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Decoding China: Who will shape the internet of the future?

May 26, 2024

The US-China rivalry is not limited to politics and business. China is working on creating its own version of internet with the "Digital Silk Road."

A woman on her smartphone in a Chinese shopping mall
China's is developing its own version of the internet Image: Jade Gao/AFP

Right now, two competing versions of the internet are evolving. The US-based version is dominated by companies such as Meta, Alphabet and Apple, which are leading consumption and commerce.

The Chinese internet, on the other hand, is designed as a service and surveillance platform. Chinese companies such as ByteDance, Alibaba and Tencent have almost unrestricted market sovereignty in this internet.

The Chinese version is being promoted by Beijing in as the "Digital Silk Road," as a digital arm of the wider Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

A recent report from the London-based think Article 19 on China's exporting of "digital repression in the Indo-Pacific" says "China is seeking to influence global norms through technical standards and multilateral forums," by, for example, organizing the annual "World Internet Conference," which has been held in China since 2014.

"China's ambition to become a global technological superpower by developing the technology and policy to reshape global norms," the report says.

The Chinese model emphasizes "digital sovereignty," a concept that promotes internet fragmentation "in contrast to the universality of human rights and internet freedom principles."

China's idea of the internet also rests on state control and focuses on "cybersecurity, censorship and surveillance," the report adds.

How China is reining In its tech titans

One origin, two systems

There are two different worldviews behind these two versions of the internet, which becomes evident when looking at differences in how the internet is regulated in the United States and China.

In a recent essay, "Variants of Digital Capitalism: A comparison of China and the US," Stefan Schmalz, a sociologist at the University of Erfurt in Germany, wrote that the difference is based on "guaranteeing entrepreneurial freedom" in the United States, while in China national security, and, therefore, political considerations, play a key role.

Both versions of the internet are still based on the same basic technology (HTML, TCP/IP, etc.). However, they have diverged in the age of Web 2.0.

In Web 2.0, which has existed since the turn of the millennium, easy-to-use applications provided by tech giants such as Instagram, WhatsApp and Amazon dominate the landscape.

Parallel platforms have been developed in China. WhatsApp is WeChat in China. For the vast majority of users, both versions represent two separate worlds that do not communicate with each other.

China cuts its own digital path

China began to decouple itself from the US-dominated internet in 1998 at the latest. At that time, the Chinese Communist Party created a "great firewall" to filter unwanted content from abroad.

In 2010, Google withdrew from China as it was unable to agree on censorship guidelines with the government, among other things.

This was followed in 2011 by the establishment of the now renamed Cyberspace Administration of China, which regulates the national internet and is responsible for online censorship. It also organizes the World Internet Conference.

In this way, the party created a sharply defined market, with 1.4 billion Chinese users, in which its own digital companies grew and prospered.

And China's internet has seen some level of success, as is evident in the growth of Chinese internet giants that are no quite competitive with those in the United States.

For example, the only social network that does not originate from the United States and is nevertheless globally competitive is TikTok, which originated in China.

The struggle to shape the internet of the future

As the case of TikTok shows, China is no longer content to decouple itself, but seeks to expand and play a leading role in developing key technologies.

TikTok challenges potential US ban in court

The rivalry with the United States on this front involves the interplay of corporate, political and geopolitical interests.

Huawei, one of the world's most important telecommunications equipment and hardware companies and the largest provider of 5G technology, is a prime example.

Critics in the United States and the West repeatedly accuse Huawei of providing a Trojan horse for Chinese authorities with its technology, as it is ultimately obliged to provide information to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

In their book, "The Silent Conquest," Clive Hamilton and Mareike Ohlberg describe Huawei as the best example of "how the CCP  combines espionage, intellectual property theft and influence operations."

Huawei has always denied allegations of data transfer to the CCP, and to this day there is still no proof that Huawei actually installs "backdoors" for espionage.

The divide grows

Despite this, the division of the internet continues to spread. In November 2022, for example, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) banned the import and marketing of certain Huawei products in the US for national security reasons. 

At the end of 2023, China issued a directive stating that government computers should not use Intel chips or Microsoft software as soon as possible.

Under the Biden Administration, the United States has also sought to cut off China from accessing critical semiconductor technology.

Third countries that do not have their own tech industry are increasingly having to decide which camp to join.

For a long time, the United States was the leader, but, in the Indo-Pacific, and particularly in Cambodia, Pakistan and Thailand, as well as Malaysia and Nepal, China has clearly gained influence, according to think-tank Article 19.

No other country has gone as far as Cambodia. "It is the best example of how the country is embracing Chinese-style digital authoritarianism. Since 2021, Cambodia has been working to introduce its own version of the Great Firewall as part of a 'National Internet Gateway,'" the Article 19 study says. According to the authors, China is increasingly successful in curtailing the free, open and interoperable internet with its Digital Silk Road.

Who benefits from China's surveillance technology?

This article was originally written in German.

"Decoding China" is a DW series that examines Chinese positions and arguments on current international issues from a critical German and European perspective.

Rodion Ebbinghausen
Rodion Ebbighausen Managing Editor for DW's Asia Programs