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Beijing Letter: Xi wants distinct Chinese flavour to cyberspace menu

Data issues addressed by regulators are the same as those that preoccupy legislators in Europe

The restaurant was upmarket enough to have printed menus rather than just a QR code on a small steel plate in the corner of the table. But when it came to ordering my companion took out his phone and started scrolling down, clicking on a picture and a block of text here or there. “I’m checking the reviews to see what’s good,” he said.

He was on Dianping, an app that carries reviews of everything from restaurants to hotels, spas and tourist destinations. One friend tells me he writes four reviews a month for the app, complete with close-ups of the food and comments on the appearance and the demeanour of the staff.

With apps for everything, superfast delivery services and every kind of virtual space and community, China feels more online than anywhere in Europe or the United States. One billion of the country’s 1.4 billion people are online, and in 2021 the digital economy was worth Rmb45.5 trillion (€6.25 trillion).

In the same year the Chinese Communist Party designated data as a “factor of production” with equal status to land, labour and capital in the Marxist theoretical framework. And although the Chinese internet is part of the global internet and Chinese technology and ecommerce companies are among the biggest in the world, cyberspace in China operates under an increasingly elaborate system of governance, most of which has developed since Xi Jinping came to power a decade ago.


Xi took office the same year that Edward Snowden revealed, among other things, that the US government had used private sector American ICT providers to compromise Chinese networks. Snowden’s disclosure of the saturation-level electronic surveillance conducted by the US on friend and foe alike is worth remembering now that Capitol Hill is puffing itself up into a soufflé of outrage over Chinese-owned TikTok.

The State Council, China’s central government, on Thursday published a white paper on the country’s “law-based cyberspace governance” which details some of the more than 140 laws governing the internet. Three laws, the Cybersecurity Law, the Data Security Law and the Personal Information Protection Law, are at the centre of a regulatory framework that gives the Chinese authorities more power to monitor, shape and control cyberspace than any of their peers elsewhere.

But while censorship is much more sweeping and intrusive than elsewhere, many of the issues China’s regulators have been addressing are the same as those that preoccupy legislators in Europe. These include protecting children from dangerous material online, limiting the scope for algorithms to drive destructive behaviour, and protecting consumers from fraud.

The white paper says that China has learned from other countries’ experience and wants to partner with others towards law-based, global governance of cyberspace. But it stresses that China will continue to make its own rules “based on its own realities” and with “distinct Chinese characteristics”.

This chimes with Xi’s Global Civilisational Initiative (GCI) which he launched with a speech this week at a dialogue between the Chinese Communist Party and political parties and organisations from 150 other countries. Observing that the global economic recovery remained sluggish, the environment was deteriorating and a Cold War mentality was lingering, he said modernisation had reached a crossroads.

“Polarisation or common prosperity? Pure materialistic pursuit or co-ordinated material and cultural-ethical advancement? Draining the pond to catch the fish or creating harmony between man and nature? Zero-sum game or win-win co-operation? Copying other countries’ development model or achieving independent development in light of national conditions? What kind of modernisation do we need and how can we achieve it?” he said.

Xi spoke about China’s path towards modernisation as one based less on statistics and indicators than on the delivery of “a happy and stable life” for the people. But his central message was that each country should be free to pursue its own route to modernisation while keeping an open mind about other civilisations and respecting their diversity.

Modernisation is not ‘an exclusive patent’ of a small handful of countries, nor is it a single-answer question. It cannot be realised by a cookie cutter approach or simple ‘copy and paste’. For any country to achieve modernisation it needs not only to follow the general laws governing the process, but, more importantly, consider its own national conditions and unique features,” he said.

“Developing countries have the right and ability to independently explore the modernisation path with their distinctive features based on their national realities... We should respect and support the development paths independently chosen by different peoples to jointly usher in a new prospect for humanity’s modernisation that is like a garden where a hundred flowers bloom.”