The Chinese Internet Century

Even as U.S. officials still give a rhetorical nod to the ideal of an open and transparent global Web, it's time to plan for another reality.

Few minds in China are likely to change on account of Hillary Clinton's call for "a single Internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas." Last week, the U.S. secretary of state laid out two competing visions of the Internet: one open and global, the other highly controlled and often used for repression. Given that China is rapidly trending toward the latter, it's time to start asking: What might a permanently fractured Web look like?

Clinton's speech was not utopian. Her remarks were fairly measured about the potential political impact of network technologies. Eschewing the exuberant optimism that has characterized so much past thinking about the Internet, Clinton recognized that "modern information networks and the technologies they support can be harnessed for good or for ill." Still, she held out hope that the United States could strategically use Internet technology to advance freedom and human rights around the world. To tip the balance to the good, she said, the United States plans to develop and distribute technologies to help people avoid censors, foster international norms against cyberattacks, cooperate across national borders to identify and prosecute cybercriminals, and exploit public-private partnerships to build a robust cyberdefense at home.

These are noble aspirations, but they will have a very limited impact on China. Censorship, hacking, and economic warfare as practiced in China are rooted in a political and economic calculus that is unlikely to change. From the first introduction of modern information technologies, the Chinese have viewed them as a double-edged sword: essential to economic growth, but a threat to regime stability. Using a combination of old-school intimidation and high-tech surveillance, Beijing has managed to keep most materials it deems harmful off most computer screens in China and still promote economic growth.

The fact is that the majority of Chinese simply don't care, giving the government even less incentive to change its ways. Technologically savvy Chinese "netizens" -- if that term even has meaning in a place like China -- find ways to fan qiang (scale the "Great Firewall"), but most users, like their counterparts elsewhere, are more interested in entertainment gossip, pirated MP3s, and updates from their friends than missives from Falun Gong or the latest report from Human Rights Watch. U.S. State Department spending on proxy servers or technologies that hide users' identities temporarily allow some Chinese greater access to information online, but won't substantially change the underlying dynamics. 

While the hacking of the accounts of individual human rights activists has garnered the most public attention, the primary objective of the cyberattack on Google was probably intellectual property theft. The Chinese leadership has a strategic view of technology development, and the cybertheft of corporate secrets is married to an industrial policy designed to promote "indigenous innovation" (zhizhu chuangxin). Through local content requirements, tax benefits, government procurement, and the development of competing technology standards for 3G mobile phones, Wi-Fi, and other products, China consistently seeks to free itself from dependence on foreign technology, particularly from the United States and Japan. In a few cases, China has backed down in the face of concerted pressure from more technologically advanced trading partners, but old policies were quietly replaced with new ones designed to forcibly transfer technology to Chinese firms. Cyberespionage is this industrial policy taken to its logical extreme, subsidies in the form of intellectual property theft.

At the same time as it is consolidating its control over the domestic Web, China is also using its market power to create vulnerability for overseas technology producers. Fearing that they might be shut out of the market, foreign firms give in to demands that they would not consider anywhere else. In 2003, for example, after years of Chinese pressure via negative stories in the press and poor performance in the market, Microsoft agreed to share the source code for Windows with a government-run software lab. In addition, most of the world's IT hardware is manufactured in China, giving intelligence agencies an easy opportunity for inserting spyware at some point along the production chain. Fake chips and routers from China have already showed up in U.S. military and defense contractor systems.

China's cyberaggression doesn't mean that the United States should stop all attempts at engagement. In fact, more should be done to draw Beijing into discussions about the rules of cyberwar. It would be especially good if Beijing could be encouraged into an agreement about what types of hacking -- say, messing with another country's electrical grid -- constitute an act of war. But because China sees itself as the weaker military power, thinks the U.S. military is vulnerable to cyberattacks, and worries about a conflict in the Taiwan Strait, we should expect that both sides will continue to eye each other warily.

In the end, no matter what provisional agreements can be reached, China's behavior suggests that there might be no turning back from a world divided into different types of Internets. The emerging Chinese Internet may be less free, but also distinct in other ways: built on alternate technology standards and populated by proxies such as "patriotic hackers" willing to launch Web attacks in service of state goals. These characteristics could shield the Chinese Internet, giving it greater autonomy from and leverage over the more open, global networks described by Clinton. In the end, the United States might find itself locked in a never-ending process of patching vulnerabilities in a network that will always be susceptible to hacking, espionage, and exploitation.

Although Chinese activities on the Web are grounded in a specific political and economic logic, they are not unique. Iran, Russia, and other authoritarian states have also deployed a mix of technological and political tools to control the flow of information as well as project power across borders. If a strategy built around better defense, multilateral cooperative mechanisms to limit cyberconflict, and efforts to promote American values on the Web fails, we may have to rethink both how we try to influence China and the others, as well as what type of Internet we want.

Frederic J. Brown/AFP/GETTY IMAGES


Groundhog Day in Afghanistan

Day after day, political crisis after political crisis, Afghanistan persists in going nowhere.

The sun is coming up again in Afghanistan, and today, like any other day, starts with an off-temperature shower, a simple breakfast buffet, and a short commute from home on one side of the compound to an office on the other side. Regardless of their organization, most international workers throughout the country share this ritual  -- as did I for the better part of last year's presidential election season.

The daily grind of aid work in Afghanistan mirrors the country's broader inertia. More than eight years after the U.S. invasion, the international community is still struggling to break out of a seemingly endless cycle of government crises and move toward a stable government -- and a clear path home. The international conference on Afghanistan in London this week may offer an opportunity to start making some progress. But it's not so easy: Working on democracy and governance in Afghanistan can feel a bit like being Bill Murray in Groundhog Day -- stuck reliving the same day over and over.

For those of us who endured the protracted presidential election in Afghanistan last year, the delay and confusion of the current cabinet approval process feels all too familiar. In August, observers huddled in dusty polling centers across the country to watch vote counts. Two months later, we gathered for a recount of those same ballots in a dusty airplane hangar. Last October, as the election auditing process stretched on, there were weeks when no one in our office could remember what day it was -- we were working 14-hour days, but there was little in our results to distinguish one day from another. I can only imagine that diplomats handling the current cabinet crisis are having a similar experience. The parliament has rejected the majority of two slates of cabinet nominees, dragging the process toward more parliamentary voting. (Another negotiation, another vote, another Groundhog Day.)

The recently announced delay in the scheduled 2010 parliamentary elections from May to September is being welcomed by the international community, but it does not actually represent much of a change. Almost a year ago exactly, the Independent Election Commission delayed the presidential election several months, from the spring to the fall, using similar reasoning. The delay of parliamentary elections will allow for much needed administrative reforms, such as identifying more broadly accepted election commissioners, but it should not be confused with a change in practice or system. Even under the new date, Afghan authorities will not have the opportunity to reform a five-year-old process that removes any electoral incentive to run as a cohesive party, producing a fractured parliament that, until last month's rejection of cabinet nominees, had shown little capacity to check President Hamid Karzai's power. Because Afghan law forbids any changes to the electoral law in the last year of the legislative term, even the new September date will not allow changes to a fundamentally flawed system. In fact, because presidential, parliamentary, provincial, and district council elections are out of sync, there is an election nominally scheduled every year between now and 2027, except 2012. Afghan elections could be stuck in an annual cycle of voting for more than a decade without reform.

The international community shares some responsibility for the crisis of governance in Afghanistan. In 2003 and 2004, as foreign diplomats and leading Afghans crafted structures for the new Afghan government, they faced a choice of enhancing Karzai's power or weakening the office in favor of civil institutions. Leading ambassadors opted for personality over process and gave Karzai, who was then a popular leader, a government system that he could bend to his needs. The parliamentary election system, for instance, was modeled after a system so convoluted that it was abandoned by the Japanese as unworkable -- but somehow deemed appropriate for Afghanistan. Because voters elect multiple seats at a time but get only a single, non transferable vote, candidates running together under the common banner of a political party lost all incentive to distinguish themselves. The same system was used in the Afghan provincial council elections last year, and it led to the top candidate in Kabul receiving only 2.1 percent of the provincial vote -- not exactly a mandate to lead. The dysfunctional parliament greatly increased Karzai's power over the past five years, and it is little wonder that he is now pressing to hold parliamentary elections under the same system.

Breaking this cycle of troubled governance is vital to allowing international troops to come home and will require steps both small and large.

On the practical side, international actors need to focus on simple reforms to ensure that their democracy and governance programs are sustainable within the long-term Afghan budget. If the London conference is to chart a course toward transfer of responsibility to the Afghan government, then international diplomats must adopt strategies that are viable under those conditions. Proposals for biometric voting or civil registry cards may be chic, but they require far more money and technical expertise than the Afghan budget could maintain. When voter cards with fingerprint identification were implemented under a U.N. technical assistance program for the 2009 presidential elections, they could not be matched with the original voter registrations from 2004 and 2005. So, after international donors spent more than $100 million for voter registration, Afghans arrived at polls last August with no voter rolls and cards with fingerprints no one could scan. At some point, another such voter-registration effort will occur -- a terrible Groundhog Day experience for international donors' bank accounts.

On the philosophical side, international diplomats must move past the politics of personalities and into the process of institutions. During the presidential election there was an understandable fixation on whether Karzai or his advisors had cheated on a massive scale. But focusing solely on Karzai overlooks the reality that the Afghan presidential election system has built-in temptations for fraud, from the local level up to the presidential, regardless of who sits in what seat. For example, all governors are appointed by the Afghan president -- meaning that governors don't even need nudging from Karzai to help keep him in office using any means necessary: their jobs already depend on it.

Provincial and district governor appointments also create challenges for governance within the province -- and not just in election years. In 2005, for example, Sher Muhammad Akhunzada, then the governor of Helmand, was reportedly found with nine tons of opium in his basement and replaced by the more suitable Gulab Mangal after British diplomats pressured Karzai. But even when the international community succeeds in removing a corrupt governor and a decent replacement is installed, it is only a temporary measure capable of being reversed with the flick of the presidential pen. By 2008, Karzai was considering reinstating Akhunzada, arguing that his involvement in the drug trade should be overlooked because his tribal connections could bolster the government's efforts in Helmand. After a redoubling of diplomatic pressure, Akhunzada was not reappointed, but the larger lesson is this: Until provincial and district governors are elected, they will always be upwardly accountable to their patrons -- whether international donors or the president -- not downwardly accountable to their people. Again, the fixation on the politics of personalities is distracting and delays the measures needed for long-term stability in governance in Afghanistan.

At the London conference, the international community will likely be asked to fund a reconciliation and reintegration program for Taliban fighters, which could well include roles for them in government. This program may be worthwhile, but it will not be sustainable until the current system of governance is reformed and Taliban fighters have guarantees that do not depend solely on the president's approval. Creating a space inside government for a cohesive loyal opposition will be essential for the long-term strength of any political agreements between the government and its opponents. This week, let's hope that international diplomats in London poke their heads up, see their shadow, and get focused on building a sustainable system of governance. Or else we have a long winter ahead, filled with lots more Groundhog Days.