Cyber Policy in China

Book review

Reviewer: Wonhee Lee

Publisher: Polity, 2014 ISBN: 978-0745669809
Author's page: Greg Austin

Cyber Policy in China

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Greg Austin’s Cyber Policy in China provides an extensive and illuminating survey of China’s quest, since the year 2000, for informatisation—the process by which China is transforming itself into an advanced information society. With his chronological analysis, Austin neatly interweaves nearly 1,000 sources from China and the US, focusing on the interplay between ‘ideal policy values’ in China’s informatisation ambition and ‘leadership values’— such as regime stability, economic nationalism and a strong sense of national security—attached to the old ethics of state governance in China. According to the author, the conflict between these two types of values is slowing the pace of China’s transformation into an advanced information society. Furthermore, successful resolution of this conflict depends on the Chinese leadership’s ability to adjust its ethical values and governing principles to ‘match the information society ambition’ (p. 175).

To examine the divergence between the two different types of values, the author picks out ‘nine ideal policy values for an information society’ and categorizes them into three key policy areas: 1) national information ecosystem; 2) innovative economic system; and 3) global information ecosystem. When it comes to the first of the three, the ‘freedom of information exchange’ is constrained by political and ideological sensitivities, while the need to ‘protect information exchange’ and ‘prevent false information and rumors’ gains momentum in the centralized party-state political system in China. Regarding the second, China’s vision for an innovative economy—‘commitment to transform,’ ‘industrial and scientific innovation,’ and ‘human resources development’—still contradicts gradualism, state-centered structures, and a nationalistic perception of economic development. Finally, in the third policy area, China’s national security imperatives and its desire to become a hegemon have encouraged the nation to enhance its ‘strategic stability’ vis-à-vis the IW (information warfare) capabilities of the US. These aspirations, however, are not fully compatible with its commitment to ‘bridging military divides’ with the US and ensuring ‘interdependent informatised security’ in cooperation with other global actors.      

The value-based analytical framework in the book has both strengths and weaknesses. The author’s investigation tactfully combines intangible, yet critical, elements of cyber policy—that is to say, China’s informatisation ambition causes value conflicts—with practical aspects of its ICT (information and communication technology) development. The book carefully draws a contrast between ‘ideal policy values’ for an information society and the ‘leadership value’ of Chinese decision-makers. By setting the points of contrast and measuring the distance between the two conflicting types of values, the author avoids evoking an emotional outcry over the lack of moral responsibility in China’s leadership. After identifying the cause of the gap between the goals and outcomes of China’s cyber policy and the conflicting values, the author then places significant emphasis on the role of information-age ethics as a remedy to fix the discrepancy.

Nevertheless, the book’s value-based approach is marred by certain lacunae. The emphasis in Cyber Policy in China is on the tension between values, not between political actors, and each actor is treated as separate and unique. Consequently, narratives about possible correlations between major political events are given less attention and are not well-integrated. Most perplexing are the accounts, in Chapters 4 and 5, of China’s partnership with Taiwan, where China’s ambition for an innovative economy and its management of national security in cyberspace are discussed. In fact, there is an inseparable connection between China’s more liberalized investment environment and its security policy towards Taiwan—the complex economic partnership led by quasi-official mechanisms coexists with the touch political relationship across the Taiwan Strait. At the beginning of Chapter 4, the book points out contributions of ‘investment from electronics enterprises in Taiwan’ (p. 89) and ‘competitive trends outside China and by private capital’ (p. 90) to China’s innovative economic system; however, it does not dig deeper into China’s policy agenda to promote economic integration for peaceful unification, which can also be construed as another crucial ‘leadership value.’ Instead, the evolution, since the year 2000, of bilateral economic ties between the two sides across the Taiwan Strait is explained in Chapter 5 the context of China’s national security policy. To set the stage for further analysis, China’s policy of engagement with Taiwan should have been introduced earlier, in Chapter 4—at least briefly. Moreover, the rapid thaw in relations between China and Taiwan under the incumbent Ma Ying-jeou administration, discussed in Chapter 5, suggests that the Chinese leadership will confront uncertainty once again if the opposition party wins Taiwan’s 2016 presidential election.

The author takes a unique perspective in Cyber Policy in China—he empathises with China’s leadership. The book is not merely a description of the technical aspects of China’s ICT development, nor an investigation into the People's Liberation Army’s cyber warfare strategies and tactics. Instead, it is a call for those interested in China, at home or abroad, to take a more holistic approach to understanding China’s cyber policy. The book is also a critical assessment of how the Party-state system in China juggles its informatisation plan with other competing priorities. The book asserts that it is important to realise that China and western countries have different versions of “leadership values.” All in all, the author’s comprehensive research and analysis offer new insight into the debate on China’s cyber security policy.

2017 - Volume 11, Issue 2