I would argue that the most important single decision of the last twenty years – more than the invasion of Iraq or the atrocity of 9/11 - was President Bill Clinton’s 1999 trade agreement with China. This entente ushered Beijing into the World Trade Organization (WTO) and conferred permanent “normal trade relations” between the two nations. Quite apart from the enormous economic consequences (adding an estimated 0.7% to US GDP per annum, and both lowering prices for manufactured products and expanding access to cheaper capital worldwide), the strategic purpose was to tie in China as a responsible stakeholder in the world community and, so Clinton believed, promote democratic reform through economic development. As a prosperous middle-class developed, so they would demand further legal and political rights. Similarly, the imperatives of capital would work through the implacable Chinese bureaucratic wall, advancing the demands of property rights and the rule of law. A more developed economy would require, for example, enforced IP rights, the right to own property, free movement of labor, a market-led currency and far greater transparency regarding transactions and procedures in business and government.
The economic consequences have undoubtedly been unparalleled, but the strategic effects remain to be proven, one way or another. Certainly, the assumption that the Chinese government would cede any control in the domestic sphere has consistently been proven incorrect. (It was perhaps one of the only major governments to refuse the blandishments of Rupert Murdoch, which is something). It is in this context that the US Trade Representative’s office request in October for information regarding China’s internet policy, and the blockages of US websites, is so interesting. Requesting clarity in an area deliberately cloaked in opacity, the USTR did so under the banner of free trade and the WTO rules, though the implications are readily apparent.
Some of the questions included:
Websites of service suppliers based outside of China are sometimes inaccessible in China, which can prevent those companies from marketing products and supplying services to the Chinese market.
a. Who or what ministry is responsible for determining if and when a foreign website should be blocked in China?
b. What are the guidelines and criteria for blocking access to foreign websites? How often are these guidelines and criteria changed or published? Where are these guidelines published? Are they made public in advance of their implementation? Which ministries are responsible for drafting them?
c. What is the process for implementing a restriction on a website? How does the relevant entity determine whether an entire website should be blocked or only services or content deemed illegal?
g. Can an affected service supplier appeal a decision to block access to their website? If so, what is the procedure for appealing, and where is that procedure published?
The Measures for the Administration of Internet Information Services, issued by the State Council on September 25, 2000, describe nine categories of content which Internet information service providers may not disseminate.
a. Are there any laws, regulations, policies or other guidance that establish criteria to determine when content fits into these categories? If so, where can a service supplier access these measures?
b. Are government requests or orders to filter specific terms online ever communicated directly to Internet information service providers? If so, how are these directives communicated? Are these requests or orders made public? Does an Internet information service provider have the right to obtain a written order prior to implementing such a directive?
According to the White Paper on the Internet in China, “telecommunication business operators and Internet information service providers shall establish Internet security management systems and utilize technical measures to prevent the transmission of all types of illegal information.”
a. How is illegal information defined in this instance?
b. Is a written governmental order required for either a private corporation or a relevant authority to block the transmission of illegal information?
c. What types of technical measures are service suppliers expected to use to prevent transmission of the illegal information?
f. Does Internet content from outside of China go through a separate monitoring process for illegal information than Internet content created inside of China? If so, how do the two processes differ?
Clearly, the Chinese government is highly likely to decline to answer all of these, citing national security. But the very act of the request demonstrates the deliberately opaque, obfuscatory nature of Chinese administration (a model repeated throughout the land, from the top down). By remaining behind a shroud of secrecy and ambiguity, officials, state-owned enterprises, businesses, agencies and all concerned give themselves great freedom for maneuver. Once a position is clearly taken, it is limiting; far better to be nebulous, undefinable, and thus unopposable.
Hence, while corporate life in the west is generally – though there are always Enrons trying to gain from the relative information-poverty of others – more transparent, business in China, and Chinese life in general, is still far less accountable. I use this word deliberately: both in the sense of being accurately and opening measured and recorded for all to see, and being accountable for actions and decisions taken. On October 27th, in an illustrative incident, China High Precision Automation Group Ltd. said in a statement that despite “continuous effort in cooperating with KPMG”, it had not provided the auditors with requested information because it risked breaking the “Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Guarding State Secrets”. KPMG resigned as their auditor and the company was suspended from trading. While it’s unclear what state secrets a precision tools manufacturer would be privy to, the imbroglio suggests the enormous tension between sovereignty, state secrets, and the role of cross-national auditors. The full exposure of accountancy, and accountability, is something to which China is yet to become accustomed.