The Chinese Communist Party is endeavouring to reshape norms of internet usage as part of its push for global cyber supremacy, according to a new report.
Beijing’s multi-faceted employment of grey-zone tactics to advance its geopolitical agenda has become increasingly evident in recent years, with its manipulation of the cyber domain a key component of its strategy.
State-sponsored actors have often been accused of malicious cyber activity aimed at exposing vulnerabilities across supply chains and destabilising critical infrastructure.
But a new report published by researchers Nathan Attrill and Audrey Fritz from ASPI’s International Cyber Policy, details a new strategy adopted by the CCP to support its push to become a cyber superpower.
The report — China’s cyber vision — explains how the CCP is working across state, party and military agencies to overhaul global internet norms to support its propaganda campaign.
The analysts point to the establishment of the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) — an offshoot of the former Party Office of External Propaganda, responsible for managing internet information and content.
Attrill and Fritz note that the director of the CAC, Zhuang Rongwen, also serves as the deputy minister of the Central Propaganda Department.
“Indicating the overlap between the propaganda and cyber systems, China’s recent efforts to build a ‘civilised’ internet seek to use the internet as a platform for disseminating party ideology,” they write.
“Zhuang announced that these efforts were critical in building a ‘modern socialist country’.”
These ties, they argue, raise questions about the intentions of the agency, which may be planning to “turn its cyber governance system into a model for others in the international community”.
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“Under the CCP’s strategy to become a cyber superpower, China must have the ability to shape cyber space by setting the rules, values and norms of the internet,” Attrill and Fritz continue.
But according to the pair, China recognises that it cannot impose this agenda unilaterally.
As such, China is expected to develop and leverage its technological capabilities to become self-reliant, while also “manufacturing an international consensus”.
“The goal of China’s quest for cyber superpower status is ultimately for the internet outside of Beijing’s jurisdiction to eventually adapt to the economic development, social management and national security priorities of the CCP,” Attrill and Fritz explain.
“To work towards this goal, China’s cyber policy system has adopted practices that aim to co-opt international organisations and cultivate foreign allies.”
These practices involve garnering support for “internet sovereignty” and a “community of common destiny for cyber space”.
“Showing other states how they can use cyber space to shape and repress dissenting voices in their own societies is a part of those co-opting strategies,” they add.
“The World Internet Conference is one forum that aims to build international consensus on the CCP’s vision for the internet, operating under the CCP’s ideal that countries should co-operate to strive to build a community of a common destiny for cyber space.
“By hosting the World Internet Conference and developing other platforms, the CCP claims that it’s able to 'promote fairer and more equitable global internet governance'.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping could use this concept to propose “Chinese solutions for global internet development and governance”.
“This is a China-centred vision for cyber space, just as the Belt and Road Initiative is a China-centred vision for the world’s economy,” Attrill and Fritz write.
“Under Xi’s proposal for global shared governance, China would have access to international governance mechanisms and platforms for controlling and monitoring cyber space.
“If implemented, that would have significant ramifications for the world’s internet freedoms.”
The pair cite President Xi's remarks in a speech in 2015, in which he referred to the internet as a “powerful tool for information dissemination and social governance”.
Attrill and Fritz warn that this mindset promotes shaping, managing and controlling the operating environment.
“When approaching the topic of internet co-governance and development strategies with China, countries should consider the future of cyber space and what information should be shared, and even controlled, by countries such as China,” Attrill and Fritz write.