Towards a critique of the Chinese state – on rising powers, digital diplomacy and norms

All Abstracts > Towards a critique of the Chinese state – on rising powers, digital diplomacy and norms

Towards a critique of the Chinese state – on rising powers, digital diplomacy and norms

Author | Affiliation:
Padmapriya Vidhya-Govindarajan | New York University

Presenting at:
2D | China’s Internet Governance: Domestic Issues and Global Aspirations


Prevalent understandings of China in the global system are situated around the idea of China as a hegemon, already exercising rampant influence in the world; or as a rising power, contextualized within a perceived and debatable decline in the USA’s global leadership participation. In the context of a rising China, there are significant perceptions of Chinese behavior in the international order which cast the state as a belligerent one that wishes to create new norms or not follow norms at all – as a powerful state that wishes to overhaul existing frameworks. This paper attempts to problematize this understanding of China in the world order in the specific domain of internet governance and grapple with the following question: How does China engage with global norms surrounding the internet and why?

To this end, it attempts to examine the political underpinnings of China’s internet policy, including the Chinese notion of internet sovereignty, and how bilateral and multilateral initiatives are raised, deployed and sustained to push this notion forward. This paper thus examines internet sovereignty as presented in China’s attempts at digital diplomacy – through the documents of the Wuzhen Conferences from 2014-2018 and their stated goals, procedures and outcomes; White Papers and statements/speeches by Chinese leaders on China’s internet policy and strategy; domestic and international English media reportage on relevant bilateral conversations and China’s stances at multilateral forums on internet governance.

The global system currently lacks critical consensus on which global norms on governance apply to the governance of the internet as well. As this paper demonstrates, China leverages this vacuum in governance leadership and attempts to identify, fortify and vitalize existing and accepted global norms, like sovereignty, and associate them with the governance of the internet as well. In attempting to answer why China does so, this paper argues that internet sovereignty is a strategic tool within diplomacy and foreign policy that is constructed with an important aim of Chinese participation in norm-making infrastructure and examines how that unfolds within the ‘liberal order’.

On a supranational level, this process allows China to contribute to evolving international governance norms as a rising power, and align its interests to the resultant system by participating in its creation. On a bilateral and multilateral level, it allows China to position itself as a power that takes initiative and further deploy its stated goal of breaking norm-making hegemony and increasing participation of the developing countries in norm infrastructure. Importantly this process outlines the ability of China to use internet sovereignty as a strategic tool to also position itself as a representative of the developing world.


Internet Governance, Internet Sovereignty, Digital Diplomacy, Multilateralism

About the author

Padmapriya Vidhya-Govindarajan


Padmapriya Vidhya-Govindarajan is pursuing her PhD at the Department of Media, Culture and Communication at New York University’s Steinhardt school. She has an MA in Development Studies from the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, and an MA in China Studies – International Relations and Politics from the Yenching Academy of Peking University. Her current research interests include representations of the Chinese state on the internet and in international platforms, and a comparative study of state-society relationships in India and China.  

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