Cybersovereignty refers to a government exerting its control over how the internet is run, who gets access to it, and what can be done with all of the data generated.
In 2019, Chinese President Xi Jinping pushed forward an agenda of strict control, censorship and suppression, and it is starting to export its systems to authoritarian leaders elsewhere in the world.
China has always restricted what can be posted digitally and by whom, but last year there were serious repercussions for those who violated the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) content preferences. A “South Park” episode critical of the Chinese government quickly went viral, which prompted censors to remove not just the episode—but all instances of South Park content on the internet, social media, and in discussion rooms.
In China, Twitter, Facebook, and Google are impossible to access without a VPN—citizens instead use home-grown apps like Baidu and WeChat to surf the web and chat with friends. The CCP argues that China is an enormous country in the midst of the fastest economic transition in modern history, and their unique controls are meant to promote social and economic stability. But there’s more to it than that: In 2019, Xi also announced that the government would wean itself off of foreign-made computers and operating systems, replacing familiar brands (Microsoft, Dell, Apple) with Chinese products.
President Xi has said that China’s digital and information systems can serve as a new model for other countries around the world, and now other authoritarian regimes are following suit. China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which has been a huge success in expanding trade throughout emerging economies, also has boosted the country’s digital initiatives. Russia passed “sovereign internet” laws in 2019 that allow authorities to track and block information as it pleases. Vietnam passed a law that, like China, allows the government to block content it deems problematic to society.
Within a decade, the digital world could be split in two, a free system in the West, and a closed system led by China.
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