As Beijing gears itself to oversee the celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China on 1st October, China’s Ministry of Public Security has reshuffled the top leadership of the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) by appointing a big data expert, Wang Yingwei, to lead its cyber security force. Having previously held the portfolio of the Communist Party Secretary of the bureau, he replaces, as Director, Zhuang Rongwen.
Wang Yingwei’s priorities and emphasis are based on a number of objectives including the launch of the newly upgraded cyber security protection and internet regulatory scheme. The cyber security law was imposed on 1st June 2017, which significantly widened the Party’s net of surveillance over its citizens. Many tech and law experts believe that there is a larger political agenda behind the passing of the policy and the intentional ambiguity of its nature.
Since the launch of CAC in 2014 under the initiative of Xi Jinping, four men have helmed the office signifying a rapid pace of change in leadership. CAC plays a prominent role in shaping the formulation and implementation of policies on a variety of issues related to the use of the internet in the PRC. It is also responsible for executing Xi’s vision for the future of the Party, where it exerts total control over the sovereignty of the internet within its borders.
According to Xinhua, the official state news agency, the CAC was responsible for issuing a “voluntary pledge” for China’s major Internet service providers. Under this ‘pledge’, companies ‘volunteered’ to further curb the digital space available for netizens, intruding upon their freedom of expression and opinions.
Although the CAC has had a frequent change in leadership, all four of its directors, past and present, have aggressively sought to filter and control the access to information for its citizens. Such a consistent and stringent regulation of the internet has resulted in an abject lack of both transparency in the bureaucratic system and trust from its citizenry.
The first Internet Czar of China, Luwei, has contributed substantially to the Party’s power grip over the domestic cyberspace and has championed Beijing’s stance that governments have a right to filter and censor access to the internet. As a political hawk, he imposed stringent security checks on foreign tech products and censored foreign internet firms and social networking sites such as Facebook under the directive of the Party’s vision for preserving ‘social stability’.
At the peak of his rise within the CCP’s hierarchy, he was listed by Time magazine in 2015 as one of the world’s 100 most influential people. Luwie’s fall from grace followed soon with his prosecution on official charges of bribery and sentencing to 14 years in prison, making him the first high ranking senior officer to be taken down in Xi Iiping’s second term as head of the CCP.
Luwei was replaced by Xi’s trusted aide, Xu Lin. He held the post of the Director of the CAC from June 2016 to July 2018 and was later promoted to the post of International Propaganda Chief. Xu Lin effectively worked on supervising and enforcing the Chinese cybersecurity law, which had remained stagnant prior to his appointment.
On 31st July, 2018 Zhuang Rongwen was appointed as the head of the CAC. He had previously held the post of deputy director of the CAC and served overseas at the Chinese Affairs Office of the State Council. Like his predecessor, Zhuang was a close confidant of President Xi and displayed a tenacity in spearheading an ambitious program that would grant the Party power to further extend its reach over the digital space of its netizens. The CAC rolled out additional regulations over the control of new media as well as cultivate an online environment congruent with the Party’s objectives. Under Zhuang, the CAC was also able to procure and develop much advanced surveillance tools to address the challenges posed by emerging technologies and information dissemination applications. His vision was geared towards making the Government’s calls for ‘cyber sovereignty’ a stark reality.
The latest Internet Czar of China, Wang Yingwei, is proficient in the fields of information technology and cybersecurity. His expertise is expected to be an asset to the Government as it seeks to strengthen its comprehensive censorship and internet monitoring policies, resulting in a significant upgradation of in its ability to curtail flow of information as well as censor data on digital forums that are deemed politically sensitive.
With the hyper sensitive 70th anniversary celebrations coming up, Wang and the CAC are expected to play a significant role in the Party’s agenda of maintaining and strengthening its rule over its populace both online and offline. With the hope of an information free society, following the 70th anniversary of the PRC, for both the Chinese and the “ethnic minority” populations further receding into obscurity.
Tenzin Dalha is a research fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute, doing research on Chinese cybersecurity policy and the social media landscape of Tibetan society.