Over the course of the past decade, Russia and China have been increasingly aligning on a number of issues that encompass foreign and domestic politics. With the COVID-19 pandemic, such alignment has increased in the digital space. To put it in Artyom Lukin’s words, this relationship - often characterized as a quasi-alliance or entente - features high levels of “cross-pollination on domestic political issues”, including controlling the Internet. We argue that there has been increasing alignment between Russia and China on this topic not only at home but also in international fora and that such convergence is likely to grow as Russia becomes more and more authoritarian. When one looks at the longitudinal development of domestic Internet governance (IG) in China and Russia, instances of norm diffusion between the two countries become apparent. On the one hand, Moscow has shown a growing tendency to step up the government’s control over Internet resources, arguing for the establishment of intangible digital borders similar to a Chinese Great Firewall in reduced form and the systematic use of Internet shutdowns à-la-Chinois. On the other, China has also increasingly looked at Russia’s system to regulate NGOs that rely on foreign donors, limiting their online and offline activities. Both countries lead international efforts to reform IG in a more state-centric manner.
Internet freedom in China and Russia
Both countries can “boast” a dismal record of illiberalism when it comes to internet freedom. For the last six years, China has maintained primacy as the global power where the Internet is least free, according to Freedom House. The well-known Chinese “Great Firewall” (防火長城 Fánghuǒ Chángchéng) – a mixture of legislative and technological tools the country started perfecting back in 1998 – nowadays allows total control on the type of information that circulates domestically as well as on the digital contents that enter and exit the country. Between 2020-21, COVID-19 managed to achieve what had once appeared to be impossible—further tightening China’s state control over the Internet. To quash the rumours spreading around Chinese social media about the epidemic outbreak in Wuhan, restrictions around the use of VPNs (i.e., virtual networks that had been unofficially tolerated before COVID-19), account and content removals and, above all, localized Internet shutdowns have become the norm.
On its end, Russia – rated “not free” by Freedom House’s ranking on Internet Freedom since 2015 – has been taking a leaf out of China’s book in 2019, when Moscow passed the Sovereign Runet Law. This legislation allows the country to cut off the RuNet – the Russian Net - from the global Internet during national and international emergencies, thereby enabling authorities to limit access to online content more effectively. This bill – whose roots trace back to the early 2010s, when discussions over restricting internet freedoms to fight extremism and other challenges started in the Duma – fits a contest of general limitations of civil society and, especially, media activities. Although experts stress the difficulties that the Kremlin has in implementing such tight censorship, it seems that Russia is trying to catch up with China.
Reforming the global Internet Governance (IG)
Although the international community reached some consensus over treating IG as a “multi-stakeholder game” involving governments, businesses, civil society, and individuals, the way IG is implemented and “dominated” by developed countries is still sparking off debates from which a bloc-based scenario emerged. China and Russia jointly lead a group of states that dispute the role of the not-for-profit - but seen mainly as US-dominated - Internet governance mechanism ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), which assigns IP addresses and aims to keep the Internet “secure, stable and interoperable” through a multi-stakeholder model.
The China and Russia-led bloc made it clear - especially lobbying in the UN General Assembly - that a private organization like ICANN should not have any authority over central governance functions, reiterating that state sovereignty should play a vital role in this domain through an intergovernmental instead of a private/multi-stakeholder framework. Furthermore, the bloc criticized the technical dominance of industrial countries within the issue in question in general and stated that domain names were assigned arbitrarily. Viewed from China, the case of Edward Snowden showcased the risks of having a single country controlling most key Internet resources and contributed to sparking debate around IG reform.
To make up for these IG shortcomings, China and Russia strongly advocate for a centralized, UN-led IG system, preferably operating via the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), characterized by UN bloc politics. This system would ensure that emerging countries with little technical expertise are fairly represented. Yet, its striking top-down approach risks limiting the participation of civil society and individuals in decision-making processes and grant most of the power to national governments, thus going against the principles of independence advocated by the US and the EU.
China and Russia seem keen to “export” their IG model through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the “largest regional organization by population and geographical coverage” that Beijing and Moscow have been largely shaping for two decades now. As Sarah McKune and Shazeda Ahmed maintain, the SCO’s approach to regional security came to include a strong Russia and China-led digital component by 2009, when the SCO members adopted an Agreement on Cooperation in the Field of International Information Security. This and later agreements such as the 2017 Convention on Countering Extremism echo Russian and Chinese discourses and practices around information security and Internet sovereignty. The documents indeed display a strong focus on “monitoring the media and the Internet for timely detection and suppression of the spread of extremist ideology” and restricting online access to materials deemed extremist.
Considering China and Russia’s consolidation of authoritarian patterns, limitations on citizens’ online freedom of expression are likely to grow in the future and the two countries will be increasingly vocal in multilateral fora. Whether their joint efforts to regulate the Internet internationally will succeed will depend on the ability of liberal democratic states and civil societies worldwide to keep the Internet as free and open as possible.