"Internet security and informatization are important and urgent. The dual goals of security and development are like two wings of a bird and two wheels of an engine. No internet safety means no national security. No informatization means no modernization": it was February 2014, and Chinese president Xi Jinping chaired the first meeting of the "Cybersecurity and Informatization Leading Group" (CILG), a new body of the Chinese government in charge of all cyber affairs, including political, economic, cultural and military issues. Until that moment, the realm of cybersecurity was fractioned among several competing agencies without a central top-level coordination, and the new group underlined the importance of cyber affairs in Xi Jinping's vision.
China, as pointed out in an extensive report published by Xinhua at the time, considered itself «a big Internet country» - in 2014 internet users were 612 million, and according to the latest official surveys they reached 652 million as of December 2017- but not yet «a powerful Internet country», due to a lack of domestic, top-level technology.
Four years after, the situation has evolved and is deeply intertwined with two of China's major policies: Made in China 2025 - a comprehensive strategic plan designed to upgrade Chinese industry, switching from labor-intensive factories to high-end manufacturing - and junmin ronghe (军民融合), the integration between the civil sector and the military, designed by Xi Jinping's administration to trigger a new era of modernization among the ranks of the People's Liberation Army. The goals have been set at the end of the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, in November 2017: the Chinese military must turn itself into a «modernized power» by 2035, and become a top-tier army by 2050.
To understand how this vision is shaping Chinese cyber affairs, we should first define the meaning of information security in China: for Beijing's security apparatus the notion of xinxi anquan (information security) is more comprehensive than its counterpart in the West, as it embodies not only the technical threats posed to the networks, but also the content spread on the Internet. In his seminal book China and Cybersecurity, Professor of Global Affairs and Political Science at the University of Toronto Jon R. Lyndsay interviews a Chinese official and former chairperson of SILG - one of the administrations in charge of cyber affairs before CILG was built. This high-ranking official - speaking under the condition of anonymity - declares that in China's vision the Internet is «a key component of the national security system» and «necessary for social stability and socialist cultural and ideological development». For China, the control of sensitive contents spread through the Internet is at least as important as protecting its infrastructures, and this statement mirrors one of the main goals of the People's Liberation Army itself, an army designed to protect the Chinese communist party both by foreign and domestic threats.
The practices of Beijing's government are rarely transparent, but according to several academic papers, until 2012 China's top priority on the Internet was to build up censorship and surveillance infrastructure. This situation has changed, due to China's growing involvement in the international arena.
In July 2012 the State Council - largely synonymous with the Central People's Government - updated "Document 27", the foundation of China's national cybersecurity released in 2003, stressing the importance of protecting critical infrastructures from foreign threats. Then, 2013 - labelled as annus horribilis for US-China cyber relations- broke out: in January, The New York Times accused Chinese hackers of breaking into its computers systems and stealing the passwords of some reporters after an extensive coverage of former premier Wen Jiabao relatives' hidden wealth. Similar accusations were made by The Wall Street Journal, and cybersecurity firm Mandiant published a report about alleged Chinese hacking against U.S. top companies, conducted by a secretive unit of People's Liberation Army based in Shanghai. But all these exposés pale in comparison to Edward Snowden's case, who fled to Hong Kong in June and denounced how NSA had allegedly hacked Chinese telecommunication firms, universities and submarine cables through US Internet firms.
This is the climate that bred CILG, and its policies are now settled at the cross between Made in China 2025, junmin ronghe and the rising protectionism inspired by Trump's administration in the US. Chinese telecommunication giant ZTE is accused by the US Congress of violating trade laws by selling sensitive technologies to North Korea and Iran, while another Chinese tech behemoth, Huawei, is considered a security risk. ZTE was slapped with a seven-year US trade ban earlier this year (meaning the company could no longer acquire components from Qualcomm) and eventually gained a licence to operate in the US after a $1bn fine and a complete replacement of its executives. Huawei might face similar difficulties in the foreseeable future and is also facing similar difficulties in accessing Australia's 5G telecom networks market.
Although China claims systematically to be the victim of cyberespionage - and in fact it is, to various extents - the current international landscape, the rising of protectionist policies in the US and Sino-US technological and industrial confrontation, make Made in China 2025 and junmin ronghe the top priorities for Chinese cybersecurity. Difficulties to pursue the military-civilian integration emerged in the past - such as the separate, distinctive frameworks in which military and civilian systems operated for decades- are now the main challenges that CILG must face.
Given the top role that this administration embodies, it could be easy to guess that drastic changes are already on the way, and China's capability has already risen to unprecedented levels of integration.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI)