Starting this weekend, China celebrates its “open” internet after a year of unprecedented censorship
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On Dec. 3, researchers, business leaders, and government officials from all over the world will head to the scenic town of Wuzhen in east China for the three-day World Internet Conference. Past attendees include Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, Facebook vice president Vaughan Smith—and high-level officials from Russia, Pakistan, and Tajikistan.
Despite its global implications, the name “World Internet Conference” is a bit of a misnomer—the event will showcase the internet not as the world sees it, but as China and its ideological peers see it. And while representatives from China’s government will likely hail the “openness” of the country’s internet, the past year made it all too clear that China’s cyberspace is more restricted than ever.
The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), its central agency for overseeing internet policy, held the first World Internet Conference in late 2014—right around the time China’s internet was becoming both more closed and more visible globally.
About one year before the first event, Lu Wei, a former head staffer at state media outlet Xinhua, kicked off his appointment (paywall) as internet czar by silencing some of the most vocal party critics on Weibo, one of China’s largest social networks. Then, as Hong Kong’s pro-democracy Umbrella Movement ramped up, a wave of overseas internet companies saw their services shut down in China. Meanwhile, Chinese internet companies were gaining visibility worldwide thanks to Alibaba’s record-breaking New York IPO in September.
These trends have accelerated. In the past year, Beijing has shut down a handful of popular live-streaming apps, passed a law that forces foreign companies to store data in China, closed trading on its largest Bitcoin exchanges, and cut access to tools that help people access Facebook, Google, and other blocked services. Days before this year’s conference, it has launched a stunningly effective campaign to censor online discussion of mass evictions which have swept Beijing, rattling even ardent party supporters. Meanwhile, within the past month, Tencent, which actively censors content on the popular messaging app WeChat, surpassed Facebook’s market cap and purchased a 12% stake in Snapchat.
A competitor to Western notions
As the world watches China’s internet get both bigger and more controlled, the Wuzhen conference provides China with a platform to publicly validate its cyber policy. The CAC describes it as an event “intended to help build a cyberspace community with a consensual shared destiny and an ethic of respecting differences.” Adam Segal, who researches China’s internet policy at the Council of Foreign Relations, compares the conference as an ideological counterpart to ones like the Global Conference on CyberSpace (GCCS), an annual gathering that draws policymakers worldwide to discuss internet governance within the framework of Western-style democracy. “There’s a kind of proliferation of conferences where the West in particular tries to promote its vision of cyberspace and rules of behavior for cyberspace, and so this is a competitor to it,” he says.
China’s speakers at the conference, which have included Lu Wei and Xi Jinping himself (in-person in 2015, and remotely in 2016), have delivered statements that highlight a contradiction—China wants outsiders to perceive it as open, and also wants to earn affirmation for its current censorship regime.
At the first gathering, for example, when discussing the possibility of Facebook entering China (paywall), Lu said “China has always been hospitable, and we welcome anyone to come to China,” while adding “‘I didn’t say Facebook could not enter China, but nor did I say that it could. We could not allow any companies to enter China’s market and make money while hurting the country.’’
Other moves also highlight this contradiction. At the same conference, attendees woke up one day to find a draft declaration, pledging respect for “internet sovereignty of all countries,” slipped into their hotel rooms. Portions of Jimmy Wales’ speech in 2015 were censored when reproduced on the conference’s official site. Last year, Google, Facebook, and Twitter, which are blocked for ordinary internet users in China, worked seamlessly for attendees.
Getting a rare look inside
Segal, who attended the event in 2015, says that foreign governments and corporations must strike a balance when choosing whether or not to attend a conference with the primary purpose of legitimizing a closed, censored internet. “The people that go, except for rare occasions, generally have not been CEOs—at most they have been country heads,” he says. For western governments, “They basically have people from the local embassies go, they don’t send the high-level delegations. The high-level delegations tend to be from China’s friends, places like Russia.”
Still, Segal adds, the conference marks one of the few opportunities for outsiders to get a glimpse at China’s opaque politics, and how they are affecting the tech industry worldwide.
Attendees this year, for example, will likely be looking for clues revealing how the recent ousting of Lu Wei, who kept an unusually high profile as China’s internet czar, will affect policy. They’ll also likely be looking to learn about how Beijing feels about talk in the US of investment restrictions on Chinese money. This information is so closely guarded that policymakers, business people, and academics from all over will do what it takes to get it—even if it means lending credibility to a closed internet for a brief moment.