US ensnared in China’s digital crackdown
Chinese President Xi Jinping is spearheading a crackdown on the flow of digital information in a campaign that could reshape the cybersecurity relationship between China and the U.S.
Since taking office in late 2012, Xi has overseen what Harvard University government researcher Gary King said “may be the most extensive effort to selectively censor human expression ever implemented.”
And that was before a dramatic uptick in digital control efforts starting last summer. Since then, the Chinese government has completely banned Google, reportedly hacked Apple and Microsoft to spy on Hong Kong protesters, cracked down on workarounds for Internet censorship and co-opted Web traffic to launch unprecedented cyberattacks on critical websites.
“China in the last couple of years has moved in such a repressive manner,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) told reporters recently. “I look around the world [and] there are few if any countries that have moved so rapidly to reduce access to the Internet and the free flow of information.”
Lawmakers like Wyden, and other U.S. officials, are getting increasingly dragged into the Asian power’s digital suppression attempts.
Once focused within its own borders, China’s hardening information control strategy is now touching businesses worldwide and impeding the global Internet, experts argue.
“I think we’re seeing a little bit of a blurring what is internal and what is external relations,” Kristen Eichensehr, an international security professor at the UCLA School of Law and a former State Department attorney.
A new slate of counterterrorism regulations — ostensibly to defend China’s cyberspace from attacks — has drawn the rebuke of the international community, including President Obama himself. The rules would require many companies operating within China and foreign firms supplying software to China to submit source code for inspection and install Beijing-approved encryption.
These laws, Eichensehr said, “are purportedly doing things domestically, but obviously stepping over some lines in the international community.”
China has hit pause on a portion of the guidelines related to banks amid complaints from foreign governments and businesses.
U.S., European Union and Japanese government officials decry the guidelines as protectionism masked as national security.
But to the Chinese Community Party, or CPC, domestic information security and national security are intertwined, explained Sarah McKune, senior legal advisor with Citizen Lab, a research unit at the University of Toronto that tracks Chinese digital suppression tactics.
Controlling information means controlling ideology, McKune said, which is central to maintaining party stability and legitimacy.
“When you’re in a situation where there’s so much ideological competition — in part due to the role of the Internet — I think there’s a lot of concern from the CPC about individuals getting pulled more toward what might be considered Western ideology,” she said.
And Beijing’s latest powerful weapon in its fight to control domestic data is the “Great Cannon,” a complex tool that enables the government to redirect traffic from Baidu, China’s version of Google, toward websites it wants censored.
It’s another example of China’s once-localized efforts turning outward. In order to launch Great Cannon, officials hijack the Internet traffic of millions of users worldwide.
Citizen Lab revealed the extent of the tactic in a recent report, tying it back to Beijing authorities.
Last month, Beijing fired the Cannon at GreatFire, a Chinese censorship watchdog, trying to crash its websites with a tsunami of traffic.
“The authorities could not block our sites because they rely on the global Internet,” said GreatFire co-founder Charlie Smith. “So they attacked them instead.”
These attempts to manipulate international data have grabbed the attention of lawmakers like Wyden.
The civil liberties minded Oregon Democrat is backing legislation that would make it easier for the White House to negotiate trade deals with limited Congressional interference. Formally known as trade promotion authority, the bill would also pressure trade deals to include provisions guaranteeing unimpeded cross-border data flows, Wyden argued.
China’s digital crackdown is “one of the reasons I felt so strongly about the provisions yesterday that dealt with the open Internet and the expansion of the free flow of information,” Wyden told reporters the day after the legislation was unveiled in mid-April.
For years, China has carefully walked a fine line: working to manage information at home — the government removes 13 percent of social media posts — while not stepping on toes abroad.
But as Beijing authorities grow bolder and more aggressive, they’re blurring that line, free expression advocates argue.
“The authorities cannot sustain these kinds of censorship controls,” GreatFire’s Smith said. “They cost a lot, and as we have shown, there are holes that can be exploited, largely because China wants to be a part of the global Internet.”
But international relations experts are more hesitant.
While occasional high-profile attempts to secure domestic information — such as the counterterrorism rules — spark an international debate, the more insidious, day-to-day digital suppression is largely out of reach. There are few international norms regulating online censorship and the U.S. is invested in keeping China as an economic ally.
“The West doesn’t have lots of great tools,” said Chinese cyber policy expert Adam Segal, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “I think [Beijing officials] continue trying to get as close to the line as possible, and sometimes stepping over and then regrouping and pushing again.”