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Asia-Pacific

Activists slam China's proposed internet sovereignty as threat to free speech online

media China's President Xi Jinping speaks during the opening ceremony of the 2nd annual World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, China, 16 December 2015. Reuters/Aly Song

Chinese President Xi Jinping's call for every nation to have independent authority over its own internet is a threat to free speech on the web, rights groups said Wednesday. Xi was attending the World Internet Conference, which has been organised by the Chinese government in an apparent bid to sell its idea of "internet sovereignty".

The concept of "internet sovereignty" would allow governments to control the internet within their own borders.

China heavily censors its internet, while blocking access to foreign media and websites such as Facebook and Google, giving rise to much criticism by rights groups and the US and the European Union.

“What [Xi] really meant by that, is that there should be tough restrictions on the ability for citizens of each countries to express themselves,” says Maya Wang, an expert with rights group Human Rights Watch. “This means that the idea of freedom of speech being a universal value, wouldn’t apply to every country, for example China.”

The country has about 650 million internet users but has been classified as the most censored country in the world by the Washington-based NGO Freedom House.

“In a sense, yes, the Chinese authorities [feel threatened by the internet],” says Zhengxu Wang, a professor of Chinese studies at the University of Nottingham. “In a sense, that’s how the authorities understand security and political stability. The challenge to the authorities and to the political system comes from the cyberspace; it’s a new area where anti-government forces can emerge against the Chinese government.”

"We should respect the rights of individual countries to govern their own cyberspace," Xi said in a half-hour speech opening of the World Internet Conference. Last year’s meeting was greeted with derision by activists who questioned China's motives and this year's has been no better received.

The three-day event, held in the small city of Wuzhen, was attended by countries such as Pakistan and Russia that have been criticised for their record on freedom of speech

Western tech companies were also present.

It started two days after Pu Zhiqiang, one of China's most celebrated human rights lawyers, stood trial over seven microblog posts critical of the ruling Communist Party.

This could earn him up to eight years behind bars.

“In the last two years, Beijing has been taking new measures to seriously reduce the ability for people to express themselves on the internet,” says Maya Wang. “It’s the only public space in China for people to be critical about the government.

But Beijing's interest in the world wide web is not confined to limiting political activism online.

“Internet, in terms of making sure that business is easier, faster and more innovative and how to make information more accessible, is actually being welcomed by Beijing,” says Zhengxu Wang. “China also tries to protect its own domestic companies. Facebook is being blocked partly to enable domestic firms to develop a similar product.”

With this in mind, it appears unlikely that tech giant Google, which pulled out of the country in 2010, will come back any time soon … or that a democratic transition might occur in the next few years.

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