Reuters Customers at an Internet cafe in Shanxi province, March 2010.

When China Rules the Web

Technology in Service of the State

For almost five decades, the United States has guided the growth of the Internet. From its origins as a small Pentagon program to its status as a global platform that connects more than half of the world’s population and tens of billions of devices, the Internet has long been an American project. Yet today, the United States has ceded leadership in cyberspace to China. Chinese President Xi Jinping has outlined his plans to turn China into a “cyber-superpower.” Already, more people in China have access to the Internet than in any other country, but Xi has grander plans. Through domestic regulations, technological innovation, and foreign policy, China aims to build an “impregnable” cyberdefense system, give itself a greater voice in Internet governance, foster more world-class companies, and lead the globe in advanced technologies.

China’s continued rise as a cyber-superpower is not guaranteed. Top-down, state-led efforts at innovation in artificial intelligence, quantum computing, robotics, and other ambitious technologies may well fail. Chinese technology companies will face economic and political pressures as they globalize. Chinese citizens, although they appear to have little expectation of privacy from their government, may demand more from private firms. The United States may reenergize its own digital diplomacy, and the U.S. economy may rediscover the dynamism that allowed it create so much of the modern world’s technology. 

But given China’s size and technological sophistication, Beijing has a good chance of succeeding—thereby remaking cyberspace in its own image. If this happens, the Internet will be less global and less open. A major part of it will run Chinese applications over Chinese-made hardware. And Beijing will reap the economic, diplomatic, national security, and intelligence benefits that once flowed to Washington.

XI’S VISION

Almost from the moment he took power in 2012, Xi made it clear just how big a role the Internet played in his vision for China. After years of inertia, during which cyber-policy was fragmented among a wide array of government departments, Xi announced that

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