China Capitalizes on Ukraine

According to news agency reports, China’s minister of public security, Guo Shengkun, said that states in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization must take steps to “counteract interference in internal affairs from abroad.” His comments at a meeting of the SCO  in Tajikistan this week are an attempt to capitalize on the crisis in Ukraine by furthering the Chinese position on both internet governance and foreign interference.

Guo’s comments referenced a need to strengthen NGO management and exert greater control over social networks in order to “avoid repeats of color revolution scenarios.”

Finding more information on the SCO meeting and the context of Guo’s remarks is difficult. Short pieces in Reuters and the New York Times both focus on Guo’s urging that Russia and the Central Asian states ought to control the internet, tying his remarks implicitly into a larger ideological battle for the future of the Internet.

Debates about Internet governance seldom hold front page space for long. Data breaches and bugs are sexier and more immediate, but the ultimate settlement of the question “who runs the Internet?” is more important. Whether the Internet continues to be administered by multiple stakeholders in a collaborative fashion or comes under the direct domain of states matters tremendously. Unsurprisingly, western states favor the current  multi-stakeholder model which works to their advantage–open, democratic societies benefit from an open Internet. China, and many of the SCO states, do not benefit in the same way and feel threatened by the latent potential of the internet to act as a catalyst for revolution.

Guo’s comments are not shocking given this larger narrative, but serve to sate another narrative as well.

RIA Novosti couched Guo’s remarks in terms long-familiar to Central Asian leaders, as well as those in Russia and China.

According to the minister, terrorists and extremists from SCO member states are most active in the Middle East and North Africa. “Their goal is to commit new terrorist attacks upon their return to the region,” he said, adding that they take advantage of online social networks to spread their ideology and raise money.

“The organization should undertake tough measures to fight against them,” Shengkun said.

By focusing on themes of foreign influence and terrorism, RIA Novosti seats Guo’s remarks firmly in an existing argument SCO leaders have made for decades to justify their authoritarian tendencies.

Alexander Cooley in his 2013 book Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest in Central Asia explained how Central Asian leaders, enabled by the Global War on Terror, began to brand dissidents and political opposition as terrorists. Prompted by the color revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, theses states also began to systematically label foreign NGOs engaged in democracy promotion and human rights monitoring as  security threats.

Guo’s recent statement may not be widely reported on, and it certainly is not unique. It is, however, interesting and underpins the observation that China, and the states of Central Asia, are incredibly uneasy with the drama unfolding in Ukraine. But then again, aren’t we all?

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