Making China an Internet Powerhouse with the People at the Center

On the First Anniversary of President Xi Jinping's April 19 Speech

Zheng Bijian

April 19 2016 saw the convening of the national conference on cyber-security and informatization work. President Xi Jinping presided over the meeting and delivered an important speech. Calling for the development of the Internet and information technology applications with the people at the center, the speech systematically expounded a series of major issues encompassing the following: creating a sound cyber environment and developing breakthrough technologies; properly balancing development of the Internet and cyber-security; heightening the sense of mission and responsibility among Internet enterprises; and strengthening personnel support for Internet industries. Therefore, the speech constitutes a landmark document guiding the national endeavors to develop the Internet and information technology applications and turn China into an Internet powerhouse.

On the occasion of the first anniversary of President Xi’s April 19 speech, I would like to examine its profound practical importance by reviewing the rapid development of the Internet worldwide and predicting its future trends and also by looking at the range of emerging complex issues concerning the development of the Internet and information technology applications.

The Internet and Informatization: The People’s Cause

We are living in an era in which the information revolution continues apace. To correctly understand our times is essential for healthy development of the Internet in China. At the April 19 conference, President Xi clearly pointed out, “In order to develop the Internet and information technology applications, we must adhere to the principle of putting the people at the center.” In essence, this endeavor belongs to the people and is for the people.

The Internet not only represents a profound scientific and technological revolution but also symbolizes a new awakening of the human civilization and its advancement to a new era. With a broad worldview and vision and political acumen, President Xi said, “From the viewpoint of social development, humanity has experienced the agricultural and industrial revolutions in the past and is now in the midst of the information revolution.” Over the past 20 years and more since China was connected to the World Wide Web, the new platform and space has touched the lives of 700 million Chinese people, and has changed the way we live, work, and communicate to the outside world. At the same time, the Internet has brought about enormous economic, political, military, and cultural progress to China. These epoch-making changes eloquently show that the Chinese people have embraced and are embracing the historic opportunities of the information revolution, although they had missed the opportunities of the Industrial Revolution in modern history.

President Xi pointed out, “A clean, wholesome cyberspace is in the best interests of the people, whilst a deteriorating, hostile cyber space is the least so.” As the ruling party, the CPC must have a clear understanding of this and respond to this with correct policies. Given the fact that the cyberspace is complex, where both opportunities and challenges are abundant, President Xi put forward the important principle of developing the Internet and information technology applications with the people being at the center. This will be the fundamental principle of the party and the Chinese people as they embrace the opportunities and challenges of the information revolution.

First of all, the Internet cause belongs to the people. This is unmistakably clear from the fundamental principle that the cause has the people at its center. Whether the Internet space should be people-centric or serve hegemonic purposes is a pivotal question confronting the international community. Since the advent of the Internet, different countries in the world have held divergent views and principles on the use of the cyberspace. Some countries maneuver the Internet for world opinion control, and some even resort to the Internet as a tool to interfere in other countries’ internal affairs or undermine their political power. All these and other uses of the Internet fundamentally deviate from the spirit with which our times imbue it. It is imperative that we take the vantage point of history and make conscientious efforts to build a people-centered Internet, upholding the principle that our Internet enterprise belongs to the people. In a broader sense, the digital age belongs to the people. This principle represents the philosophy of the Communist Party of China for development of the Internet and information technology applications.

Second, China’s Internet cause is for the people. The fundamental principle underpinning President Xi’s April 19 speech is that we develop a better Internet for the people. Development of the Internet and information technology applications helps achieve the lofty dream of the great renaissance of the Chinese nation by enabling the people to seize the opportunities of the times. More concretely, this effort is designed to make a broad array of quality Internet and information services available and affordable to the people, or, in the words of President Xi, “to ensure that the masses share and enjoy the fruits of the development of the Internet”. President Xi deeply cares about the residents in the vast rural areas, as he remarked, “Internet infrastructures in rural areas remain underdeveloped”. He further pointed out, “We need to accelerate development of the Internet in rural areas and expand the coverage of optical-fiber nets and broadband nets there.” This indicates China’s firm resolve to address the worldwide challenging issue of ‘digital divide’ by making rural Internet development a priority. As a fundamental guiding principle, President Xi and the CPC members always bear the people’s interests firmly in mind in charting a course of Internet development, from mapping out policies and guidelines to laying out specific requirements.

Third, a healthy cyber environment ensures that the Internet plays a better, more positive role in guiding and representing public opinion and reflecting the popular will. Vast numbers of people around the world acquire and share information on the Internet on a daily basis, and this has significant impacts on the way they think and do things and, as a consequence, on how they perceive their work and lives and the country and the society. This echoes President Xi’s words, “Our netizens hail from all walks of life and life experiences, so it is natural that their views and opinions come in all conceivable forms and types. We cannot expect them to look at things and say things always ‘correctly’.” How can we best deal with online rumors and complaining behavior? Some contend that the Internet should simply be blocked or shut down on the grounds that it is too complex to be governed. “This view is not correct; thus, it won’t be the answer to the problem,” President Xi emphasized in response. “We cannot and won’t close ourselves off from the outside world.” He said, “The cyberspace is the common virtual home for millions upon millions of people. … Netizens are members of the general public; thus, when netizens go online, so does public opinion.” Therefore, he urged the party and governments at all levels, including their leading cadres, to learn about public opinion through the Internet and have the Internet play a role in carrying out the ‘mass line’. In particular, he stressed that we need to be more tolerant of netizens’ views and opinions. He said, “In order to achieve our goals, we need to form ‘concentric circles’ both offline and online.”3 These comprise what we call “mass views” on the development of the Internet.

Finally, we rely on the people in the development of the Internet and information technology applications. The principle that the people are at the center of the endeavor means that we also rely on the people not only in development of the Internet but also in cyber governance. President Xi emphasized that we need to motivate the people, including enhancing the sense of mission and responsibility among Internet enterprises, and that we also need to bring ourselves under the oversight of the people. Criticism from the people is to be welcomed and, most importantly, to be seriously treated and heeded, whether it is targeted at the party and government’s work or individual cadres, or whether it is like “a gentle breeze” or is harsh to the ear.

It is gratifying that over the past year the Central Party Committee and the State Council have promulgated a series of major policies and guidelines on cyber-security and informatization, in a bid to further carry out the spirit of President Xi’s April 19 speech. These include the following, among others: Outline of the National Strategy for Innovation-Driven Development, Outline of the National Strategy for Informatization, National Strategy for Cyber-security, Strategy for International Cooperation in Cyberspace, National Cyber-security Law, and Planning on Big Data Industrial Development (2016-2020).

The Dual Nature of Cyber-security

Cyber-security poses as a major challenge to be addressed in our efforts to promote the development of the Internet. However, this should not cause us to see the Internet as a treacherous space to stay away from. Rather, we need to make vigorous, resolute efforts to develop the Internet and, in the process, govern the cyberspace. Hence, it is necessary that we take a clear-headed, two-sided view of cyber-security. Only by doing so will we be able to achieve balanced development of cyber-security and informatization.

“Cyber-security and informatization support and reinforce each other,” President Xi pointed out at the aforementioned event. “The former is the prerequisite for the latter, while the latter is the guarantee for the former. The two need to be promoted at the same time.” These words accurately capture the interrelationships between cyber-security and informatization.

Based on the above interrelationships, President Xi proposed and well defined, for the first time, a complete view on cyber-security. According to the view, cyber-security is closely related to a number of other issues, is relative and dynamic in nature, and should be approached with an open attitude. This view requires that we appropriately address a variety of issues regarding cyber-security and informatization. Specifically, we need to accomplish the following under the guidance of the view:

First, we need to keep away from attempts to seek absolute cyber-security, which are unrealistic and futile. Nothing is absolute, and this is true of cyber-security. Different forces interact and counteract each other constantly in the area of cyber-security, and this is what we call “new normal” in cyberspace. We can achieve sustainable cyber-security only by correctly understanding and handling the following set of relationships: cyber-security vs. Internet development, openness vs. independence, governance vs. services, and freedom vs. order. It is essential that we strike a balance between the two in each of these dichotomies. This implies that expedient or drastic governance approaches employed under crisis situations may not be an appropriate solution. President Xi said, “It is necessary that we achieve cyber-security based on our actual national conditions and refrain from the practice of seeking cyber-security regardless of the cost.” Otherwise, our efforts would entail heavy political and economic costs and most likely backfire. In one word, we need to discard the concept of absolute cyber-security as we step up our efforts to develop the Internet and information technology applications.

Second, we need to establish a cyber environment that is open and well governed at the same time. As a basic principle, China supports an open Internet. Otherwise, we would not have 700 million netizens today, nor would we be the world’s largest digital economy. Likewise, we maintain an open attitude on the question of cyber-security. President Xi said, “We can expect to continuously improve cyber-security levels only by fostering an open environment, which is conducive to strengthening interactions, exchanges, and cooperation with other countries and to introducing advanced technologies.” At the same time, he pointed out, “Many technologies are a ‘double-edged sword’. On the one hand, they benefit the society and the people; on the other hand, however, they may be used to undermine the interests of the general public and those of individuals.” For this reason, he remarked, “The Internet is not a lawless territory. The use of the Internet to advocate the toppling of the government or incite and preach religious extremism, separatism, or terrorism must be resolutely stopped and cracked down upon. Under no circumstances can we tolerate such activities or allow them to go unchecked.” We govern the Internet according to law, and, by doing so, we are doing the right thing. We need to combine openness and governance; that is, we keep the Internet open whenever we can and govern it whenever necessary. Only in this way can we create a sound cyber environment genuinely to the benefit of the people.

Third, we need to address a series of critical issues in the area of cyber-security. President Xi said, “In essence, cyber-security means confrontation among the various forces engaging in interactions and counteractions.” Cyber-security threats and risks become increasingly prominent worldwide and involve diverse fields, such as the economy, society, politics, and national defense. In particular, a country’s national information infrastructures are often vulnerable to substantial security risks, and those of China are no exception. We need to strengthen cyber-security capabilities in order to be able to tackle national-level, organized hacking activities, which are often virulent. Therefore, President Xi called for breakthroughs to be achieved in core technology areas; otherwise, we would lag behind other countries or be put at a disadvantage. At the same time, he required that we speed up the construction of security systems for key information infrastructures in order to strengthen our defense and deterrence capabilities in cyberspace and thus lead our way on cyber-security preparedness. In all, we need to heighten our sense of responsibility for the party and the people and remain clear-headed, and adopt effective measures against all potential threats and risks to cyber-security.

Fourth, we need to promote the establishment of a global cyber community of shared future, being firmly confident in our chosen path, guiding theories, political system, and culture4. The Internet has made the world a global village. A deluge of information cascading from various sources is constantly transmitted and disseminated through the Internet. At the same time, we are aware that the Chinese people’s self-confidence and judgment are now significantly stronger compared with 20 or 30 years ago. It is precisely based on such self-confidence that we are championing the building of a global community of shared future in cyber space. In his keynote speech delivered at the Second World Internet Conference held in December 2015, President Xi said, “Cyberspace is the common space of activities for mankind. … All countries should strengthen communication, broaden consensus, and deepen cooperation in their joint efforts to build a community of shared future in cyberspace.” Based on this, he set forth a set of four principles and five proposals5. These have been recognized by a majority of the countries in the world and, together with China’s domestic principles and proposals for its cyber governance, comprise President Xi’s cyber-security view. We are confident that, guided by the view, we will be able to build up a secure, orderly, and vibrant cyberspace to the satisfaction of the people, while developing a global cyber community of shared future.

The Internet and a New Driving Force for Development

Amid the challenges of the information revolution, we need to keep abreast of the times. President Xi pointed out, “A new driving force for economic development is needed as our economy has entered a ‘new normal’, and the Internet has a lot to do to make this happen.” Then, how can we make this happen? President Xi said, “We need to step up the development of information infrastructures, deepen integration of information resources, and hence open up the information ‘artery’ for economic and social development.” This enlightens us and maps our way forward. Just as, in traditional Chinese medicine, the governing vessel (Du Mai) and conception vessel (Ren Mai) play the primary role of circulating Qi throughout the human body, opening up the information artery means setting in motion a new driving force for development at a time when the economy is in a new normal.

First, the new driving force and the productive forces of the people. Since the advent of the information revolution, both productive forces and the ways of production have undergone tremendous changes. The new productive forces released based on the Internet and big data technologies will be the source of vast amounts of new resources and wealth for humanity. The cyberspace is distinguished from the physical space essentially as it enables data replication and facilitates information sharing as never before in history, and this helps humanity advance to a higher level of civilization.

The new driving force and China’s national defense. Information technologies have made possible the development of information weapons, which, with their information advantages, have the potential to change the nature of national defense and warfare. At the same time, as cyberspace is often referred to as the “fifth dimension of warfare”, threats to cyber-security have been elevated to be level-one security threats in sovereign nations. The frequent occurrence of high-profile global security incidents show that while countries have borders, security threats know no borders. No country can expect to be immune from these threats in cyberspace. It is China’s responsibility to develop cyber national defense capabilities and new-type defense systems as part of its efforts to help safeguard peace and development in cyberspace worldwide.

The new driving force and China’s cultural forces. The Internet inspires and enlightens the people and, in so doing, enhances their quality and abilities. An average person has access to vast amounts of information on the Internet, which were inconceivable at anytime in pre-Internet human history. The new media, We Media, and Cyberspeak (with idiosyncratic typographical symbols, such as emoticons) are so popular and impactful among the netizens, especially the young, that we may liken these to the Baihua Literary Movement6 one hundred years ago. Also, given its global reach, Cyberspeak provides a rare opportunity for the Chinese to communicate and keep in touch with the rest of the world. A number of Internet-based cultural enterprises have sprung up across the nation. Cross-cultural communication through the Internet has an immense role to play in the digital era.  

We are entering a new era in human history amidst the information revolution, which requires a new awakening in us. Cyberspace opens the door to a higher level of civilization. In the process in which this is happening, China’s productive forces, national defense, and cultural forces support and reinforce each other through the Internet, with the potential of creating unprecedented, historic miracles.

Forging the new driving force is a challenging, long-term national effort. Be it Internet Plus7 or Plus Internet, it is a major change aims at upgrading the real economy. I would also like to discuss briefly the debate of fictitious economy vs. real economy. We believe that fictitious economy is essentially different from bubble economy. In the history of economic development, at the start of credit economy, fictitious economy was created to meet the need of the growth of real economy and has since then been going hand in hand with real economy. The problem is that under complicated economic and social conditions, fictitious economy was taken advantage by speculators to evolve into bubble economy. When building socialism with Chinese characteristics, with the implementation of the Internet Plus and Plus Internet strategy, the physical are increasingly meeting the digital; that is, with the help of fictitious economy, conventional industries and Internet-based industries are gradually integrated, creating New Real Economy. It is in the process that the new driving force emerges. The new driving force, in turn, promotes upgrading and transformation of conventional industries and gives rise to new technologies and business models. As it has been in the past, under the condition of socialism with Chinese characteristics, with policy support and guidance, advocacy, project support and proper management, such integration will keep deepening, creating a new development with strong momentum.

It is noteworthy that innovation holds the key to the development of the Internet and information technologies, without which we won’t go very far or accomplish much. In fact, many well-known Internet-related enterprises both at home and abroad have met setbacks or even failed for lack of sufficient innovation. Although China lags behind the developed countries in these efforts, the Chinese people are known for their ingenuity, creativity, and innovativeness. In recent years China’s Internet industries have been trendsetters in the world by launching a number of innovations, including those in business models, product design, marketing, management, and financing. The Internet is a critical enabler of sustainable development. By keeping abreast of the times and taking the Internet Plus action plan, any enterprise has the potential to gain new opportunities for sustainable development in the fast-growing sharing economy.

Talent as the Key to the Development of the Internet

“Competition in cyberspace is ultimately competition for talent,” President Xi pointed out. “Our efforts to turn China into an Internet power will not be successful unless we have a reservoir of great talents brimming with energy and creative vitality. A good job done in developing talent means half of the battle won.” Talent for the development of the Internet as a future-oriented endeavor is more precious and needs to be put to the best uses.

In China, talent, especially highly trained talent, is in short supply. The shortage is more acute in the development of the Internet and information technology applications. Hence, President Xi said, “We need to get used to this way of thinking: while financial resources are important, human resources are much more so. We need to do more in introducing talent and take bigger steps in reforming personnel systems.” In the development of the Internet, where technologies are upgraded rapidly, talent is crucial as the fountain of core knowledge and skills necessary for thriving, sustainable development. On the one hand, we need to ensure that our talent is self-motivated, self-driven, energized, and always ready to assume responsible positions. On the other hand, we need to be able to quickly discern talent and attract and retain talent with preferential policies. Also, we need to step up training of our talent by collaborating with related colleges and universities and other first-rate teaching resources.

Once we have got talent, we need to put it in places where it is most wanted and where it is able to fully tap its potential. Also, we need to put the multiplier effect of talent into action by, for example, providing talent the opportunity to leverage its social ties. All these depend, to a large extent, on personnel system reform. As for performance assessments and promotions for talent in Internet industries, we need to place emphasis on its specialized knowledge and expertise, applied skills, and innovativeness. There should be special policies for special kinds of talent. We should not expect everybody to be perfect or make promotion decisions based on seniority or uniform standards. Our goal is to make sure that talent is fully rewarded according to its contributions and feel accomplished and satisfied. Also, we need to break ideological and institutional hurdles and promote the revolving door practice in attracting and retaining talents in order to ensure smooth talent flows to, among, and within employers in both the public and private sectors. Our ultimate goal is to establish a globally competitive talent development system.

International competition is, in the final analysis, competition for talent. It is therefore of paramount importance that we develop talent, especially talent among the young people. It is the people, especially the young, that make each of the above happen. Today’s young people, most of whom were born in the 1980s, 1990s, and even in or after 2000, constitute the most active and productive part of the workforces engaged in industrial and agricultural production, scientific research, education, cultural enterprises, innovation, Internet industries, and so on. In more than ten years or 20 years, they will become the leading force in each of these endeavors. However, we need to promote their healthy development physically, intellectually, and mentally, while meeting their demand for information. Specifically, on the one hand, we need to ensure that they work hard at school and ground themselves solidly in their respective fields of study, and not allow themselves to be affected by knowledge fragmentation in cyberspace, which is detrimental to their long-term development. On the other hand, we need to ensure their physical wellbeing, and not allow them to be addicted to the Internet, which adversely affects their physical development, including eyesight. It is imperative that educational authorities at different levels and Internet-related departments give priority to addressing these issues.

The CPC is a great party oriented toward the future. The Party has led the Chinese people of all ethnic groups in national salvation and nation building in the past, and is now leading the Chinese people of all ethnic groups on the path toward the great renaissance of the Chinese nation. Based on the scientific worldview of Marxism, it seeks truth from facts, associates with the masses, rectifies mistakes, and hence maintains long-lasting vigor and vitality. In 1994 China was connected to the Internet with full functionality. Since then, under the leadership of the CPC, which keenly realized and seized the historic opportunities the Internet promised, China has experienced rapid development of the Internet and has ever remained at the forefront of the global sunrise industries. We are confident that, under the central leadership of the CPC with President Xi Jinping at the core, China will be crowned with success in its next phase of the development of the Internet and information technology applications, and will achieve its dream of becoming an Internet powerhouse with the people at its center.