President Xi sent out mixed messages last Wednesday when he asserted that China had a right to a ‘sovereign internet,’ free from cyber hegemony in a speech that also justified China’s online censorship. In the speech, made at the 2nd annual World Internet Conference in the Southern Chinese city of Wuzhen, President Xi’s speech also echoed past criticisms of the West for insisting on its own free expression standards on China.

Instead he argued that China supported “the right of individual countries to independently choose their own model of cyberspace governance”. Xi also argued that there was a need for a global system of governance for the internet that “includes all countries and players and not just a handful”.

Xi Jinping

According to the Financial Times, experts were “struck by how China has co-opted the rhetoric of liberal values to defend a policy that few liberals would find recognizable.

That Xi made the speech at the ‘World Internet Conference’ may come as a surprise for many, as conferences about the internet generally tend to focus on the keeping the ‘internet’ free from government interference.  However, the conference itself is organised and carefully choreographed by China to promote its own arguments on how the internet should be governed internationally.

With 650,000,000 internet users, Xi argues that China has a right to help define the global rules that apply to the internet, and that includes the right to censor, restrict, and block what China’s inhabitants can and can’t see. Xi’s speech has come in a year where several countries have taken steps to have more control over the internet and more importantly who is behind posting information to the World Wide Web.

China has been strongly criticised in the past for its ‘Great Firewall,’ that strictly censors what Chinese internet users can and can’t see. Chinese government policy up until recently seemed to centre around not even acknowledging its existence.

President Xi also proposed a global governance system that would  “curb the abuse of information technology, oppose network surveillance and hacking, and fight against a cyberspace arms race”.

But Xi’s message was clear in his speech, and it was abundantly evident that  Chinese “internet security and control have been elevated to national priorities.” President Xi also called for an end to state sponsored cyber hacking and surveillance in his speech, a statement that no doubt had most independent commentators raising some very ironic eyebrows.

China has clashed repeatedly with the US over allegations of cyber hacking, with both sides accusing and denying each other of doing the same thing. The US briefly threatened sanctions against the communist state ahead of an official state visit by President Xi to America. Australia have also accused state sponsored Chinese hackers this month of attempting to hack into their meteorological department.