China’s changing vision of the internet from threat to be managed to indispensable tool of governance and societal control

The book, China’s Digital Authoritarianism: A Governance Perspective, by Dr Monique Taylor from the University of Helsinki, delves into the way that China governs the internet and the changes that have occurred in it’s vision of Digital Authoritarianism in the past decade.

For the past seven years, Freedom House has ranked China as the worst area in the world for internet freedom, arguing that the Chinese authorities impose obstacles to access, violate user rights, and limit online content. However, the approach of the Chinese government is not one merely of censoring, blocking, and filtering politically sensitive content. Rather, is an increasingly coordinated and sophisticated top-down model of data-driven algorithmic governance under centralised government control.

The recently published book: China’s Digital Authoritarianism: A Governance Perspective (2022), by GPC lecturer Dr Monique Taylor, addresses these aspects of the Chinese internet governance. Taylor combines an analysis of the Chinese form of authoritarianism with an exploration of the dynamics of the digital era. The book covers the shifts in the modes of Chinese digital governance since the arrival of the internet into the country in the 1990s to today.

It argues that under the rule of Xi Jinping (2012-), the regime has moved away from the Fractured Authoritarianism (FA) of the Reform era, and back towards party-centric governance (PCG), in which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) holds centralised power. The fundamental goal of this type of governance is the stability, durability, risk management, and “ultimately the survival” of the Chinese one-party system.

In this context, the internet is no longer merely seen by the political leadership as a threat to be tackled. Rather, the Chinese government in the past ten years has come to understand it as a central strategic tool to reach the vision of the party. While the book focuses mainly on the domestic formal and informal institutional arrangement, regulations, laws and debates, it also frames China’s growing digital authoritarianism in the global context. It examines the regime's international relations ambitions of technical standard setting and digital sovereignty. Moreover, Taylor explores how internet governance is used to fortify the position of China as a geopolitical and technological superpower. 

Taylor reminds us that technology is never politically neutral, and Beijing is highly aware of this. The book seeks to reveal the political logic of internet governance and its changing nature. It makes a convincing case that under Xi Jinping, China has strengthened its Digital Authoritarianism, as its internet governance has become increasingly ideological, politicised and comprehensive.

Taylor´s work offers a contribution to the broader debate of digital rights and the global governance of the internet. The majority of the states in the world, including the European Union through its General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), are adjusting their legislation to better govern the internet. Within this context, China offers a cautionary case study of how easily the internet lends itself to be used as a tool for repression and strengthening undemocratic tendencies.