China's prioritisation of content control came at the expense of network security, with the result that its online environment remained anarchic and lawless.

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 early fifteenth century, the country’s advanced technology had brought it to the cusp of an industrial revolution; indeed, for Joseph Needham, a prominent historian of Chinese science, the great mystery was why such a revolution never occurred. 

China’s sense of self-esteem was sorely tested in its early contact with Western nations, which had acquired a higher level of technology, and was further challenged when Meiji-era Japan, a country traditionally seen as a vassal state, proved an early and successful adopter of this technology. China struggled to make sense of the challenge of modernity, partly because its intellectual culture had focused on the cultivation of moral virtue in the service of governance and social harmony, often spurning mere technical capabilities. The ensuing intellectual turmoil gave rise to a range of responses, including efforts to rediscover the original purity of Confucianism and to reject the West; statesman Zhang Zhidong’s concept of zhongxue wei ti, xixue wei yong (Chinese learning for substance, Western learning for utility); and the iconoclastic ultra-modernism of early-twentieth-century polemicists such as Hu Shi.

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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