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The Internet, Soft War, Sovereignty, and China

By Rogier Creemers

Discussions at the 2012 Milton Wolf Seminar highlighted two emerging approaches to Internet regulation. On the one hand, there are those who champion an internationally open Internet with minimal state interference. On the other hand, countries such as China advocate for a localized approach to Internet management based on national sovereignty. This conflict is but one manifestation of the historical tension between substantive universal norms that entail the acceptance of regional limitations and those that treat sovereignty as sacrosanct.

In 1648, a series of treaties, commonly known as the Peace of Westphalia, brought an end to two religious wars that had ravaged Europe for decades. These treaties formalized notions of sovereignty, non-intervention, and the inviolability of territorial borders. They defined sovereignty as the ability of rulers to pursue domestic politics without fear of foreign interference—particularly in the area of religion. In establishing these procedural rules, the Peace of Westphalia was in a sense an agreement to disagree.  Over the proceeding centuries, this agreement largely remained intact until the 20th century when ideology began to supplant religion as the dominant cause of international strife, culminating in the Second World War. The post-war peace process, in turn, stimulated the further internationalization of human rights norms. This led to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), drafted by jurists from different, worldwide legal traditions. Prima facie, this universalism conflicted with Westphalian notions of sovereignty, which had largely kept normative claims outside of the realm of international law.

In the Internet era, we observe a similar tension between conceptions of sovereignty and universal rights. Internet and mobile technology have connected the world in ways that were hitherto impossible. Simultaneously, regimes worldwide are concerned about the Internet’s challenges to state legitimacy and authority. Hence, we face a question similar to the one tackled in 1648. As the virtual world increasingly overlaps with the real world, how are we to structure its governance? Hitherto, the codes of openness and resistance to government intervention that exist among the computer-savvy communities that launched the Internet have heavily influenced regulation. Complex governance questions have emerged, however, as the number of Internet users has grown; speed, storage and complexity increased; and the potential damage it may facilitate has expanded into terrorism, state secrets and technological espionage.

The fundamental question is how do we reconcile normative standards, based in human rights concepts, with the procedural safeguards present in the concept of sovereignty? Furthermore, if we base Internet governance on traditional intergovernmental treaty methods and state sovereignty, how should we deal with Internet-based conflicts? In other words, what constitutes an act of war, if committed online? While few would disagree that bombing the Pentagon would constitute a casus belli, how would an electronic attack on the Pentagon communications system or an attempted break-in to its secure information systems be considered? What sort of retaliatory action is legitimate? Should we equate hostile acts in the virtual realm with those in the real world?

In the Chinese context, these questions are less arcane than they may seem at first sight. Over the last 150 years, China suffered a series of degradations.  It was humiliated by wars and invasions by Western powers and Japan; its communist alliance with the Soviet Union broke apart; and its accession to international organizations such as the UN and the WTO were difficult affairs. As a result, China’s international agenda is centered on strengthening national power and political autonomy. Its official doctrine of “peaceful development” states that it will not seek hegemony but instead aims to be a responsible member of international society. The doctrine, however, is based on classical notions of sovereignty. The Chinese government wants to pursue its own domestic agenda without foreign interference. International cooperation is to be managed by the government and many parts of international politics are considered to be zero-sum games.

Culture and media, particularly new media and the Internet, are areas in which China’s belief in the primacy of national sovereignty is especially clear. Illustrating China’s resistance to foreign influence over its media and communications spaces, recent Chinese policy documents have increasingly utilized the term guojia wenhua anquan, or “national cultural security.” Multiple central party and government documents utilize the term in reference to a variety of issues including combating the import of pornographic works, cleaning up Internet gaming, foreign capital investment in the cultural sector, and attacking illegally imported foreign audio-visual products. Chinese concern with “national cultural security” intensified after the fall of the Eastern Bloc. The Chinese leadership posited that these regimes fell in part because of Western support of dissidents and cultural products aimed at destabilizing state power. A recent remark by President Hu illustrates that these concerns are alive and well today:

“Hostile foreign powers are intensifying strategies and plots to Westernize and divide our country; the ideological and cultural sphere is the focus sphere in which they conduct long-term infiltration. We must deeply recognize the gravity and complexity of struggle in the ideological domain, ring the alarm bell, be on a long-term guard, adopt forceful measures to be on guard and react.”

In February 2012, a Central Committee media policy document similarly stated that,

“Facing the new situation of the exchange, blending and confrontation of all sorts of ideology and culture at the global level becoming even more clear, and the fight having become more acute and complex, the task of strengthening our country’s comprehensive cultural strength and international influence, resisting the force of international hostile forces’ cultural infiltration, and safeguarding national cultural security has become even more pressing. “

As a response, China has invested heavily in its domestic media and communications industry, with the aim of strengthening its soft power. However, the militarized tone of many of these policy statements indicates that another useful concept might be that of “soft war.”  Soft power typically refers to a state’s reliance on attraction and persuasion as opposed to force or coercion in pursuing international objectives.  Particularly in the area of Internet regulation, soft war, as opposed to soft power, may be useful for theorizing an environment in which relationships are primarily antagonistic, but largely divorced from hard power conflict.

From the Chinese perspective, soft war on the Internet consists of a broad spectrum of measures, including a nationalist narrative and the monopolization of public information, but also cyber-attacks against foreign enterprises and institutions. Through these efforts, the Chinese government defends national interests, and thereby sovereignty. While it is much too early to use terms such as a “soft arms race,” escalating soft war efforts may frustrate relationships in other fields or escalate political tensions. The universalist mode of Internet governance is not amenable to Chinese political interests. Instead, China has launched the concept of Internet sovereignty, which limits the universalist claims of international norms of Internet and media freedom. The sobering conclusion may be that perhaps the most that is possible for now is, like the Peace of Westphalia, to come to a gentlemen’s agreement; to disagree on content or substance, but to agree about procedures of cooperation, and to do so peacefully.



Rogier Creemers is a post-doctoral research officer at the Program for Comparative Media Law and Policy. His main research interests include the nexus between media policy and political change in China. 

[Photo courtesy of Pavel Ignatov via Shutterstock]


This is the first in a series of five dispatches from the 2012 Milton Wolf Seminar titled, "Transitions Transformed: Ideas of Information and Democracy Post-2011." To read the others, click here: II, III, IV, V.


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