Thursday February 27, 2020


November 21, 2014

Internet experts from all over the globe traveled to China this week to participate in China’s first ever World Internet Conference. The conference included a variety of talks and discussions on issues such as internet governance, cybersecurity, and U.S.-China cyberspace cooperation.

For three days, business people, scholars, government officials, and journalists attending the conference in Wuzhen, a small city outside of Shanghai, were able to access social media typically blocked in China. The Chinese government often lets down the Great Firewall for large international events, especially when foreign media attends. In the media center at APEC last week in Beijing, China temporarily lifted bans on certain websites, such as Facebook and Twitter.

China’s hosting of the World Internet Conference has puzzled many, and for good reason. China has one of the lowest levels of internet freedom in the world, with levels of censorship and freedom of access on par with Iran’s. Tech companies, websites, and social media platforms which have otherwise found incredible international success, have been unable to enter China unless they make certain concessions to the Chinese government. Most famously, Google has a long-running feud with China over China’s demands that Google provide the government with data on users and allows censorship for searches.

What does China hope to gain from gathering tech innovators from all over the world together? Certainly, there is no hope that China will relax its stance on internet freedom any time soon. China has cracked down even harder on web content recently. Last week the Communist Party blocked HSBC’s online banking site, which had been used as a mirror site for Youtube.

Instead, the conference seems to be China’s attempt to show off its own tech successes and let the world know it will not let other nations dictate how China regulates its internet. Lu Wei, China’s Minister of the State Council’s Cyberspace Administration said in his opening remarks for the conference that the internet should be a “free and open place, with rules to follow.” He also echoed President Xi Jinping’s written statements, emphasizing the need to respect sovereign rules over the internet and calling for the creation of a common system of governance. Instead of clearing the air about China’s intentions behind holding the conference, however, the statements from Lu Wei and Xi Jinping are so contradictory that they only add to the general confusion. One might sense that the true idea behind these statements is that the international community is free to acknowledge common rules of governance for the internet as long as these rules comply with Beijing’s ideas on the internet should be governed.

If the circumstances of the conference did not raise heads already, the question of a suddenly announced and swiftly aborted “Wuzhen” Declaration certainly has. At 11p.m. on November 20, the final night of the conference, attendees found a form slipped under their doors. This form was a draft of a declaration that supposedly announced a consensus on the various issues discussed at the conference. A note accompanying the draft alerted attendees that they had until 8 a.m. the next morning to submit revisions. In nine points, the declaration called for development of internet economy and technology, cooperation in developing cyber security and fighting cyber terrorism, respecting internet sovereignty, and spreading “positive energy.” As it turns out, the declaration was never released.

The international community, rights groups in particular, remain skeptical. Amnesty International commented on China’s internet controls earlier this week, saying “China appears eager to promote its own domestic internet rules as a model for global regulation. This should send a chill down the spine of anyone that values online freedom.”

It seems naïve of Beijing to have believed that it would be able to influence the international community through holding such a conference. Indeed, it is more likely that this conference serves the purpose of creating material for internal propaganda purposes. Beijing can now boast about the many powerful and influential tech giants who travelled to China to witness the success of Alibaba and Baidu, among other homegrown tech companies.

Google attended the conference, along with major tech companies like Microsoft and Qualcomm, entities that have also faced difficulties in China due to the Party’s recent anti-monopoly campaign. In speeches at the conference, company representatives were careful to avoid touching upon the troubles they have encountered in doing business in China.  Meanwhile, China took the chance to show off its own native businesses, including Alibaba and Tencent. Alibaba’s Jack Ma is one of the key speakers at the conference.

For more information on this topic, consult the following sources:

BBC – “China Media: Internet governance”

BBC – “World Internet Conference: Has China overcome paranoia?”

Bloomberg – “China Stops Censoring  the Web for Three Days, in One City”

Bloomberg – “Rule No. 1 for Tech’s Fight With China: Don’t Talk About Your Fight with China”

CCTV – “China proposes international Internet governance system”

CCTV – “China ready to deepen int’l co-ops, uphold cyber security: Xi”

The Diplomat – “The Internet with Chinese Characteristics”

The Guardian – “China steps up web censorship and blocks HSBC”

Forbes – “China Asks World to Buy In To Its Vision of The Internet”

Reuters – “China says controls on Internet needed to maintain stability”

Wall Street Journal – “China Aims to Expand Censored Web”

Compiled and edited by Molly Bradtke