Last week in the Swiss town of Davos, China's President Xi Jinping sang the praises of free trade. He said his country would open still further, rather than take a backward step. But when it comes to internet, Beijing is moving in the opposite direction.
The Ministry of Industry is expanding the “Great Firewall,” as the country's web censorship is known colloquially. Over a period of 18 months secured services are to be suppressed with which many firms and private individuals have been able to circumvent network blockades up to now.
Despite all pledges to the contrary: security and control clearly remain the top priority. China wants to be able to determine exactly what information is accessible within the People's Republic, whether it concerns media, universities or the internet. Under Mr. Xi Jinping, China has expanded the scope of inspections, so the party can determine what information Chinese citizens receive. The president has made no secret of this objective.
China is on the way to becoming a global power but the limitations imposed on the internet and other information do not do justice to this role.
Beijing has already managed to develop a kind of Chinese internet. Some services such as Google, Facebook and a number of international media are blocked. Nearly all international web sites load slowly. Only surfers on Chinese websites enjoy swift connections.
This policy is fatal for companies as digital communication is the very lifeline of many firms. Without being able to access their internal networks, many just cannot operate. Subsidiary offices are already suffering under the permanent disruptions affecting their secured tunnel connections, so-called Virtual Private Netowork, or VPN, tunnels. These services were never legal in China, but up to now they were tolerated to a great extent.
The new policy is fatal for China's domestic firms too – it is already inhibiting their businesses.
One dramatic case makes that quite clear: Apple supplies free of charge the program to make software apps for its products. The program, however, is on a server in the United States, meaning a download from China takes a very long time. Resourceful hackers put the software on a Chinese server, but installed a backdoor on the program. Nearly all Chinese software firms have been using the manipulated program in good faith, as it was so quick to download. It took a long time for the trickery to be noticed. By then, millions of clients were already affected.
China is on the way to becoming a global power but the limitations imposed on the internet and other information do not do justice to this role. Beijing should give companies and citizens in China open access to global information. Anything else is a threat to China’s self-avowed goal of becoming a modern, high-tech economic powerhouse.
Stephan Scheuer is Handelsblatt’s correspondent in China. He can be reached at [email protected]