Xi’s two aims are making China a dominating Internet power and preventing use of social media in China by dissidents. Can they be achieved?
by Zhou Kexin
The CCP keeps producing new books by Xi Jinping, although most of them are compilations of speeches and documents organized by topic. They immediately become required reading for Party cadres, and some of them for high school and college students too.
The last compilation, released on July 11, collects “General Secretary Xi Jinping’s Important Thoughts on Cyber Development” (习近平总书记关于网络强国的重要思想概论). It is edited by the Office of the Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission and published by the People’s Publishing House.
It organizes Xi’s thought on the Internet into ten topics. Two main themes emerge, and the frequency Xi has spoken about them confirms that they are taking their place among the General Secretary’s main obsessions.
The first is that, while China is an economic superpower, how the Internet is regulated and developed is still largely decided and controlled in the West.
Since the 2012 18th National Congress of the CCP elected him as General Secretary, Xi has insisted that, although obviously Internet did not exist at the time of Marx, it cannot be regarded as outside the realm of Marxist analysis, whose scope is universal and perpetual. Accordingly, the struggle for controlling the Web should be interpreted as part of the conflict between capitalism and socialism, and the vanguard of socialism today is China. A Marxist struggle should also be fought through Marxist means, mobilizing the countries that do not accept the political consequence of capitalism, Western democracy, and persuading them that having China rather than the United States in control of the Internet would be to their own advantage.
This can be achieved by showing them how Xi Jinping is dealing with the second theme, control and surveillance of the Internet, where he has implemented policies and tools much more effective (and custom-tailored for dictators) than those existing in democratic countries. However, with the progress of social media, from 2012 to 2023 Xi’s speeches have become increasingly problematic. Simply put, he is concerned with the fact that the CCP does not entirely control what Chinese post on social media.
The Party has banned Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram, but they remain accessible to those who know how to use a VPN (although this is a criminal offense in China). Hundreds of millions of Chinese use local social media and microblogging sites, and Weibo only has some 600 million users. Posts can be cancelled, but not before they have been read and spread by tens of thousands of users. Stories the Party tried to censor such as the chained mother of eight and, most recently, the rats served as ducks in college canteens and a woman accused of prostitution beaten to death in a police station became viral before the authorities could stop them.
The CCP’s answer is to continuously promulgate new regulations, only to conclude that the aim of a total control of Internet and the social media remains elusive. One alternative would be to ban social media altogether, but they are so much part and parcel of Chinese daily life that trying to outlaw them would generate enormous protest.
Despite his claims, Xi Jinping is not in control of Internet and social media in China, or at least his control is not total. He can export to other totalitarian countries a dream or utopia or control, but the tools he commands are not totally effective.