Digital sovereignty in China – A brief overview

>> Lese diesen Blogpost auf Deutsch.

In China, the topic of digital sovereignty or cyber sovereignty has been discussed for much longer than in the European Union, for example. The goals are, in particular, the maintenance of social stability and the establishment of a compulsion to obey the laws of the Communist Party. This is done primarily by controlling the flow of information on the Internet (Jia 2021, 98). At the latest with the 2010 White Paper, the term „digital sovereignty“ was introduced into the public debate and guided the actions of the political class in China (Skierka/Brenner 2015, 48 and Jia 2021, 101; 112). Since then, various strategies have been adopted, including the „Cyber Power Strategy“ (2014), the state strategy „Made in China 2025“ (2015), the „Internet Plus Plan“ (2015), and the „Cyber Superpower Strategy“ (2018) (Jia 2021, 98ff. and Christmann-Budian/Geffers 2017, 132).

The focus in the Chinese version of „digital sovereignty“ is on the independence of society and Chinese companies from Western digital products. It explicitly emphasizes the goal of a Chinese sovereign space as an independent space characterized by non-interference. The Chinese concept of sovereignty for digital space is thus much closer to the original, territorial concept than that of the European Union.

IIn this context, according to Chinese researchers, the political debate and legislative processes and strategy papers are not about fragmenting the Internet into isolated sovereign legal spaces, but rather that independent states should enforce their policy projects and coordinate with each other. The aim is to establish an international legal regime that maintains order in cyberspace and enshrines the sovereign rights of each state to operate its own Internet policy within its own country (Stadnik 2021, 149).

According to Santaniello, who is developing a model on the different Internet governance strategies of various states, the strategy of the Chinese ruling elite can be described as „digital sovereigntism“. This Santaniello identifies as a very specific version of digital sovereignty strategy. It involves a low level of inclusion – national governments alone are supposed to make decisions – and the most significant source of legitimacy is national sovereignty. State authority is to be a basic principle, and state independence a general criterion. It is thus a geopolitical perspective with a desire for governance through bilateral or multilateral negotiations and agreements. Preference is given at the international level to institutions such as the International Telecommunication Union, the World Conference on International Telecommunications and contacts between state actors, and at the national level to government-led initiatives via parliaments (Santaniello 2021, 25f.). Current measures are, for example, the development of new Internet standards in order to be able to better control a part of the Internet via the domination of some technical aspects (Hoffmann/Lazanski/Taylor 2020).

At the same time, access to certain Internet sites is prevented by the so-called „Great Firewall“ or „Golden Shield“ using techniques such as Border Gateway Protocol or DNS hijacking, keyword filtering and blocking IP addresses (Hyland 2020, 10ff.). This architecture was already built between 2000 and 2005 with the help of Western IT corporations and is the anchor point for the Communist Party’s control over the Internet (Luo/Lv 2021, 123). „Internet traffic is controlled and restricted at a few nodes, through which all external contact of the Chinese subnets is handled“ (translated from Misterek 2017, 12). Both Chinese and foreign Internet companies are responsible for maintaining this system and the associated strict censorship measures. The latter agree to this because they fear that they will otherwise no longer be able to participate in the lucrative Chinese market (ibid. and Jia 2021, 97).

So the Chinese state is not carrying out the „digital sovereignty“ policy alone. Increasingly, non-state actors and in particular local tech companies such as Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu are playing a role (Jia 2021, 97). Since the end of the 1990s, the Chinese government has been pursuing the so-called „National Champions Policy“ in this context, promoting large, globally successful Chinese companies in particular (ebd., 103 ff.). At the same time, regulations make market access more difficult for foreign companies, and content from foreign Internet providers is censored (Skierka/Brenner 2015, 48). The success of this is evidenced by the fact that since the 2000s, the Chinese Internet economy has evolved from a market for Western products to a birthplace of some of the world’s largest Internet companies (Jia 2021, 103). Researchers emphasize that Chinese Internet policy has become increasingly neoliberal and technocratic in color at least since the 2008 financial crisis, „encouraging individual success stories of entrepreneurs and technocrats salvaging the national economy“ (ibid., 101).

Overall, the Chinese government is pursuing a dual strategy of strict censorship and protection of the local Internet industry (Christmann/Budian 2017, 129ff.). „China’s example thus first makes clear that the protection of state digital sovereignty in some state systems can also be directed inward. But of course, foreign influences can also be reduced or at least better controlled in this way“ (translated from ibid., 130). Overall, an ideology of „techno-nationalism“ seems to be increasingly widespread in the thinking of China’s ruling elites. High-tech is seen as a source of national power, technological autonomy is the strategic focus and is achieved through means such as state financing, subsidies, tax breaks, government contracting, technological standards and restrictions on foreign investment (Jia 2021, 99).

You might also be interested in:


Christmann-Budian, Stephanie; Geffers, Johannes. „Wie Zuhause so im Cyberspace? Internationale Perspektiven auf digitale Souveränität.“ In: Wittphal, Volker (Hg.). Digitale Souveränität: Bürger, Unternehmen, Staat. Wiesbaden: Springer Vieweg, 2017, 117 – 150.

Hoffmann, Stacie; Lazanski, Dominique; Taylor, Emily. „Standardising the splinternet: how China’s technical standards could fragment the internet.“ In: Journal of Cyber Policy 5 (2), 2020, 239 – 264.

Hyland, Jospeh. „Internet Censorship: An Integrative Review of Technologies Employed to Limit Access to the Internet, Monitor User Actions, and their Effects on Culture.“ > 2020. (27.06.2021)

Jia, Lianrui. „Bulding China’s tech superpower – State, domestic champions and foreign capital.“ In: Haggart, Blayne; Tusikov, Natasha; Scholte, Jan Aart (Hrsg.). Power and Authority in Internet Governance – Return of the State? London und New York: Routledge. 2021, 97 – 122.

Luo, Ting; Lv, Aofei. „‚Nine dragons run the water‘ – Fragmented internet governance in China.“ In: Haggart, Blayne; Tusikov, Natasha; Scholte, Jan Aart (Hrsg.). Power and Authority in Internet Governance – Return of the State? London und New York: Routledge, 2021, 123 – 146.

Misterek, Fock. „Digitale Souveränität – Technikutopien und Gestaltungsansprüche demokratischer Politik.“ < > 2017. (30.04. 2021).

Santaniello, Mauro. „From governance denial to state regulation – A controvert-based typology of internet governance models.“ In: Haggart, Blayne; Tusikov, Natasha; Scholte, Jan Aart (Hrsg.). Power and Authority in Internet Governance – Return of the State? London und New York: Routledge, 2021, 15 – 36.

Skierka, Isabel Marie; Brenner, Thorsten. „Digitale Souveränität.“ In: Woyke, Wichard; Varwick, Johannes (Hrsg.). Handwörterbuch Internationale Politik. 13. Auflage. Opladen, Toronto: Verlag Barbara Budrich, 2015, 45 – 49.

Stadnik, Ilona. „Russia – An independent and sovereign internet?“ In: Haggart, Blayne; Tusikov, Natasha; Scholte, Jan Aart (Hrsg.). Power and Authority in Internet Governance – Return of the State? London und New York: Routledge, 2021, 147 – 167.

Schreibe einen Kommentar