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China, the country that perfected breaking the Internet, has of late been on a campaign to convince the rest of the world that its approach to digital networks is worth spreading.Sim Chi Yin/The Globe and Mail

It has been the strangest kind of charm offensive.

China, the country that perfected breaking the Internet, has of late been on a campaign to convince the rest of the world that its approach to digital networks is worth spreading. It's an effort led by Lu Wei, the man whose chief responsibilities include overseeing the Great Firewall of China, whose heavy veil of censorship is responsible for the damage China has done to the Internet inside its borders.

In November, Mr. Lu was among the headline speakers at China's first-ever World Internet Conference, which featured corporate guests from around the globe. In December, he flew to Silicon Valley and visited Mark Zuckerberg, Tim Cook and Jeff Bezos. He appeared at a Washington Internet forum co-hosted by Microsoft and attended by senior U.S. officials. A few days later, he published an article in the Huffington Post that, in a tidy 1,397 words, laid out China's vision for what the Internet should look like.

It's a dramatic change from China's historically favoured way of expressing its Internet views: the silent display of error messages instead of websites it doesn't like, the deletion of social media posts it considers improper and the banning of foreign companies that won't toe its line. The latest appears to be Google, whose search and Gmail products have been largely blocked since late spring.

But Mr. Lu, who leads the Cyberspace Administration of China, is on a new mission to convert others to his vision of how the Internet should be run: that digital networks should not allow the unimpeded flow of information, but should instead fall under the "cybersovereignty" of individual nations.

The Internet should be "free and open, with rules to follow and always following the rule of law," he said, in somewhat contradictory fashion, at the November conference. Asked whether he would consider allowing Facebook in, he was more direct: "I can choose who will be a guest in my home." He wants others to assert the same power.

It's a controversial notion, since China has used its control of the Internet to silence dissent, spread propaganda and delete chapters of history . It has also exported its firewall technology to others, notably to African regimes looking for their own god-like powers over online content.

Mr. Lu's charm offensive suggests the rest of the world must prepare for a more concerted effort by China to export its Internet governance model as well. In a recent column in state media, Fang Xingdong noted that China increasingly has the "hard power" to exert its will.

"China boasts the largest number of Internet users and also world famous companies like Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu. The Chinese market will be critical in reshaping the cyberlandscape in the next decade," wrote Mr. Fang, director of the Centre for Internet and Society at Zhejiang University of Media and Communications.

China of course has little authority over the Internet outside its borders. But it wields considerable control over companies eager to profit from its massive population – and that can have global consequences.

LinkedIn is among the only social media sites that operates in China, but its agreement to censor content sensitive to Beijing has led to it blocking posts from users in the United States. Microsoft search engine Bing has similarly come under fire for censoring searches on its Chinese-language service that originated outside China.

"It's a bigger problem than most people even imagine," said Rogier Creemers, a research officer at the University of Oxford Centre for Socio-Legal Studies.

"On a topic that might well be the most important story of our time, being the re-emergence of China, we are reliant upon privately owned communications platforms, some of which are trying to get in China's good graces."

And even Western governments are sculpting the data they allow in: Britain has notably built a wide-ranging filter to intercept child pornography.

Many nations are also newly skeptical of U.S. leadership in cyberspace, following the Edward Snowden revelations of rampant spying. "The U.S. is no longer seen as a benevolent steward of the Internet system," said Mr. Creemers.

"The whole idea that Cisco routers, which power the Chinese Internet, might have CIA backdoors installed is a huge concern in Chinese policy circles." China appears to be taking swift action, saying it wants home-grown technology to supplant foreign-sourced goods in sensitive banking, military and other applications by 2020.

That action underscores the risk to western corporations of China's new Internet assertiveness.

Critics says there are risks, too, in the Chinese philosophical model – one that suggests governments should be assertive in controlling information – gaining adherents elsewhere.

"If we think about the role the Internet has played in the Arab spring, the attempts by those countries to try to limit access to that information is hugely important," said Michael Geist, a law professor and privacy expert at the University of Ottawa.

"People who look to the Internet as having the potential to embody a new globalized communication structure where there is access to information in every corner in ways that wasn't possible before – that vision takes a pretty big hit when we see what's actually unfolding in some countries, and China is a huge player in that."

Still, some suggest China itself is changing.

"We think the Firewall is a stopgap arrangement, whose function will diminish as Chinese cyberspace becomes more developed. Being an open society has become one of China's core beliefs," the Communist-run Global Times wrote in an editorial this week.

And the very structure of the Internet – with vast numbers of interconnected humans – suggests even technological barriers erected by government will only be partly effective. After all, anyone with even modest technical skill can still access Facebook, or the Wikipedia history of the Tiananmen massacre, inside China today.

"I don't mean to say that it's not worrying, or it's not eventually going to be a problem," said Ren Bucholz, a Toronto lawyer who serves on the advisory board for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group that advocates for privacy and free expression online.

"But I don't know what I would do if I was in [China's] position and trying to map out a strategy for how to control the Internet. I really think that's a difficult ask, even for a supervillain."

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