Nayan Chanda, For The Straits Times

China in an online world of its own

China's censors appear to be following through on decades-old plans to develop a country-wide intranet called the "China Wide Web". The retrograde move is all the more striking, given that the Internet has underwritten part of its phenomenal growth a
China's censors appear to be following through on decades-old plans to develop a country-wide intranet called the "China Wide Web". The retrograde move is all the more striking, given that the Internet has underwritten part of its phenomenal growth and enabled e-commerce giant Alibaba to emerge and raise China's global share of ICT exports from just 2 per cent in 1996 to 30 per cent in 2012.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Is China, the poster child for globalisation, about to shift into reverse gear on international engagement?

A series of recent measures by Beijing to ostensibly protect its cyber sovereignty have raised serious questions about whether the country is turning its back on the World Wide Web, a key facet of globalisation.

At a moment when China should be basking in the glory of becoming the world's largest economy, the apparent insecurity of its leaders seems to be instead driving it into a parallel online universe of its own.

The "Great Firewall of China", created in the early part of this century as a crudely simplistic effort to block anti-government content on the Internet, has now pushed China onto a separate Internet continent.

Despite its grand name, the firewall presented little more than a speed bump for tech-savvy netizens. Even though the government had blocked access to Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, subscribers to virtual private networks (VPN) and other such services were easily able to view those sites, as well as news sites like the BBC, Radio Free Asia and Hong Kong's South China Morning Post newspaper.

Those days seem to be coming to an end now.

Alarmed by their inability to effectively restrict the browsing of Chinese Internet users, the censors appear to be following through on decades-old plans to develop a country-wide intranet called the "China Wide Web".

Phase one of that plan was unveiled earlier this month with a firewall upgrade that has successfully blocked even the trickle of uncensored content that had earlier flowed freely through VPNs. The creation of this alternative online universe has outraged many of China's 600 million Internet users.

Even those who do not perhaps care about political issues are seething about their inability to follow the lives of South Korean pop stars on Instagram or watch Hollywood flicks on online video sites. University professors and academic researchers have publicly complained about their inability to access books and research articles without VPN connections. Businessmen are angry at their inability to monitor market developments, or use their secure e-mail and Twitter accounts to communicate with foreign partners and customers.

For the authorities, software filters are clearly not enough to protect China's cyber sovereignty. Recently unveiled regulations aim to introduce "secure and controllable", that is, Chinese-developed and controlled, Internet and information communications technology (ICT).

Foreign suppliers seeking to manufacture hardware for use in China would be required to provide the government with "back doors", details about their patented encryption systems as well as assistance with decryption. This would effectively require providers to build two different sets of equipment for use in Chinese and non-Chinese universes.

A high-level US industry group recently published an open letter to Chinese leadership requesting "urgent discussion and dialogue" to stop the intended plan as "'a secure and controllable' ICT supply chain through complete indigenous production and control is simply not feasible". They warned that the planned approach "would ultimately isolate Chinese ICT firms from the global marketplace and weaken cyber security, thereby harming China's economic growth and restricting customer choice".

China's retrograde move is all the more striking given that the Internet has underwritten part of its phenomenal growth and enabled e-commerce giant Alibaba to emerge and raise China's global share of ICT exports from just 2 per cent in 1996 to 30 per cent in 2012.

The China Wide Web also threatens to undermine its plans to attract foreign professionals to boost innovation: the prospect of an American-style "green card" becomes far less appealing if immigrant workers are required to leave their social media accounts at the border.

Caught between their broad economic ambitions and their acute political insecurity, Chinese leaders seem to be signalling a retreat from globalisation.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The author is editor-in-chief of YaleGlobal Online, published by the MacMillan Centre, Yale University