Hardly 20 years have passed since President Clinton likened China’s efforts to censor online content as “trying to nail Jell-O to a wall.” Clinton’s ill-fated words have since been confined to the dustbin of history, and the initial Western consensus that the internet would spell the end for authoritarian governments’ censorship has fallen apart in a spectacular fashion. Under the current administration, the US, once the foremost champion of a single, global internet, has embraced the internet’s inevitable bifurcation into two parts, one led by the US and the other by China. In order to get ahead of the curve, the US has subjected several Chinese technology companies to legal action and ramped up pressure on its allies to divest from Chinese internet and telecommunication technologies.
The Clean Network Initiative & Cyber Sovereignty: two sides of the same coin
Escalating tensions culminated in July with the Trump administration’s announcement of the Clean Network initiative, which aims to eliminate “untrustworthy” Chinese technology companies from global internet and telecommunications infrastructure. Earlier this month, Beijing responded with its own vision for data security in the 21st century, the “Global Initiative on Data Security.” The Chinese proposal downplays accusations that the global operations of China’s technology companies are beholden to Beijing and includes provisions that formalize China’s support of cyber sovereignty.
Both Russia and China are pushing for cyber sovereignty, the notion that governments have the right to exercise control over the internet within its borders. If they succeed, this would legitimize China’s “Great Firewall” by normalizing localized control of data, surveillance, and censorship.
China’s proposal also attempts to wrest control of the data security narrative away from the Trump administration by indirectly accusing the US of “making groundless accusations against others in the name of a ‘clean’ network and [using] security as a pretext to prey on enterprises of other countries who have a competitive edge.” By claiming America’s unilateral approach to data security, the proposal reframes the narrative on data security around recurring themes in Chinese foreign policy like “common development” and “mutual respect.”
Although rejected by the US, the Chinese narrative on data security may find a more receptive audience in Europe where American unilateralism has disgruntled steadfast champions of multilateralism. Close American allies have repeatedly resisted calls to ban Chinese companies outright from taking part in the construction of telecommunications infrastructure – the UK only banned Huawei after the US crippled the company’s semiconductor supply chain. Germany and France, for their part, have made clear that they will rely on their own analysis to regulate foreign companies.
Worryingly for the US, Europe’s resistance to the “Clean Network” may create an opportunity for China’s narrative to strike a chord in the global audience. If persuasion alone cannot convince the world to steer clear of Chinese tech, expect Washington to adopt a more assertive approach in order to seal off Chinese companies from as much of the world as possible.