Chinese President Xi Jinping recently gave a speech in which he spoke of a new, bolder role for China in shaping the established international order. Dubbed “the two guides,” this position and other recent statements indicate China’s desire to assert greater leadership over international affairs and the progress of globalization.
But how should we understand China’s approach to globalization? One large clue can be found in the Chinese government’s approach to a key underpinning of globalization, the global information ecosystem. In fact, while attention has primarily focused on domestic Chinese censorship, China has quietly and effectively harnessed this ecosystem for its own purposes, using its components to bolster its own power and undermine democratic norms and institutions. What emerges is an altered understanding of the ways in which authoritarian regimes like China can utilize globalization to wield power in the information age.
China’s strategy has targeted the information ecosystem at its source. Rather than simply trying to censor unfavorable stories or burnish its image, China is going after the infrastructure of information—whether through Hollywood acquisitions, the global media that informs international opinion and policy, or the norms, standards and corporate platforms powering the Internet, a medium through which an ever-growing number of people in the world communicate and organize their daily lives. In doing so, China is affecting more than simply information products; it is altering the mechanisms that determine what kinds of products are produced in the first place. This sets it apart from other governments, such as Russia, which have focused chiefly on using information-based tools to achieve influence.
China’s efforts to promote international news coverage favorable to its interests include pressuring and influencing reporting by foreign media, promulgating its own outward-facing news media to foreign audiences, and influencing the structure and values of the media in countries where it has particular influence. It has focused particularly on influencing the evolution of the global Internet, where – along with Russia and others – it has been a proponent of “Internet sovereignty,” which favors state-based regulation of the Internet and the assertion of national boundaries in cyberspace.
China has sought to promote Internet sovereignty within existing institutions, such the United Nations, and utilize existing concepts, such as multilateralism. In doing so, it hopes to alter the locus of Internet governance, or perhaps more importantly,to get other countries to buy into alternative norms regarding how the Internet is conceptualized and governed. This would contribute to the fragmentation of the global Internet, and, in its framing by authoritarian regimes, would conflate the tenets of cybersecurity with stifling domestic protest.
China has also increasingly influenced another key component of globalization, the transmission of culture and opinion. It has done so most significantly through Hollywood. Although China is engaged in a number of efforts to boost its cultural soft power, such as through sports, festivals, cultural and language institutes, and other venues, its engagement with Hollywood has the largest potential reach. Because China is an increasingly important market for the global film industry, entertainment firms have been striking deals that help give them access to that market, but put them at the mercy of Chinese censors. This leads to content either edited to fit the Chinese market, or proactively shaped to exclude anything the Chinese government might consider sensitive in the first place. Chinese co-productions are also more likely to feature positive depictions of topics that the Chinese government considers priorities.
The net result of all these endeavors is the likely institutionalization of norms, standards and platforms unfavorable to democratic expression and institutions. When the protocols of the global Internet favor device-based surveillance by states, when self-censorship by major media companies leads to a global chilling of expression, when the basic principles underlying journalism in many parts of the world preference cooperation with authority, it adds up to something like the enshrinement of authoritarian practices worldwide. For those seeking greater understanding of how China has already shaped globalization, and how it envisions doing so in the future, this may be a good place to start.