With the launch of a twenty year National Informatization Plan in 2000, progress towards an information society became an official aspiration for the Chinese Party-state. With the goal of increasing social productivity, the ambition to move beyond a barely nascent information economy was a bold one. For one thing, it would require the Party-state to relinquish its monopoly on information, a hypothetical move that would transform Chinese society. The formidable obstacles in the way of this goal were quickly thrown into harsh relief by the SARS cover-up in 2003, when the Party-State saw fit to withhold and actively cover up information that was literally of life and death importance from its people. The ambition for transparency was shown up for what it was—rhetoric that would not survive the political imperative of maintaining the authoritarian information order. At the same time that informatization was being discussed as an aspiration for a modernizing society, the idea of the “sovereignty of information” and the internet as an ideological battleground took precedence.
Despite the Party-state’s deep mistrust of information, the allure, in some quarters of government more than others, of informatization (信息化), would not go away. In 2006 a comprehensive e-government strategy was launched along with the gov.cn portal. A 2010 White Paper discussed online idea exchange, supervision of government, and the right to know. A Chinese Academy of Science report in 2011, Information Science and Technology China: A Roadmap to 2050, argued that a new set of political values was needed in order to make the transition to an information society. The report advocated for national information systems to be user-oriented, to promote convenient access to information, and, more radically, to operate free from monopoly. The report implied that informatization could only succeed with transparency and free flow of information. This radical notion was tempered by the caveat that it should also foster the construction of a “harmonious society”, a byword for many things (not least netizens’ understanding of “being harmonized” 被和谐, to be censored). It should also be noted that cybersecurity has been a preoccupation since at least 2003, when the Coordinating Small Group for Cyber and Information Security was established and issued its famous Document 27 set of recommendations.
The Party-state’s relationship with information abounds with contradictions. On one level, there is an acknowledgement that openness is a defining characteristic of information society, but while information continues to be treated with suspicion as a potential enemy eroding the Party-State’s hold on power, it is hard to see how genuine progress can be made. The principles of transparency and access do not go far before running into the roadblock of vested political and bureaucratic interests. What hope for an information society when the Party-state is willing to go to extraordinary efforts to impose total information blackouts on tragedies like the Sichuan earthquake in 2008 or unpleasant reminders of its treatment of dissenting voices like Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Prize? It doesn’t help that the cyber decision-making terrain is so crowded, with party leaders, technocrats, the armed forces, internal security, numerous different ministries and departments and business leaders squeezing out the few scholars and even fewer civil society actors who have a voice. Ultimately the public security and armed forces need only to invoke national security to intervene in any aspect of cyber policymaking, from technological choices to education programs and online censorship.
In 2014 the State Information Leading Group gave way to the National Leading Group for Cyber and Information Security headed for the first time by the Party General Secretary himself, in close cooperation with the renamed Cyberspace Administration of China. With President Xi taking a leading role, cyber policy has taken on a much greater security and political complexion. The rhetoric around informatization had consistently cast it as a driver of economic prosperity and social organization. But since Xi came in these goals have been downgraded or side-lined for a focus on control and cybersecurity. Stories in the western media on Wen Jiabao and Xi Jinping’s family wealth culled from public records led to a tightening of the rules on internet privacy. A crackdown on social media followed, with new rules on spreading rumours and punishments for online influencers having the intended chilling effect on unruly cyberspace. The main thrust of cyber policy in the last year appears to be on the threat of foreign software and the development of Chinese systems to avoid this threat. Although informatization has been linked to the en vogue catchwords corruption, rule of law and better governance, the “supervision” and “consultation” that have appeared in discourse on informatization appear to have stopped at ad hoc adjustments and interventions made on the back of online outrage. And now even the tolerance for websites that outed officials for showing off gold watches and expensive cigarettes appear to have evaporated.
Although Xi said in 2014 that “no informatization means no modernization”, what the Party-state wants falls short of the transformative information society. It wants a secure and trusted (and Chinese developed) environment for non-political information, to foster business and commerce, which includes reigning in cyber-crime, putting a curb on the “wildness” we saw at the apotheosis of ‘weibo power’, establishing itself as an internet power (网路大国), and getting prepared for the growing challenges of cybersecurity and information warfare. Soon after launching the new Leadin gGroup Xi also said that there could be “no national security without cyber security”. What this means for the rest of the world remains to be seen, but in a week when Github, a popular repository for open-source code, appeared to be have been attacked via Chinese government organs allegedly for hosting mirrors of websites the Chinese government doesn’t like, prompting Barack Obama to upgrade American cybersecurity to a “national emergency”, there is little cause for optimism. To make real progress on its informatization goals a new political vision is needed and there is scant evidence that the Party-state has the confidence in itself to move beyond its normal playbook. This is not to say that issues around informatization are no longer relevant. In particular for individual Chinese (whose rights are subservient to the Party-state’s interests) questions of privacy, surveillance and the uses to which ‘big data’ may be put are even more salient than they are in the post-Snowden west. On this point too, there is little cause for optimism.