The Washington Post
Chinas digital protectionism puts the future of the global Internet at risk
Its policies appear tailored toward undercutting foreign competitors and boosting homegrown platforms.
By Nithin Coca
In January, Microsofts Bing search engine was temporarily unavailable for users in China. While it remains
unclear why the service was locked down, many observers interpreted it as yet another instance of Chinas
inclination toward digital censorship. Bing was, according to this view, just the latest in a long list of foreign
apps, websites and platforms to run afoul of Beijings extensive digital surveillance and cyber-control
apparatus, which restricts Chinese users access to the global Internet.
However, the incident shows another, more worrying face to Chinas Internet controls one that has more to
do with its global ambitions than its attempt to control its own population. Microsoft had already complied
with Chinas official censorship standards long before the outage. Within China, Bings search engine only
shows approved results on sensitive topics such as 1989, the year of the Tiananmen Square protests; the Dalai
Lama; the banned Falun Gong spiritual sect and others. Some Microsoft products such as LinkedIn similarly
accept Chinas content restrictions, while others, such as Skype, have given the government direct access to
user data. In this context, the Chinese governments possible willingness to block Bing shows that the space for
foreign digital platforms to compete fairly in China is shrinking. In fact, China is increasingly blocking foreign
apps and platforms for little reason other than protectionism, which it pursues as part of its quest for greater
control of the Internet.
China blocks many digital platforms that are neither seeking to expand political discourse nor provide access to
sensitive information. It tends, instead, to target platforms that are potential competitors to state-connected
Chinese tech companies. China blocks e-commerce sites that could compete with Alibaba (e.g. Rakuten,
Amazon), business apps, including Slack, Dropbox and Slideshare, and nearly every chat app that could
compete with WeChat including ones from Asia such as Line, KakaoTalk and Viber.
Well see a continuing role for natural gaseven if it shifts over timenot just as a bridge fuel but as a foundation for
CONTENT FROM AMERICAN PETROLEUM INSTITUTE
These restrictions are understandable, at least from the perspective of economic development. Countries that
allowed open access to the United States digital giants Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple
are finding that one or more of these companies now dominate search, social media, chat or video and music
streaming. While there are some local upstarts (Naver in Korea, or Viber in Myanmar, for example), they are
rare and, in most instances, steadily losing ground to their U.S.-based counterparts.
Thats not the case in China, which has its own digital giants Tencent, Alibaba and Baidu. Protectionism was
no doubt crucial to the rise of these titans. To facilitate their rise, China took steps similar to those Japan took
with automobiles in the 1970s and 80s, when it restricted foreign competition from the United States to allow
homegrown brands like Toyota, Honda and Nissan to grow.
Today, however, Chinas giants need no protection. They are large enough to compete and are benefiting from
their access to what is, quite possibly, the worlds largest digital market, which they have mostly to themselves.
Thats to their benefit as they prep for international expansion, not just into established markets like the
United States or Europe, but into emerging economies in Asia and Africa, too. Chinese apps dominate Indias
mobile space, and the mobile-payment platforms WePay (owned by Tencent) and Alipay (owned by Alibaba)
are making huge inroads into Southeast Asia.
The spread of these companies raises concerns that the Chinese model of digital authoritarianism is creeping
abroad, putting the future of the Internet at risk. The D.C.-based Council on Foreign Relations says Chinas
policies, including censorship, data localization and its onerous privacy rules, are meant to undercut foreign
competitors and boost Chinese companies, with censorship being key tool. A 2017 report from the European
Center for International Political Economy found that China imposes more trade and investment barriers,
discriminatory taxes, and information security restrictions than any other country by a vast margin, and that
these restrictions were increasing, not decreasing, over time. Moreover, it found that China blocks not just
politically sensitive content, but also the majority of foreign commercial platforms and intermediaries. A
report released last month by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation rated China as among
the worst countries for digital protectionism, highlighting a newly passed standardization law it said could be
used to favor local tech firms and their products.
If Chinas blatant digital protectionism continues to go unchallenged, it could lead to the Balkanization of the
Internet into different segments one dominated by American tech giants and the other by Chinese
behemoths. For now, Bing is back, but its temporary disappearance is a reminder that it could easily follow in
the footsteps of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube all of which have been blocked in China. Worse still, that
model could be coming soon to a country near you.
Nithin Coca Nithin Coca is an Asia-based freelance journalist who covers regional issues and technology from a social and economic perspective. Follow
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