It was a busy day over at the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC). On May 2, the agency, created in February 2014 to exercise overarching control over the country’s internet and every related enterprise, launched not one but three separate regulations. They deal with everything from “procurement of important network products and services” to “online news and information services.”
The bottom line?
These regulations, which will formally take effect on June 1 along with the Cybersecurity Law, mark the maturation of President Xi Jinping’s grand plan for information under the Chinese Communist Party in the 21st century.
That vision centers on 1) cybersecurity as integral to national security, and grasps cybersecurity through the lens of regime stability and the core need for information controls at home and abroad, and 2) informatization, or xinxihua (信息化), the idea of internet and digital development as the new, perhaps even now primary, source of production, replacing industrialization at the heart of the national economy.
Xi Jinping fleshed out this vision when he addressed the very first meeting of his Office of the Central Leading Group for Cyberspace Affairs (中央网络安全和信息化领导小组) in February 2014, speaking about the need to fashion China as an “internet power” (网络强国). In that address, Xi said: “Without cybersecurity, there is no national security; without informatization, there is no modernization” (没有网络安全就没有国家安全，没有信息化就没有现代化).
The internet was once a foreign problem and peripheral concern to China. There is no better proof of this than the fact that internet controls were, from the very beginning, placed not within the Party’s core —in the Central Propaganda Department, for example— but in the Information Office of the State Council, the government body dealing with all things foreign. This is the same body that publishes China Daily, the newspaper meant to explain China to the outside world.
Xi Jinping has progressively pulled the internet front and centre, and the creation of the Central Leading Group for Cyberspace Affairs, the body that subsumes the CAC, and of which Xi is head, is an institutional reflection of this dramatic change.
Since the formation of the Leading Group and the CAC, Xi Jinping has stressed the need for these newly centralized controls on the internet to be further legitimized through laws and regulations. China must, he says, “govern the online space in accord with the law” (依法治理网络空间).
Addressing an important cybersecurity forum last year, Xi Jinping urged the need for “legislation of cyber laws, improving legal supervision and resolving risks caused by the internet.” The Cybersecurity Law, passed in November last year, is the centrepiece of this push for a newly legislated regime of information controls in China. The regulations released yesterday are further pieces of the puzzle.
One hint as to the institutional significance of the regulations comes today in a report by Xinhua News Agency, which notes: “The CAC will become the new regulator of online news service, replacing the State Council Information Office.”
This is not exactly the nail in the coffin — not yet. But we can expect both the Information Office and the Central Propaganda Department to be increasingly sidelined as the CAC comes to dominate, with a flotilla of laws and regulations behind it.
It is not at all a surprise, then, to see that the Provisions for the Administration of Internet News, one of the three regulations released yesterday, clearly define the CAC’s role in defending the political and ideological line:
Article 3: The provision of internet news and information services must respect the Constitution, laws and regulations, adhering to a political orientation of serving the people (为人民服务), serving socialism (为社会主义服务), adhering to correct guidance of public opinion (坚持正确舆论导向), serving a public opinion supervision role (发挥舆论监督作用), promoting the creation of a positive, healthy and advanced online culture, and preserving the national interest and the public interest.
Is this a passing of the baton?
Xi Jinping’s cyber regime is still in formation. But we can be sure that as the news in China increasingly goes digital, and as television goes mobile, the CAC’s power will grow. Its web of controls, almost assured to be one of Xi Jinping’s most enduring legacies, will overlay China’s 21st century web of communications.