China Seeks Internet Control

Foreign makers of communication gear face Chinese pressure for information.
By Michael Lelyveld
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A man surfs the Internet in Beijing, June 15, 2009.
A man surfs the Internet in Beijing, June 15, 2009.

China is pressuring foreign makers of high-tech products for sensitive information at a time of growing concern over computer hacking, experts say.

The manufacturers must meet a May 1 deadline to register their communication products and comply with Chinese standards or face exclusion from government purchasing, the Financial Times reported on Feb. 21.

Some makers of products like secure routers and firewalls face the choice of providing source codes and opening possible "back doors" to information or losing market access, industry officials said.

John Neuffer, vice president for global policy at the Information Technology Industry Council (ITI), told the paper that U.S. companies "are feeling less welcome" in China, although they want to keep doing business there.

The Washington-based group represents over 40 U.S. suppliers of computer and communications technology.

Pattern of conflicts

ITI officials declined a Radio Free Asia request for an interview, but experts say the pressure is part of a pattern of cybersecurity conflicts with China.

"This is a very, very serious problem," said Thomas Bellows, a political science professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio and editor of the American Journal of Chinese Studies.

"I think this is an issue of national security, and maybe the most important one, because it's kind of coming down on us like a tidal wave," Bellows told RFA.

Tensions have been rising over information security since Jan. 12, when the U.S.-based search engine Google reported a "targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure" and an attempt to hack into e-mail accounts of Chinese rights advocates.

On Feb. 18, The New York Times reported that investigators had traced the intrusions to Shanghai Jiaotong University and the Lanxiang Vocational School in Shandong province.

Both schools have denied the report. On Feb. 23, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang called accusations of government involvement "irresponsible and calculating," according to state media.

Long-term push?

It is unclear whether the May 1 deadline for certifying foreign IT products, first announced in 2007, is part of the current cybersecurity conflict or a longer-term term push for technology transfer to advance China's own capabilities.

Foreign manufacturers in industries ranging from autos to electronics have been pressured for years to transfer their technologies to China as a condition for doing business in the country.

The technology and information efforts have now converged to promote China's competitive goals, Bellows said.

"What you're seeing is something that has gone on more or less, but never in such an organized, sophisticated, and almost coordinated way," he said. "It's not only pirating but getting, through all sorts of nefarious means, technology."

Instead of complying with China's demands, the United States should be taking a tougher line on technology exports with tighter controls, Bellows said.

Coordinated pressure

William Reinsch, president of the National Foreign Trade Council in Washington and a member of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, said the idea of some kind of conspiracy linking technology issues and other frictions with the United States "goes too far."

But Reinsch believes there is "an element of coordination" to the pressures on the information and communications technologies (ICT) sector.

Reinsch said the registration rules are aimed at either gaining information from foreign ICT products or pushing the market into Chinese-made products that provide government access.

"It's both. In the case of ICT, it's both," he said.

"They want the source code, they want the means of being able to control the technology in order to control the population. And if they can't get it, then I think they're going to try to exclude the products from the country."

While reports have highlighted the cybersecurity threats from China, Reinsch said the government believes it needs access to information for its own security.

"For ICT, it's not just economics, it's not just trade. It's part of the fundamentals of what they believe is necessary to keep control of the country," he said.

'A step back'

Reinsch said the government has stepped up its effort to steer the economy, particularly in critical sectors, rather than give it free rein.

"In general, I think they have pretty clearly taken a turn away from a market-opening, market-reinforcing direction and a step back toward much more of a government command economy ... including directed investment," Reinsch said.

"Part of that is a more organized effort to keep foreign competitive products out of the country through standards barriers or things like that," he said.

While Beijing has denied any link to cyberattacks, some officials have been outspoken in calling for government control over communications.

Writing in the February issue of Chinese Cadres Tribune, published by the Communist Party's Central Party School, People's Liberation Army Major General Huang Yongyin said a new government body is needed to control the Internet.

"For national security, the Internet has already become a new battlefield without gunpowder," Huang wrote, according to the Reuters news agency.





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