China, Cyber-Containment, and the New Cold War

Kevin Werbach
5 min readNov 27, 2019

Shortly after World War II, U.S. State Department official George Kennan wrote an anonymous article in Foreign Affairs advocating a strategy of “containment” of the Soviet Union. It became the foundation of U.S. Cold War foreign policy.

We seem poised for a new era of containment. Only this time, the power to be contained is not military or political, but economic. The theatre of conflict is not heavy industry, but information technology. And the object of containment is not Russia, but China. There is, however, a big problem. Where postwar containment actually promoted global economic integration across the “free world,” poorly executed Chinese cyber-containment risks fracturing both the physical and the digital economy.

The logic of cyber-containment is as follows. The U.S. and China are the world’s two largest economies, but their political structures are dramatically different. A majority of the world’s most valuable companies are U.S. and Chinese tech firms. The strategic importance of technologies such as AI, cloud computing, 5G wireless and internet of things will only grow. China is becoming increasingly assertive on the global stage, just as the U.S. turns toward nationalism. Facebook, Google, and Twitter are banned in China. WeChat, Alibaba, ByteDance, and other Chinese tech behemoths will seek expansion as they saturate even the vast Chinese market. Without containment, so the argument will go, the alternative is Chinese global cyber-hegemony.

Google’s sad saga in China since 2006 epitomizes the difficulty American tech firms face in entering the world’s most populous country. China, however, seems bent on exporting its domestic policies and practices. There are persistent questions about the strings attached to its Belt and Road Initiative that offers financial support for infrastructure projects outside China. The government has pressured U.S.-based travel companies against listing Taiwan as an independent country, and it unleashed a furious backlash against the NBA’s Houston Rockets after a single tweet by their general manager supporting pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

Most recently, Feroza Aziz, a muslim TikTok user, had her account suspended for a month after she posted a video that quickly segued from eyelash curling to protesting Chinese…

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Kevin Werbach

Wharton prof, tech policy maven, digital connector, pesctarian, feminist. Co-author, For the Win; author, The Blockchain and the New Architecture of Trust.