In January, Microsoft’s Bing search engine was temporarily unavailable for users in China. While it remains unclear why the service was locked down, many observers interpreted it as yet another instance of China’s inclination toward digital censorship. Bing was, according to this view, just the latest in a long list of foreign apps, websites and platforms to run afoul of Beijing’s extensive digital surveillance and cyber-control apparatus, which restricts Chinese users’ access to the global Internet.
However, the incident shows another, more worrying face to China’s Internet controls — one that has more to do with its global ambitions than its attempt to control its own population. Microsoft had already complied with China’s official censorship standards long before the outage. Within China, Bing’s search engine only shows approved results on sensitive topics such as 1989, the year of the Tiananmen Square protests; the Dalai Lama; the banned Falun Gong spiritual sect and others. Some Microsoft products such as LinkedIn similarly accept China’s content restrictions, while others, such as Skype, have given the government direct access to user data. In this context, the Chinese government’s possible willingness to block Bing shows that the space for foreign digital platforms to compete fairly in China is shrinking. In fact, China is increasingly blocking foreign apps and platforms for little reason other than protectionism, which it pursues as part of its quest for greater control of the Internet.
China blocks many digital platforms that are neither seeking to expand political discourse nor provide access to sensitive information. It tends, instead, to target platforms that are potential competitors to state-connected Chinese tech companies. China blocks e-commerce sites that could compete with Alibaba (e.g. Rakuten, Amazon), business apps, including Slack, Dropbox and Slideshare, and nearly every chat app that could compete with WeChat — including ones from Asia such as Line, KakaoTalk and Viber.
These restrictions are understandable, at least from the perspective of economic development. Countries that allowed open access to the United States’ digital giants — Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple — are finding that one or more of these companies now dominate search, social media, chat or video and music streaming. While there are some local upstarts (Naver in Korea, or Viber in Myanmar, for example), they are rare and, in most instances, steadily losing ground to their U.S.-based counterparts.
That’s not the case in China, which has its own digital giants — Tencent, Alibaba and Baidu. Protectionism was no doubt crucial to the rise of these titans. To facilitate their rise, China took steps similar to those Japan took with automobiles in the 1970s and ’80s, when it restricted foreign competition from the United States to allow homegrown brands like Toyota, Honda and Nissan to grow.
Today, however, China’s giants need no protection. They are large enough to compete and are benefiting from their access to what is, quite possibly, the world’s largest digital market, which they have mostly to themselves. That’s to their benefit as they prep for international expansion, not just into established markets like the United States or Europe, but into emerging economies in Asia and Africa, too. Chinese apps dominate India’s mobile space, and the mobile-payment platforms WePay (owned by Tencent) and Alipay (owned by Alibaba) are making huge inroads into Southeast Asia.
The spread of these companies raises concerns that the Chinese model of digital authoritarianism is creeping abroad, putting the future of the Internet at risk. The D.C.-based Council on Foreign Relations says China’s policies, including censorship, data localization and its onerous privacy rules, are “meant to undercut foreign competitors and boost Chinese companies,” with censorship being key tool. A 2017 report from the European Center for International Political Economy found that China “imposes more trade and investment barriers, discriminatory taxes, and information security restrictions than any other country by a vast margin,” and that these restrictions were increasing, not decreasing, over time. Moreover, it found that China “blocks not just politically sensitive content, but also the majority of foreign commercial platforms and intermediaries.” A report released last month by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation rated China as among the worst countries for digital protectionism, highlighting a newly passed standardization law it said “could be used to favor local tech firms and their products.”
If China’s blatant digital protectionism continues to go unchallenged, it could lead to the Balkanization of the Internet into different segments — one dominated by American tech giants and the other by Chinese behemoths. For now, Bing is back, but its temporary disappearance is a reminder that it could easily follow in the footsteps of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube — all of which have been blocked in China. Worse still, that model could be coming soon to a country near you.