The President of China, Xi Jinping, sent out mixed messages on April 19th in a speech that was released on Monday. He called for a more “clean” and “righteous” cyberspace, while urging officials to engage with the public for online feedback, suggestions, and “well-meant criticism.”
“For well-meant criticism raised on the Internet, be it aimed at the overall work of the Party and the state, or at individual officials, be it gentle or harsh-sounding, we will not only welcome it, but also study it for future reference,” said Chinese state media outlet Xinhua, paraphrasing Xi’s speech in English.
Xi’s comments come amid heightened censorship that has affected players across the board, from tech companies to human rights advocates. In December 2015, renowned humans right lawyer Zhiqiang Pu was charged with eight years of prison for seven tweets on Chinese social media site Weibo. Last week, iTunes Movies and iBooks were blocked from China’s internet, following new guidelines on publishing content by the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) that were enacted on March 10th.
“China can not and will not shut its door to the world,” said Xi, contrary to the actions carried out on Apple’s two content platforms. “We welcome foreign internet enterprises as long as they abide by Chinese laws and regulations.”
As China continues to pursue its “Internet Plus” strategy, aiming to make homegrown entrepreneurs and information-based services the core of China’s economy, the Chinese government faces a difficult balancing act: the public sphere must remain sanitized and “clean”, yet creativity must be cultivated and allowed to grow. According to Xi Jinping’s speech, part of the solution lies in promoting collaboration between tech companies, as well as academic and research institutions.
“Unlike Microsoft, Intel, Google and Apple, Chinese internet enterprises do not cooperate well with each other on research, which is one of the reasons why there is a large gap between China and other countries,” said Xi.
Xi’s speech underscores his vision for China’s cyberspace as one where open data and access are privileges enjoyed by an elite few, such as select companies and government organizations. In contrast, the public is seen in a more paternalistic light, and must be guided away from “slanders, rumors, [and] crimes.”
“Internet users come from many places, each with their own experiences, and opinions. Therefore, it is too much to ask them to be right on every topic,” said Xi.
Government officials will need to be patient when dealing with the public, as netizens are susceptible to “fuzzy ideas” and “wrong perceptions,” he said. At the same time, public opinion is an important source of information that government officials can leverage.
Xi’s speech also reemphasized the importance of cybersecurity, especially in the industries of finance, energy, transportation, and telecommunication. Increased internet access to more rural and impoverished areas was also mentioned in Xi’s speech, as was the concept of cyber-sovereignty, which Xi announced during the World Internet Conference in Wuzhen last December.