On June 1 China began the implementation of a new cybersecurity law that is already being labeled “controversial” by the Western media. The context of this story, I think, is illuminating on many fronts.
That the Internet has become a scary place for citizens, corporations, and governments alike seems beyond debate at this point. Every government on the planet is taking steps to protect its national secrets from foreign hackers. China would be imprudent not to follow suit.
There are three provisions of this new law that appear to be the source of most of the anxiety in the West.
The first is that the law is relatively vague. This, of course, is by design and reflects the polar opposite approaches the US and China take to regulation. In the US the law would be spelled out in mind-numbing detail. And would-be violators would hire an army of lobbyists to craft loopholes and lawyers to exploit them.
The Chinese, in contrast, leave much of the interpretation in the hands of the regulators, not the lobbyists and lawyers. In this way, they largely eliminate the very existence of loopholes.
There are cons to every pro, of course, and the question of which approach to regulation is ‘best’ is no exception. On balance, however, while the Chinese approach opens the door to inconsistent enforcement, the American approach clearly favors those with the money to pay the best lobbyists and lawyers.
The second objection is that the new law requires all state secrets to be stored on servers within China. Many American companies operating in China now keep their servers and their IT on American soil, despite the fact that the IT industry in China is generally on a par with the West.
It’s easy to understand why the Chinese government wants to see this change. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to believe there is a reasonable chance that the US government has access to any server sitting within its borders. Perhaps it’s official; perhaps not. It’s not unreasonable to assume the risk exists, however, particularly given the US government’s openness about using IT to protect its own national security interests, both defensively and pro-actively. (To say nothing of private or foreign government hackers finding their way in.)
The third objection is that the law will require American hardware and service providers to open their products and services to some level of government scrutiny. The fear, one assumes, is that these companies will be circuitously giving their own secrets to their Chinese competitors. It could happen, in theory, although one has to wonder if it would be worth the risk for China. And isn’t there always a cost of entry, even to the US?
These are the most vocally noted objections of the West, but I think there are a couple more issues at play, consciously or not.
The first is one I’ve referred to many times. It is the importance of the Chinese Century of Humiliation in the mindset of the current Chinese government. China was invaded and pillaged by foreign powers for much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. And there is a national commitment not to let it happen in the future.
No one is currently attempting to force the import of opium or seeking land concessions. And there are no foreign troops on Chinese soil. Many foreign companies, however, have gone into China over the last three decades to reap the rewards of the second largest economy in the world, but left many of their best paying jobs at home – including many IT jobs.
There is nothing illegal about that. Perhaps nothing even unfair or underhanded given the risks for IP theft that exist in a country that admits it has a less stringent legal system currently in place than in the West. Nonetheless, the line between a legitimate reason and an excuse is drawn with perception. Is President Trump’s proposed immigration law aimed at Muslims even though that word is never actually mentioned in the regulation?
The biggest issue here, however, is what I believe ultimately prevents the West from really understanding China and its motivations. It has nothing to do with government suppression and everything to do with culture.
In the US we put individual rights and freedoms above all else. That, we believe, will result in a free and progressive society and there has been a lot of historical evidence to support that conviction, although a quick perusal of the daily news would suggest that argument might be fraying a bit at the seams.
The Chinese, on the other hand, have much more of a collectivist worldview. They believe that protection of society as a whole will, in turn, maximize individual well-being.
As Westerners we automatically attribute the Chinese perspective to the presumed oppression of a one-party political system (i.e., the Communist Party). That, however, is a bit of an over-simplification. There are many collectivist societies around the world that have no Communist Party. And even many Americans are beginning to accept that even dictatorships aren’t all bad when it comes to keeping a nation prone to civil war and ethnic exploitation at peace. The implosion of much of the Middle East and North Africa has obviously weakened the doctrine of “give them democracy and peace and prosperity will follow.”
The Communist Party came to power in China in 1949. For thousands of years prior to that, however, China was a nation of warring factions. There are fifty-six officially recognized ethnic groups in China today and, depending how you define them, hundreds of different languages and dialects. (Although Mandarin is the one official language, dozens of these languages are unintelligible to each other.)
While the Chinese I have met over the years are just as quick to criticize their government as most Americans are to criticize theirs, as a result, there is a general consensus among the Chinese that China requires a strong central government to insure progress – whether you define that in terms of law and order or economic opportunity.
In other words, the individual rights of the citizens in China are legitimized through government authority acting in the best interests of the collective society. In the US, by contrast, government authority, in theory, is legitimized through individual rights and freedoms.
There are two sides to every argument, of course. And most Chinese, I believe, openly recognize that there are both pros and cons to socialism with Chinese characteristics, as the Chinese refer to it.
I wonder, however, if we aren’t losing sight of that inescapable duality in America today (i.e., the duality of pro and con), and if that isn’t at the core of much of what ails us politically. When we start seeing the world as one-dimensional, whichever dimension that is, and whichever interest we put first, are we not creating exactly what it is we denigrate elsewhere in the world?
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