Historicizing Internet Regulation in China: A Meta-Analysis of Chinese Internet Policies (1994–2017)
Despite growing scholarly attention, few studies have systematically investigated the historical evolution and patterns of Chinese Internet policies. We created the first comprehensive database of national-level Chinese Internet laws and policies between 1994 and 2017 and conducted a meta-analysis of 358 policy documents using content analysis and social network analysis. We found that (1) among the 71 government agencies involved in Chinese Internet regulation, there are central-peripheral dynamics as well as complex networks of collaboration; (2) although more than 40% of regulations concern information services, the overall regulatory emphasis has evolved from Internet infrastructure to online content to digital economy; and (3) while Chinese Internet policies historically follow the principle of “rule by directives” instead of “rule of law,” dominated by low-level policies, leading to both arbitrariness and adaptability, recent state efforts aim to streamline policymaking. Overall, our study contributes to debates on three core issues in Internet governance from a Chinese perspective: Who (should) regulate the Internet? What issues (should) fall under regulatory oversight? And how should the Internet be regulated via what mechanisms?