Chinese cyber chief plays down censorship concerns

It's like cars on the road. No, it's like guests in your house

The head of the China's Cyberspace Administration has again been playing down censorship concerns ahead of a global internet governance meeting in the country.

At a press conference about the second annual World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, Lu Wei faced questions about the country's extensive filtering and censoring of the internet.

In response, he employed a range of metaphors from a busy street to inviting guests in your home.

"Every car and every pedestrian wants to move around freely, which is exactly why you need rules," the Wall Street Journal reported he said. "Freedom is our goal and order is the means to achieve that goal."

Later on, he argued that the proof that the Chinese government is not too restrictive is the booming online companies that the country is producing, including: its Twitter, Weibo; its Google, Baidu; its Amazon, Tencent; its Facebook, Renren; and its Yahoo – literally – Alibaba.

According to Reuters, Lu said: "We do not welcome those that make money off China, occupy China's market, even as they slander China's people. These kinds of websites I definitely will not allow in my house." He continued: "I may choose who comes into my house. They can come if they are friends. Freedom is our goal. Order is our means."

This Chinese mindset and approach toward the internet has been consistent for some years. Back in 2006, a diplomatic incident occurred at the inaugural Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Athens when the Chinese minister said on stage that his government does not censor the internet. Much to the horror of the diplomats attending, the internet community in the room started laughing.

But it was in 2005, when the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) negotiations were going on that this reporter had a conversation with a junior member of the Chinese delegation about China's censorship and his answer was very much more in line with Lu's current approach.

He argued that with so many billions of Chinese citizens, many of whom have limited depth of education, it was necessary for the government to show them how the internet should be used, and for the government to keep them safe while online. Those junior delegates are increasingly the people in charge.

It's political

Of course the truth is that China's most active censorship is aimed at preventing criticism of the ruling party and class. There is a real, palpable concern with such disparities in Chinese society that the internet could lead to an equivalent of the Arab Spring in China if people were able to communicate freely.

And so Chinese internet users accept the global communications network as a very useful but limited tool: you can use it to make money, but don't use it to talk politics. Which also in part explains the enormous success of Chinese internet companies.

I declare

Lu was less forthright however when it came to next week's internet governance conference and the possibility of a "Wuzhen Declaration."

Last year, at the inaugural World Internet Conference, the generally positive tone was flipped when the organizers suddenly decided to push for a document, agreed by all parties, that would sum up the meeting and sketch a path forward.

The Wuzhen Declaration was shoved under people's hotel room doors in the middle of the night without prior warning and the whole last day of the conference was effectively lost when people spent most of it complaining about the effort to railroad attendees with a document that hadn't been discussed. The declaration was swiftly dropped but proved to be a huge embarrassment to the Chinese government.

This year, the organizers started the conversation about a possible declaration long before the conference began but ultimately decided to drop the idea in case it became a flashpoint for argument and permanently sullied the new conference.

Influence

The conference is important for the Chinese government as it attempts to leverage its increasing power to influence the internet's future evolution. The "World" Internet Conference may end up acting as a counterpoint to the many existing internet conferences that are dominated by Western companies and voices.

That is why, aside from President Xi Jinping, the VIPs in Wuzhen will be from the region close to China that has a less liberal attitude toward the internet. The biggest name will be Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, but other prime ministers attending come from Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.

China is pushing hard for a more controlled form of internet governance, often stressing the security concern that comes with a free and open internet. The state has tremendous control over what happens online and has introduced new laws and clamped down heavily on things such as pornography and gambling online. It also pressures all companies that operate in the vast Chinese market to provide ready access to their data and to assist in blocking and filtering content that the government decides is inappropriate.

Not that attendees are likely to see the impact of that concerted censorship effort: the Great Firewall of China is routinely turned off for special events, particularly if outsiders are attending.

But step outside the conference center or the official hotels and you find that Twitter, Facebook, and Gmail no longer work. You will also find that references – even oblique ones – to things like the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 are notable by their absence.

It is hard to gel Mr Lu's argument that censorship of the internet in China is all about freedom "and order is the means to achieve that goal," when the most famous example of people asking for freedom in the country is actively removed from China's history and the "order" in that case comprised of the slaughter of hundreds, possibly thousands of unarmed students by the military acting on the orders of the government. ®


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