The document reiterates a strategy Xi Jinping is pursuing since before he came to national power. What is new (and alarming) is the propaganda.
by Tan Liwei
Something exciting and fantastic has been announced by the Central Committee of the CCP at the end of February: there is a new “Digital China” plan, and finally China will be as wired as the United States. Once he becomes a digital superpower, China will also raise its voice, build a coalition of like-minded countries, and snatch the control of the Internet from the United States.
This awesome plan claims that by 2025 China will be fully digitalized, even in the most remote village. By 2035 “the level of China’ digital development will be at the forefront of the world,” which will also mean the country will be ready to take the lead in managing and governing the global Internet.
All that glitters is not gold, though. There are two main contradictions in the document. The first is that bringing the Internet to every Chinese village for Xi Jinping and the Central Committee means bringing control and surveillance to all villages, indeed to all homes and all cell phones of all citizens. Xi has repeatedly warned that the development of the Internet in China cannot be “chaotic.”
Digital China 2023 emphasizes again that the Internet should be under the “strong supervision” of the CCP. In fact, one of the stated aims of the 2023 Plan is “to strengthen the CCP’s overall leadership in the construction of Digital China, make sure that all remains under the centralized and unified leadership of the Central Committee of the CCP, while the Party’s Central Committee for Network Security and Information Technology should strengthen its coordination of the construction of Digital China, and be in charge of its overall promotion, supervision and implementation.”
At the local level, digitalization and the Internet should remain under the control of “the local CCP committees.” In dealing with the Internet, the Plan explains that Chinese should “adhere to Xi Jinping’s thought on socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new era,” and be guided by the Party documents, “especially the important ideas of General Secretary Xi Jinping.”
The contradictions emerges when the Plan calls for China not only to build a “digital Silk Road” with its Belt and Road partners, but also make its voice heard at the United Nations, the WTO, and other international fora and “build a new platform for open cooperation in the digital field” globally. But who in the world, except the usual dictators, would accept the Chinese model of surveillance and control? Westerners surely understand they should take action against the use of the Internet by terrorists or child pornographers, but look at the web as a decentralized and free system that in democratic states is not submitted to a central political control.
The second contradiction is to present the Plan as “new.” It isn’t, except perhaps for the emphasis on the date of 2025. Xi Jinping has been talking of “Digital China” since he became governor of the Fujian province in 2000, 22 years ago. Something very similar to the 2023 Plan has been at work at least in the last six years.
Why, thus, is the CCP emphasizing the 2023 document as a “new” plan? A first answer is that it doesn’t in the document itself. It is more in the articles spread by the Propaganda Department, and even more in those in English, including in the increasingly CCP-influenced English-speaking Hong Kong media. By insisting it will take the Internet to all villages, the CCP wants to look benevolent and progressive. It also wants to start serving notice to the West that it wants its share of global Internet governance.