U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk announced, on October 20th, 2011, that the United States, pursuant to World Trade Organization (“WTO”) rules, is requesting China to provide more information on its Internet restrictions. More than a week passed with Chinese media and the public paying the request little attention.

        It is not surprising that China is giving this sensitive request the silent treatment. Although Kirk claimed that the WTO request relates “specifically to commercial and trade impact of the Internet disruptions,” China is likely to perceive it from a geopolitical point of view. Public communications, or propaganda, is one of the three pillars of the ruling Chinese Communist Party. Moreover, the timing of this request, whether deliberate or coincidental, is less than ideal – submitted in the wake of the Arab Spring, in which the mass public was mobilized by social media via Internet and mobile phones. Most importantly, China has little if anything to lose in extending this process, even if it could lead to a WTO dispute settlement proceeding.

Why China?

        According to Google’s White Paper – Enabling Trade in the Era of Information Technologies: Breaking Down Barriers to the Free Flow of Information, more than 40 governments engage in broad-scale restriction of online information. Yet, the Office of U.S. Trade Representative (“USTR”) singled out Chinese Internet restrictions for a WTO request.

        Internet based services companies, such as Apple, Facebook and Google, are playing a central role in the U.S. economy and probably in the submission of this request. Apple reported $6.62 billion in third-quarter profits, slightly below quarterly earnings expectations for the first time in years. Google’s third quarterly earnings soared to $9.72 billion and rebounded to its highest growth rate since before the 2008 financial crisis. It also added more than 2,500 jobs in the same period.

        Expanding overseas is crucial to these companies’ growth. For instance, more than half of Google searches come from outside the United States, and revenues from abroad totaled $5.3 billion, representing 55 percent of its total revenues in the third quarter of 2011.

        China is the largest market in terms of Internet population. The number of China’s Internet users has exceeded 500 million, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s data, which is larger than the total population of the European Union, and roughly twice the size of the U.S. market. More importantly, the Chinese number has been growing at double-digit rates since 2008, far exceeding the 2.5 percent to 4.5 percent U.S. growth rate. 

        No other market will be able to reach the size of the Chinese market any time soon. For instance, the second most populous country, India, has only 83 million Internet users, less than one third of the U.S. size. The growth rate of India’s Internet population is lagging behind the Chinese as well.

        U.S. companies face challenges from Chinese Internet entrepreneurs in the Chinese market. A Silicon Valley venture capital investor – Dave McClure – recently praised his Chinese hosts as “most likely smarter and more aggressive” than their U.S. competitors. He probably went too far because the best-known Chinese Internet companies are copies of the leading U.S. high-tech companies. RenRen, which was modeled after Facebook, went public this year and is now valued at $2.25 billion as reported by the Financial Times’ Kathrin Hille. But McClure responded that, due to the vast size of the Chinese market, “it would be foolish not to copy” an idea that works.

China’s Internet Great Wall

        USTR stated that the WTO request focuses solely on “commercial and trade impact of the Internet disruptions,” but it also pointed out that “the United States believes that economic and social development of the Internet globally is best served by policies that encourage the free flow of information and prioritize individual empowerment and responsibility” in its letter to the Chinese Ambassador to the WTO. Thus, the United States is aware that it is pressing China on one of its most sensitive policy issues. 

        Richard McGregor, Washington Bureau Chief and former Beijing Bureau Chief of the Financial Times, and author of the widely acclaimed book The Party: The Secret World of China's Communist Rulers, has written, “[t]he party is like God. He is everywhere [in China]. You just cannot see him.” He pointed out, at a Washington, DC seminar last July, that the Chinese Communist Party actively utilizes “3Ps” – personnel (the Central Organization Department, the world’s most powerful human resources outfit), propaganda, and PLA (the People’s Liberation Army) to maintain its power. The Party has fully realized the importance of the Internet in the digital era. Not surprisingly, outsiders have complained that “China has devoted extensive resources to building one of the largest and most sophisticated filtering systems in the world.” 

        The United States has been actively advocating human rights abroad and sees Internet freedom as an extension of traditional human rights contained in the universal declaration of human rights: free speech, free assembly, free association and freedom of the press. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton last year stepped in when Google clashed with the Chinese government over its Internet restrictions. After Google briefed the State Department, Secretary Clinton issued a statement: “[w]e look to the Chinese government for an explanation.” Despite USTR’s reference to commerce and trade, U.S. policy on human rights is bound up with the Internet.

        As propaganda plays such an important role in China, Chinese policy makers most likely would perceive the Google incident and the USTR request as events in a series of plots against China orchestrated by the U.S. government. China looks warily upon the destabilizing implications of the Arab Spring for authoritarian governments. In both China and the United States these revolutions are thought to have been fueled by Google and Facebook. It would be foolish to think that the Chinese government perceives the WTO request related only to the commercial and trade impacts of its Internet policies.

What’s Next?

        USTR submitted its informational request under paragraph 4 of Article III of the General Agreement on Trade in Services (“GATS”): “Each Member shall respond promptly to all requests by any other Member for specific information on any of its measures of general application or international agreements within the meaning of paragraph 1.” According to the BNA International Trade Daily, this request could lead to a formal consultation request, which is the first step toward a WTO Dispute Settlement Body (“DSB”) proceeding. Paragraph 1 of GATS Article XXIII says: “If any Member should consider that any other Member fails to carry out its obligations or specific commitments under this Agreement, it may with a view to reaching a mutually satisfactory resolution of the matter have recourse to the DSU.”

        China has little if anything to lose if it were not to respond to the U.S. request promptly. As we pointed out in previous blog articles, both the United States and China tend to exaggerate the significance of WTO DSB proceedings, and the United States treats every WTO defeat as sui generis, applicable to the immediate case and no others. Consequently, although the DSB Appellate Body issued a panel report favoring the United States in the case of market access to foreign audiovisual products (WTO DS363), China stalled for four years before taking action that would satisfy the United States. There is nothing to stop China from doing the same thing again were the United States to prevail, eventually, in an Internet case.

        WTO DSB proceedings are notoriously prolonged. For instance, in Brazil’s challenge of U.S. upland cotton subsidies (WTO DS267), it took the two sides almost eight years to enter a framework for a mutually agreed solution. In the case of China, the United States spent four years trying to tackle China’s restrictions on market access of foreign audiovisual products. The United States submitted a consultation request in April 2007, and the WTO Appellate Body did not circulate its report until December 2009. In the following months, the United States “expressed concern over the lack of any apparent progress by China in bringing its measures into compliance” at DSB meetings. It was not until April 2011 that the two sides reported to the DSB their agreed procedures to implement the panel recommendations. 

        The United States-based Internet services companies are not likely to gain much while waiting four years for a favorable outcome, and they are not waiting. Instead, Silicon Valley venture capitalists are continuing frequent visits to China seeking investment opportunities. The WTO case may create political theater, but is not likely to achieve a legal resolution to a political problem.