liu Qibao has noted that rather than “borrowing a boat to go out onto the ocean,” as the Chinese saying goes, he recommends “buying the boat,” Kalathil writes in the CIMA report:
And China is, indeed, buying many boats. Around the world, Beijing—or tycoons sympathetic to Beijing’s interests—are amassing stakes in various media companies, letting the market work in their favor. …For Chinese companies, acquisitions and diversification are ways to grow the business and compete; for potential targets, teaming up with a Chinese company represents opportunities in the China market. Yet while individual acquisitions may depend on the logic of the market, the net result is more likely to be favorable to Beijing’s preferred ideological line than not.
China’s ruling Communist Party maintains a strictly Leninist view of media, said Rebecca MacKinnon, Director of the Ranking Digital Rights project at New America and former CNN Beijing Bureau Chief. Information and media are considered tools to advance the goals of the state and not, as in the Jeffersonian model, as resources for informed citizens to hold the state accountable.
It is also important to monitor Western tech firms’ compliance with human rights norms, especially freedom of expression, she told the NED forum. Some firms like Google accept that conforming to China’s authoritarian edicts will undermine the information eco-system on which tech firms rely, she said. In order to enhance transparency and hold firms accountable, the Ranking Digital Rights Corporate Accountability Index evaluates 16 of the world’s leading Internet and telecoms companies on their commitments and policies affecting users’ freedom of expression and privacy.
A senior Chinese government adviser has warned that the country’s internet censorship is hampering scientific research and economic development, in a rare public criticism of a sensitive policy that the government has vigorously defended, AP adds:
Slow access to overseas academic websites have forced domestic researchers to buy software to circumvent China’s site-blocking firewall, or even travel overseas to conduct research, said Luo Fuhe, vice-chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, Luo also noted that the United Nations Food and Agriculture Program’s webpages took up to 20 seconds to load while “a famous foreign search engine” — an apparent reference to Google — was also blocked.
The CIMA report highlights a disturbing trend: “Not only is China reshaping its international image, it has succeeded in some cases at enshrining authoritarian norms and values in the very markets, protocols, and production processes that govern these global systems,” it states. RTWT