Opportunities and risks for China's cyberspace

By George N. Tzogopoulos
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China.org.cn, April 27, 2018
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As China changes, the attention its administration directs toward new technologies grows. Digitalization and the internet have already become new forces of development, but some challenges and risks are simultaneously emerging. Future strategies have been outlined in official policy documents as well as important conferences taking place in the country. Two recent examples are the Beijing national conference on the work of cybersecurity and informatization and the Fuzhou First Digital China Summit.

People experience VR(Visual Reality) glasses at Isoftstone big data industry center in Yuquan District of Hohhot, capital of north China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, Aug. 1, 2017. Isoftstone big data industry center was put into operation on Tuesday in Yuquan District to promote the construction of "Smart City" and "Smart tourism". [Photo/Xinhua]

President Xi Jinping spoke at the national conference, saying China is "keenly grasping the historic opportunity for informatization development in a bid to build the country's strength in cyberspace." For starters, information technology provides unprecedented opportunities to the state to improve the efficiency of its mechanisms, overcome problems of bureaucracy, provide better services (now e-services) and protect its national interests. Ordinary citizens, meanwhile, find it easier to communicate with each other, make payments, find information online and save time in comparison with the pre-internet years. Professionals, too, can equally benefit; doctors, for instance, are able to share information and engage in online consultations in cases of difficult operations. And companies see e-commerce as a necessary tool to reach new clients. China's digital economy grew to $4.29 trillion dollars in 2017, making up 32.9 percent of GDP. 

Of course, cyberspace is viewed as a technological paradise by governmental elites not only in China but also in the West. From 2009, for example, Washington concluded that cyberspace was critical to national security. Its National Security Strategy published the following year included, for the first time, "securing cyberspace" as a national interest. No one disagrees that thieves, spies and terrorists can use cyberspace to strike much quicker and more successfully than in the past.

China shares this concern and is prepared to collaborate with the U.S. on the matter to tackle joint threats. Presidents Xi and Obama laid the foundations of mutual understanding by signing a Cyber Agreement in September 2015. Now Obama's successor, Donald Trump, is on the same page. It is no coincidence that one of the four Sino-American pillars of dialogue – as they were agreed between the two leaders in April 2017 in Mar-a-Lago – is on law enforcement and cybersecurity. The first round took place in Washington last October, and Xi has said that building a "community with a shared future in cyberspace" is a personal objective.

Whereas China and the U.S. share the same concern, they are employing distinct approaches. Xi spoke at the Beijing conference about a method in line with "Chinese characteristics," the main objective of which is to advance a strategy to strengthen the government's presence and capacity in cyberspace, to create a governing network led by the Communist Party of China and to enhance military-civilian integration. As a result, China's internet security industry continues to see its revenues increase year after year as the Chinese administration is determined to crack down on criminal offenses such as hacking and e-fraud, as well as obviously on attempts by terrorists to spread malicious content through social media and recruit new soldiers. 

When criticizing China, many Western analysts express skepticism about the future usage of so-called "big data." The Chinese government, they argue, will soon be capable of closely monitoring the attitudes and behavior of citizens and companies, ranging from social to financial. Even the "Healthy China 2030" strategy has come under scrutiny by some think tanks because diagnoses and treatment advice will be generated by big data. For its part, China sees the initiative as vitally contributing to the provision of customized health and nutrition services according to citizens' needs, primarily at the local level. 

As a matter of fact, "big data" goes hand in hand with new concepts such as "smart cities." And this is not exclusive to China. In October 2014, the New Scientist magazine published an article titled, "Chicago uses big data to save itself from urban ills." The piece explains how – even four years ago – Chicago was applying new models to pinpoint risk areas and help it reduce everything from rat problems to cases of lead poisoning. One year later, Fortune magazine elaborated on the initial successes of the project. 

All in all, China and the West have much more to gain by looking for synergies in the cyberspace – either to prevent and eliminate threats or to offer better services to people. Certainly, the recent Facebook scandal does not entitle Western scholars to place blame on Chinese approaches to cyberspace.  

George N. Tzogopoulos is a columnist with China.org.cn. For more information please visit:


Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of China.org.cn.

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