As China increasingly gains the economic benefits of global connectivity, the West’s technological edge is fast eroding. In this Adelphi, Nigel Inkster examines the political, historical and cultural development of China’s cyber power in light of evolving capabilities and governance structures.

China’s emergence as a major global power is reshaping the cyber domain. The country has the world’s largest internet-user community, a growing economic footprint and increasingly capable military and intelligence services. Harnessing these assets, it is pursuing a patient, assertive foreign policy that seeks to determine how information and communications technologies are governed and deployed. This policy is likely to have significant normative impact, with potentially adverse implications for a global order that has been shaped by Western liberal democracies. And, even as China goes out into the world, there are signs that new technologies are becoming powerful tools for domestic social control and the suppression of dissent abroad.

Western policymakers are struggling to meet this challenge. While there is much potential for good in a self-confident China that is willing to invest in the global commons, there is no guarantee that the country’s growth and modernisation will lead inexorably to democratic political reform. This Adelphi book examines the political, historical and cultural development of China’s cyber power, in light of its evolving internet, intelligence structures, military capabilities and approach to global governance. As China attempts to gain the economic benefits that come with global connectivity while excluding information seen as a threat to stability, the West will be forced to adjust to a world in which its technological edge is fast eroding and can no longer be taken for granted.

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  • Introduction

    To mark the first meeting of the NETmundial Initiative’s Coordination Council, held in São Paolo on 30 June 2015, China Military Online published an editorial observing that: Global internet governance can no longer dispense with China. 2014 was the twentieth anniversary of China’s accession to the internet … and, by the end of 2014, China had 649 million users, representing one-fifth of global Netizens. This huge number means that no country...
  • Chapter 1: Evolution of the Chinese Internet: Freedom and Control

    China has spent much of the last 150 years attempting to catch up with scientific and technical advances of the developed world, while maintaining a sense of national self-esteem commensurate with a state that, for most of recorded history, has regarded itself as culturally, economically and in every other way superior to other nations. From a technological perspective, China was for many centuries fully justified in this perception. By the...
  • Chapter 2: Cyber Espionage

    Intelligence has played a central role in Chinese policy and strategy since the era of the Warring States (circa 475–221 BCE), a period in which Sunzi published Sunzi Bingfa (Art of War), devoting an entire chapter of the book to the subject. Espionage has also featured in classical literature such as Sanguo Yanyi (Romance of Three Kingdoms), which includes archetypal intelligence and deception operations such as Zhuge Liang’s empty-city strategy...
  • Chapter 3: Military Cyber Capabilities

    If there is one aspect of China’s rise that has created widespread apprehension, it is the country’s evolution into a significant military power. The development of China’s armed forces since the early 1990s has been dramatic. Once reliant on a low-tech, mass-mobilisation land army designed primarily for a People’s War, China has begun to attain major naval, air, space and nuclear capabilities, and is rapidly acquiring the capacity to project...
  • Chapter 4: Battle for the Soul of the Internet

    Just as cyber policy lies at the heart of China’s domestic-reform agenda, so too has it begun to influence fundamentally the state’s approach to foreign policy and international security. For China, an awareness of the risks posed by the cyber domain has deepened an ingrained sense of insecurity – a sense that to outside observers seems at odds with the country’s economic power, growing military capacity and general aura of...
  • Conclusion

    In the mid-nineteenth century, a China that had become isolated, complacent and self-referential was subjected to a rude awakening at the hands of Western powers imbued with a sense of cultural and moral superiority that mirrored the country’s own. The resulting struggle for modernisation, and for a new identity that enabled China to retain a measure of cultural self-respect while becoming economically and technically competitive with the West, has been...

Nigel Inkster is Director of Future Conflict and Cyber Security at the IISS.

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China’s Cyber Power

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