“The greatest victory is that which requires no battle.” So wrote classical Chinese strategist Sun Tzu in The Art of War. Those tactics may be ancient, but in an era when the cyber world is just as valuable as the real one, battlefields aren’t as obvious as they once were, and power can be gained through digital means. Up until now, Silicon Valley and effectively the United States have held the reins steering the internet chariot – but with the rise of China and new generations of technology, will the online world order change?
Documents reportedly obtained by The Epoch Times appear to reveal that China’s President Xi Jinping has a very definite aim for his nation’s online future: total control of the internet. According to the Times, internal government documents from 2013-2017 show that:
“The ultimate goal was for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to control all content on the global internet, so the regime could wield what Xi described as ‘discourse power’ over communications and discussions on the world stage.
“Xi articulated a vision of ‘using technology to rule the internet’ to achieve total control over every part of the online ecosystem—over applications, content, quality, capital, and manpower.”
Xi reportedly pointed to the United States as a chief rival, saying in 2016 China had “transformed from playing ‘passive defense’ to playing both ‘attack and defense’ at the same time.”
Among the tactics proposed to achieve his lofty goal were:
- Use American companies to achieve China’s aims.
- Increase cooperation with Europe, developing countries, and those involved in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), to create a “strategic counterbalance” against the U.S. Develop a “digital silk road” in line with the BRI.
- “Install CCP surrogates in important positions in global internet organizations.”
- Gain control over internet infrastructure.
- Hire skilled workers from around the world.
- Develop a highly skilled local workforce.
- Guide Chinese companies to work in line with CCP goals.
- Support the growth of multinational internet companies that can gain global influence.
So, in the ensuing years, has China advanced its plan? Despite a mix of successes and setbacks, progress has certainly been made by the Middle Kingdom. More infrastructure has been built across continents, Chinese social media companies like TikTok have become popular worldwide, and new technologies have been rolled out.
In July 2020, Liberty Nation reported on a study commissioned by Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), now chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which looked at China’s quest of online world domination. “The United States is now on a precipice of losing the future of the cyber domain to China,” stated the report. “If China continues to perfect the tools of digital authoritarianism and is able to effectively implement them both domestically and abroad, then China, not the United States and its allies, will shape the digital environment.”
As LN related:
“The document details how China uses digital surveillance to track and control its own population. It describes how China has exported the hardware to Africa, Central Asia and South America. It points out that China has the largest number of internet users on the planet – 800 million – and is at the forefront of developing emerging 5G technology through companies like ZTE and Huawei.
“The report further notes that China has had a surge of patent publications in the field of artificial intelligence and similar tech.”
The Art of Digital War
China’s efforts to develop its own Xilicon Valley have not gone unnoticed by the United States, with the Trump administration having taken aggressive steps to curb its Asian rival’s online influence. From blacklisting Huawei and attempting to ban TikTok to lobbying Europe to break ties with Chinese companies, the former administration proved unwilling to surrender U.S. digital dominance.
What about the Biden White House? While various members of the Democratic Party and even the president himself appear to have a vested financial interest in maintaining ties with China, the official position does not appear to have changed much since the days of Trump.
Biden recently blacklisted Chinese supercomputing entities from receiving U.S. technology without approval. The new administration is still reviewing its position on Huawei and TikTok according to Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo. However, she did not shy away from stating, “I plan to use all the tools in my toolbox as aggressively as possible to protect American workers and businesses from unfair Chinese practices.”
But are some of these seemingly “aggressive” moves actually playing into Chinese hands? The Trump-era proposal for U.S. company Oracle to purchase TikTok’s international operations, for example, would surely have enhanced China’s network overseas in line with Xi Jinping’s alleged strategy.
In August 2020, Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo unveiled his Clean Network initiative that sought to exclude “untrustworthy” China, sparking questions about a segregated internet, one East and one West. Well, the world may indeed end up with two separate online spheres, but the divide may be engineered by China rather than the United States.
Just as 5G is being rolled out, China is already looking at 6G. In December, it launched the first 6G satellite into space – but since no one seems to know what 6G is exactly, it’s been speculated this was mostly a PR exercise. The mystery hasn’t stopped commentators from predicting that 6G will present a major geopolitical battleground for supremacy, with China clearly looking to gain a head start.
Talking 6G and beyond, The Epoch Times report touches on China’s “New IP” proposal for a next-generation internet:
“In 2019, Chinese telecom giant Huawei first proposed the idea for an entirely new internet, called New IP (internet protocol), to replace the half-century-old infrastructure underpinning the web. New IP is touted to be faster, more efficient, flexible, and secure than the current internet, and will be built by the Chinese.”
Huawei and other Chinese entities took the idea to the U.N.’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which New York University’s Just Security suggests was due to Beijing enjoying influence with the agency.
A Mock Battle
“Below the surface, there is a huge battle going on over what the internet will look like,” a U.K. delegate to the ITU told the Financial Times. “You’ve got these two competing visions: one which is very free and open and … government hands-off … and one which is much more controlled and regulated by governments.”
The future of the internet is being framed as a conflict between freedom from the West and dictatorship from China – but is that a true portrait or an overly flattering one? China is well known for censoring its online speech; isn’t Silicon Valley increasingly doing the very same thing? Online control and surveillance in the United States have become bones of contention for many Americans and it is likely to get worse.
An authoritarian Chinese government or a tyrannical Silicon Valley? When it comes to the future of the internet, the people of Earth may simply have to pick their poison – or have the stronger one forced on them.
Read more from Laura Valkovic.