Rule of law: a ring to bind China’s internet

As New Year’s approaches, China’s leadership seems to be making its case for tougher internet controls in 2013.

Earlier this month, the country’s new propaganda chief, Liu Qibao (刘奇葆), said China must “deeply research the strengthening of the building, operation and management of the internet, singing the main theme online.” Singing the “main theme” refers explicitly to staying in line with the ruling Party’s political, social and economic priorities and does not, as the Wall Street Journal‘s recent translation suggests, refer blandly to “mainstream online themes.”

Since Liu Qibao’s remarks there have been a number of editorials in state-run media calling for a tougher stance on internet governance. While these editorials have talked about the need to address legitimate concerns such as the protection of personal data online, they have also cast a wider net over unspecified issues like the spread of “rumor.”

On December 18, a front page piece in the Party’s official People’s Daily warned that while the internet “facilitates social interaction” it brings such “complications” as “business fraud, malicious attacks and the spreading of rumors.”

On December 24, an editorial on the official web platform of the People’s Daily recapitulated the arguments made by the December 18 piece, this time referring to rule of law as a “bind” — or a “tight hoop,” jingu (紧箍) — needed to restrain the internet for the good of all. The editorial said “lines of conduct” should be stipulated and supervision enhanced online in order to “restrain irresponsible rumors, restrain the leakage of personal information, and make the internet clean again.”


[ABOVE: Is a restraining "ring" of "rule of law" needed to make China's internet healthier? That's what a recent editorial on People's Daily Online argues. Photo a composite of China map and image by Kyz available at Flickr.com under Creative Commons license.]

This language sandwiches the relatively clear-cut agenda of personal data protection between moral and political goals that are harder to define and are probably code for increased political controls on the internet.

What exactly are “irresponsible rumors”? If, as some have reported, new regulations for China’s internet are in the offing, how exactly will they define “irresponsible rumors” and other “harmful” information?

A full translation of the People’s Daily Online editorial follows:

Putting the “Binds” of Rule of Law on the Online World (给网络世界套上法治“紧箍”)

Ma Bi (马碧)
December 24, 2012
People’s Daily Online

For many people in today’s society the internet is as essential as the air they breathe. Amid the flow of positive, constructive and healthy information there are rumor, cheating and scandal mixed in. People are deeply moved by the “good stuff,” such as the scene of a street worker blowing his partner’s hands warm after she finished shoveling snow. They are panicked by the “bad stuff,” like the “apocalypse rumors.” And “bad stuff” like the sale of personal information online are a threat to public safety and damage the interests of ordinary people.

The internet is a free and open stage. It is precisely because of this freedom, in which everyone can speak freely, that some active users can gain a large number of fans. But absolute online freedom does not exist, and online there must be a basic line, which is to not impinge on the freedom of others. We must accept moral restrictions, and respect laws and regulations. After all, no one wishes to live in an actual world in which there are no rules and no order, and no one wishes to live in a virtual world in which there are no rules and no order.

The real world and the virtual world are inseparable, and harm done to individuals online does not exist in the virtual world alone. The pain of those victims whose rights are infringed, who are cheated or attacked, is no less keen than that felt in traditional forms of harm. Particularly in the face of the information power wielded by online criminals, ordinary web users are little more than fish and fowl to be snared. As the whole world is now linked together in this way, strengthening supervision and management of the internet is not just a need but a matter of urgent necessity.

The internet is public space, and public order and good customs require the common efforts of web users, demanding that each web users “purify themselves” (自我净化), recognizing from the bottom of their hearts that the internet is not a utopia where they can do as they please, that it is not a “Garden of Peaches of Immortality” [i.e., a paradise] existing outside the law. But on this massive platform comprising 538 million web users and more than a billion mobile users, it is impossible byrelying on self-discipline alone to achieve regulation and order (规范有序) and to eliminate every single person with ulterior motives (别有用心者) or every doer of mischief (恶作剧者).

Without wings, the bird of freedom cannot fly high. Without rule of law, a free internet cannot go far. Today’s society reveres rule of law, and just as our actual society needs rule of law, so does our virtual society need rule of law. Cleaning up the online world demands the self-discipline of web users, but even more it demands the interventionist discipline (他律) of rule of law. Only by putting the “binds” of rule of law on the internet, by stipulating the lines of conduct and adding supervision according to the law (厘定行为边界,依法加以监管), only by making violators of the law bear the burden of illegality [as opposed to victims of crimes], only then can we possibly restrain irresponsible rumors, restrain the leakage of personal information, and make the internet clean again.

“It is the most splendid and the noisiest . . . ” This way of describing the internet is how many people feel. An open China requires a healthy online world governed by law. Only by putting the “binds” of rule of law on the internet can our internet be more civilized, healthier and safer, and only then can we increase the share of the “good stuff,” casting out the wicked and cherishing the virtuous.

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