Soft Power is Hard: The World Internet Conference Behind the Great Firewall

For three days, Chinese citizens are able to tweet at will and access Google, Facebook, and other forms of social media and traditionally censored content—but only if they are in the historic town of Wuzhen, where China is currently hosting the World Internet Conference. During this temporary reprieve from Internet censorship in Wuzhen, the rest of the country experienced a surge in censorship targeted at blocking access to several media outlets such as The Atlantic and the content delivery network Edgecast. The conference appears to have been put together in response to a similar series of conferences on global cyber norms led by the UK, South Korea, Hungary and the Netherlands, and it’s just the latest effort that China has made to influence and structure 21st century cyberspace norms. However, just as China failed to conceal the pollution during last week’s APEC summit, it seems that the government is encountering similar challenges in its attempt to simultaneously disguise the Great Firewall and promote Internet freedoms. The conference illuminates the stark contrast between China’s version of a state-controlled Internet within sovereign borders and the free and open Internet promoted by democratic states across the globe.

The goal of the World Internet Conference is to “give a panoramic view for the first time of the concept of the development of China’s Internet and its achievements,” according to Lu Wei, the minister of China’s new Cyberspace Administration. However, the conference may inadvertently highlight the hypocrisy of an uncensored Internet conference occurring within one of the most censored countries in the world. In fact, much of the world seems absent from what was meant to be a global conference, understanding full well the cognitive dissonance that seems to have evaded the Chinese leadership when organizing this conference. Only a handful of the speakers are non-Chinese, but in general the world’s biggest players in the Internet are absent from the discussion.

For several years, China has leveraged its clout to attempt to shape global cyberspace norms. China and Russia jointly proposed The International Code of Conduct for Information Security to the United Nations, ironically calling for a free and open global Internet while their domestic censorship continues to expand. Just as rising powers exerted their influence to shape the post-World War II international order, China is similarly leaning on extant institutions, and also introducing new international institutions, to shape the cyber norms of the 21st century global order. However, China fails to grasp the importance of soft power in shaping global norms of any kind. Power can be achieved via coercion, payment, or attraction. Soft power occupies the realm of attraction, and promoting values that are attractive to others. As Joseph Nye explained last year, China (and Russia for that matter) is failing miserably at soft power because they fail to account for the attraction component of the equation. The World Internet Conference makes this unabashedly clear.

As China continues to exert influence over the global cyber commons, there is certainly cause for concern that they might extend their sphere of influence and encourage others to limit Internet freedoms. As William Nee of Amnesty International notes, “Now China appears eager to promote its own domestic Internet rules as a model for global regulation. This should send a chill down the spine of anyone that values online freedom.” While concern is warranted, it would be myopic to overreact and ignore the vital component of attraction within soft power. What China fails to understand is that its attempt at soft power will present challenges. Soft power is only truly effective when it promotes universal values such as freedom and openness—not dictatorial control over access to information.