The internet is not a unified global entity. Its seemingly international scope and scale only exists for certain parts of the world. There exists another version of the internet that is largely separate from the global version: the Chinese internet.

The Chinese internet is mainly a closed virtual environment deliberately separated from the wider world by the Communist regime’s complex great firewall that prevents any foreign website or information it deems unacceptable. The Chinese internet thus resembles more of a national intranet.

As Jonah M. Kessel and Paul Mozur wrote in The New York Times, it is almost as if the Chinese internet is a lagoon next to the ocean of the global internet, filled with its own copycat companies, platforms, services, social media, and products. Instead of Google, for example, there is Baidu, instead of Youtube there is Youku. As Paul Mozur said, “In many ways, the split is like 19th century railroads in the US, when rails of different sizes hindered a train’s ability to go from one place to another.”

Although China is home to the world’s largest number of internet users, in addition to some of the world’s most powerful internet and information companies, they operate within a self-contained cyber sphere.

This separation between the Chinese internet and the global internet is a major component of the Chinese Communist Party’s policy of cyber sovereignty. This policy presents a segregationist approach to cyberspace by promoting the internet’s separation along national lines and consequently the separate development of different national internets according to particular cultures, customs, and governance systems.

China thus argues for a segregated cyberspace that should mirror and respect the culture, customs, and governance systems of the real, geographical, physical space defined by a country’s borders.

The concept of cyber sovereignty, however, is not unique to China. Aspects of it have been adopted by other governments, mainly in the Middle East and Russia, by the strict censorship of online information considered religiously immoral, socially unacceptable, or politically sensitive. These countries may currently remain connected to the global internet, but their citizens’ use of it remains restricted.

Thus, although this concept is not unique to China, the actual implementation and realisation of it makes China a special case. China is currently the only major power to have established its own separate, and successful, internet. It is also the only major power to explicitly endorse and enforce cyber sovereignty over its virtual space and physical borders. It is therefore leading the way in defining, legitimising, and promoting cyber sovereignty for the rest of the world.

Cyber sovereignty is in fact one of Beijing’s top strategic national priorities. At the Beijing-sponsored annual World Internet Conference in 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping argued forcefully for cyber sovereignty, linking it with the right of individual countries to develop along their own particular lines without interference from others.

His message was that China, and all countries, should have the right to their own separate internets by developing their own cyber infrastructures and enforcing their own cyber laws and regulations.

President Xi’s call for cyber sovereignty is also influenced, in part, by a perceived Western, especially American, dominance over the global internet. He denounced this perceived Western/American “cyber hegemony”, arguing that “there should be no unilateralism” in and for the internet and that “decisions should not be made with one party calling the shots or only a few parties discussing among themselves”.

President Xi also criticised the US for conducting cyber espionage against other countries while demanding cybersecurity for its own virtual realm and interests (while conveniently omitting China’s own extensive global cyber espionage practices).

China further argues that its version of the internet balances both freedom and order – it is apparently a false balance because of its strong tilt towards order. The former head of the powerful Cyberspace Administration of China, Lu Wei, stated in an official press release ahead of the 2015 World Internet Conference that “Internet freedom requires strict order”. China’s concept of order is embodied in its sophisticated Great Firewall. Chinese order therefore translates to censorship, filtering, blocking, and the government control of cyberspace.

Many civil, human, and digital rights activists criticise cyber sovereignty, especially the Chinese version of it, arguing that it violates civil and human rights, information freedom, and the ideal of the internet as an open virtual realm. Amnesty International, for example, argues that “under the guise of sovereignty and security, the Chinese authorities are trying to rewrite the rules of the internet so censorship and surveillance become the norm everywhere.”

Other organisations criticised the 2015 World Internet Conference, claiming that the guests attending it – purportedly including Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, and Thompson Reuters CEO James Clifton Smith – were at least tacitly complicit in China’s censorship regime and its separate internet.

Yet certain aspects of cyber sovereignty have direct and indirect support, even in the West. Many authoritarian regimes are largely responsive to President Xi’s call for cyber sovereignty.  However, there is indirect, and largely unacknowledged, support from some Western governments insofar as their own security and social laws are concerned. The US, for example, aims to restrict information as well as surveil communications between perceived terrorist groups. The EU, meanwhile, has an ongoing debate over potential age restrictions for when children should be allowed online. Although these cases are not close to China’s call for comprehensive cyber sovereignty, they nevertheless echo aspects of it, indicating at least some kind of sympathy with some of President Xi’s concern for so-called order over the internet.

Cyber sovereignty’s worrisome political implications are also coupled with problematic economic implications. As Molly Roberts, a China internet scholar at the University of California San Diego, argues, this internet separateness creates “friction” in international information flows, consequently increasing business costs for both Chinese and global businesses.

Because the Chinese internet is largely cut off from the global internet, Chinese and global online businesses remain largely isolated from each other. This separateness prevents foreign internet and information companies from being able to fully enter and compete in the Chinese market.

The American office of the United States Trade Representative recently stated that China’s cyber sovereignty policy was a significant international trade barrier. Arguably, it is China’s own internet and information companies that suffer the most from this separation. Even China’s most powerful online companies, like Alibaba and Baidu are hampered by China’s largely closed virtual realm. These companies rely on China’s domestic market. When they try to expand into international markets, they are entering a different virtual realm than the one they are based in. Again, businesses must choose: China or the world?

This separation between the Chinese and the global internet is arguably resulting in the emergence of an internet Cold War. On the one hand, the Western world’s vision for the internet is for an open and free virtual commons that facilitates information freedom and flows while upholding universal values. On the other hand, the Chinese vision for the internet is cyber sovereignty.

The Cold War of the 20th century presented a stark choice between the democratic capitalist West and the communist East. The emerging internet Cold War offers a similarly stark choice between an open, free, and universal global internet and a closed and segregated internet. Much of the international rules and standards for internet governance, and broader cyber and information issues, are still being debated and developed. Neither the Washington vision nor the Beijing vision are inevitable outcomes, but they are competing to shape the international discourse on what the internet should be today and in the future.

Marc Kosciejew is head of department and lecturer in the Department of Library Information and Archive Sciences in the Faculty of Media and Knowledge Sciences, University of Malta.

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