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In this article, we shall focus on the Chinese cyber security national system, formally known as the “Golden Shield Project” and frequently dubbed “the Great Firewall” (“The Great Firewall of China: Background”, Torfox, a Stanford Project, June 1, 2011). Previously, we saw how China promotes a mammoth digital development and is becoming, as a result, a “digital nation”, indeed the “Middle Kingdom of the Cyberspace” (Jean-Michel Valantin , The Red Team Analysis Society, June 26, 2017).
While rapidly developing the access of its citizens, companies and public services to the internet – in 2016, 710 million Chinese people were internet users (against a worldwide total of 3.6 billion, i.e 19.72% of the world internet users are Chinese) – and actively supporting the development of the “digital sinosphere”, Beijing also works at securing the country’s cyberspace (Simon Alexander, “The Rise of the Sinosphere and the Digital Silk Road”, DCX. Technology, February 2, 2017).
As China becomes the “Middle Kingdom of Cyberspace”, its political and economic authorities develop and expand a vast cyber security system, “the Golden Shield Project”, also named the “Great Firewall” after the “Great Wall”, which was built to defend China against invaders. The Golden Shield Project is aimed at securing the development of the Chinese society and its economy, while exerting an active surveillance on the contents and ideas circulating within the Chinese part of the Internet.
Here, we shall see how and why this national cyber security system is developed, focusing upon its underlying strategic philosophy, in order to understand its political meaning from a Chinese point of view.
The Golden Shield Project and the Chinese Nation
In order to respond to the challenges of cyber security on a Chinese scale, the Golden Shield Project is dedicated to preventing and blocking multiple kinds of cyber attacks, as well as potential cyber threats, against state organs, companies, infrastructures, and civil and military organizations (“China’s internet: the great firewall: the art of concealment”, The Economist, April 6th 2013.).
As a “digital nation”, China, the Chinese people, institutions and companies are highly exposed to cyber attacks, as shows the staggering 969% growth of their number between 2014 and 2016 (“Chinese See Almost 1000 Percent Increase in Cyber Attacks”, Reuters, Nov 29, 2016). This impressive number means that, for example, during the first semester 2016, 37% of the Chinese Internet users have suffered economic loss because of diverse kinds of Internet attacks and fraud. In 2016, the total financial loss resulting from these cyber attacks reached 91.5 billion Renminbi, i.e. almost 13 billion USD (“Cyber security in China”, KPMG China, August 2016).
This proliferation of cyber attacks may be linked to the higher degree of connectivity between people as well as between electronic devices known by the Chinese society. Connectivity between electronic devices creates the famous “internet of things” through an exponential number of interactions, and thus potential vulnerabilities, which attract attacks. Hence, in 2016, the National People’s Committee issued the second review of the Cyber Security Law: cyber security became a national security issue in order to provide higher cyber security requirements for public services, companies and internet providers (KPMG, ibid).
This securization is known as the “Golden Shield Project”, a.k.a the “Great Fire Wall”, which political and strategic meaning largely includes and transcends the issue of “state censorship”, even if the latter is also a very important issue (Sherisse Pam, “China fortifies great firewall with crackdown on VPNs”, CNN Tech, January 24, 2017).
Numerous commentators focus their attention quasi exclusively on the way this system is a means to censor the spread of democratic ideas in China and to orient the national political debate in favour of government positions (“The Great Firewall of China”, Open Democracy, 15 March 2013). However, it should also definitely not be forgotten that the digital development of China also entails a need for cyber security, as for any country and society. Securing the digital dimension of China thus appears of the utmost importance in order to protect the economic development of China, and the enrichment of its people, which are at the core of the current form of social contract between the Chinese political authorities and the Chinese society (Loretta Napoleoni, Maonomics, Why Chinese Communists Make Better Capitalists Than We Do?, 2011).
The “Golden Shield Project” is a national cyber security system of unparalleled scope and depth (Open Democracy, ibid). It blocks or authorizes, partly or fully, the access to and of contents and IP addresses, which are deemed threatening for China by the Cyberspace Administration of China, the Ministry of Security, the Ministry of Industry, the China Banking Regulation Commission, the China Insurance Regulatory Commission, the China Securities Regulatory Commission and the Payment and Clearing Association of China. These different administrations are coordinating the different “segments” of the “Great Firewall”, which includes them all into a national system of cyber security systems (KPMG, ibid).
The philosophy of the Golden Shield Project is rooted in Chinese strategic thinking and political history, dominated by the definition of China needing to protect itself from the outside, especially from Central Asian invaders, while being able to build the relations and trade it needs to develop itself. This philosophy has first inspired the building of the Great Wall, which was meant to protect China from outside threats. The Golden Shield Project a.k.a Great Firewall is meant to ensure the protection of the “cybernation” that China is currently becoming from cyber aggressors. As a matter of fact, as a digital nation, China needs a form of protection, for its citizens, economy, infrastructures, companies, and its political project. Thus, the political authorities try to protect the Chinese nation not “simply” from external influences, but also from external disruptions, knowing that the effects of such occurrences can have extremely violent consequences in China, as the “Middle Kingdom” repeatedly experienced throughout its very long history.
We shall recall, for example, the repeated and sometimes devastating invasions, especially from the nomadic tribes of Central Asia, such as the 12th and 13th centuries Mongol invasions, including those led by Genghis Khan. More recently, since the middle of the 19th century, the political, military, economic and ideological threats and causes of chaos, invasion, war, civil war, and revolution, came in great parts from the outside world (John King Fairbank, The Great Chinese Revolution, 1800-1985, 1987).
From the Great Wall to the Great Cyber Shield
In this regard, the name “Golden Shield” given to the Chinese national cyber security service is not a superlative metaphor, but is, in fact, an extension of the concept of defence and protection from an attack against the national territory. In this regard, it may be seen, indeed, even though the name would have been originally coined in a 1997 Wired article, as an extension of the Great Wall and of its political and strategic philosophy in the cyber space.
The Great Wall has been a long work in progress, which started during the Warring States period, i.e. from the 5th to the 2nd century BC. Then, the different warring Chinese states started to build fortifications alongside their frontiers, in order to protect themselves from each other, and from the nomadic peoples of the central steppes. After the unification of the country by the Qin ruler, the First Emperor, these multiple fortifications were integrated into a series of great fortifications built to keep the nomads out of China (Jacques Gernet, Le Monde Chinois, 2005).
Through the same process, this system of fortifications, while being used to watch upon the outside of China, was also extended to parts of the Central Asian steppe. This was done in order to protect the network of roads going from China to Europe, the Silk Roads (Gernet, Ibid). This network was used by merchants and armies from the 1st century BC to the 16th century and was the main support of exchange between Europe, China and India for centuries (Peter Frankopan, The Silk Roads, a new history of the world, 2015). It was so important to the Chinese political authorities that, during centuries, they deployed a strategic system using the Great Wall to protect both China and its “useful exterior”.
The strategic and philosophical meaning of the Golden Shield Project
This means, that, at a deeper level, the idea underlying the Great Wall influences the thought behind the Golden Shield Project. The Golden Shield can be seen as a new version of the Great Wall, adapted to the 21st century. It is created through the constitution of the material and cyber “envelope” necessary for both the protection and development of China. This novel surrounding fortification is meant to isolate China from the outside, while also allowing for interactions with its abroad in the safest possible way, exactly as the Great Wall both not only protected from invasion but also facilitated safe exchanges through the Silk Roads.
The Golden Shield Project is thus somehow the continuity of the multi-millennial construction of the Great Wall, and both are a manifestation of the defence and security mission of the Chinese state. Thus, thanks to this national cyber protection system, added to the New Silk Road, China install itself “in the middle of the world”, not only from a geographical perspective, but also from a cyber space’s point of view, while maintaining its singularity.
In other words, protecting China also means developing it, while centring China in the heart of the global world of the 21st century, especially through the “New Silk Road / One Belt One Road” grand strategy (Jean-Michel Valantin, “ “The “One Belt, One Road” Summit and the Chinese Shaping of the Globalization?”, The Red (Team) Analysis Society, June 5, 2017).
About the author: Jean-Michel Valantin (PhD Paris) leads the Environment and Geopolitics Department of The Red (Team) Analysis Society. He is specialised in strategic studies and defence sociology with a focus on environmental geostrategy.
Featured image: The Great Wall of China by Mary Wenstrom, Pixabay, CC0, Public Domain