Chinese and Russian censors met at the “Seventh International Safe Internet Forum” in Moscow on April 27 to share ideas on controlling their citizens’ access to the internet. Leading the forum on the Russian side was Russia’s chief internet censor Konstantin Malofeev, “a key player in Moscow’s drive to tame the web and limit America’s digital influence.” Malofeev is the founder of Russia’s “Safe Internet League,” which hosted the event. Representing China were cyberczar Lu Wei and “Great Firewall of China” mastermind Fang Binxing.
A goal of the forum for Russia was “to harness Chinese expertise in internet management to gain further control over Russia’s internet, including foreign sites accessible there.” Malofeev and Russian “top cop” Alexander Bastrykin have called for Chinese-style censorship in Russia to block content they consider harmful and to combat U.S. and Western influence. A university classmate of Russian president Vladimir Putin, Bastrykin has said that Russia should stop “playing false democracy” and give up “pseudo-liberal values” such as press freedom and freedom of expression, and should start “using China’s experience as a model to counter pressure from the United States.” China, now in the business of exporting internet censorship technology to authoritarian regimes around the world, was only too happy to help.
A major theme of the event was China’s pet theory of “internet sovereignty,” the polar opposite of the “borderless” internet envisioned in liberal democratic societies. This theory seems to be based largely on an authoritarian notion of the “right” of governments to control their citizens’ thoughts and activities, again the polar opposite of the democratic concept of rights as vested in the individual. What we in liberal democratic societies understand as “freedom,” Chinese and Russian censors see as Western “hegemony.”
While some analysts such as Rogier Creemers have suggested that the West should “recognize” and “respect” China’s differing point-of-view on freedom of information, it could also be argued that if such a view were truly legitimate, there would be no need for China’s (or Russia’s) government to worry so about what its citizens were doing online, or to enforce its information controls so aggressively. Democratic governments have no such worries, and the free internet that we have need not be imposed on citizens by force. It simply flourishes freely, as any truly legitimate system would seem to do.
While liberal democracies concern themselves with criminal or terrorist activities online, they do not seem to spend a lot of time worrying about what kinds of ideas their citizens are exposed to as the Chinese and Russian governments do. Apparently, many Chinese and Russian citizens prefer “our internet” over theirs, which casts doubt on the legitimacy of authoritarian “internet sovereignty.” Furthermore, the energy censors expend trying to control their citizens’ internet activities makes Sino-Russian authoritarianism look like an anachronistic system unable to cope with 21st century reality.
In any case, authoritarian states appear to be trying to establish a system of their own for internet governance as an alternative to the “hegemonic” Western democratic system they dislike and fear. This is but one facet of the “China Model” or “Beijing Consensus” of authoritarian development that China is trying to build up and normalize internationally as a competing model to the “Washington Consensus” that China considers hostile to its national interests.
Between China and Russia a striking role reversal has also taken place: China’s former “elder brother” in the communist world during its Soviet days, a diminished Moscow now looks to Beijing for guidance.