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Global internet leaders kiss the ring in Wuzhen

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In the fall of 2014, China organized its first World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, a picturesque town of stone houses and canals near Shanghai. The chief organizer of the event was Lu Wei 鲁炜, a swaggering and oleaginous propaganda official who was the head of China’s most powerful internet regulator, whose name he had changed from State Council Internet Office to the more grandiose Cyberspace Administration of China, or CAC (this is its official website, Chinese only). Aside from foreign and Chinese government officials, attendees at the first conference included all the major Chinese tech tycoons and a handful of American internet executives (see CCTV report).

Lu was the face of China’s internet policy in 2014, but if there was one clear aim for the first Wuzhen conference, it was to promote President Xi Jinping’s concept of “internet sovereignty.” On the final morning of the 2014 summit, international attendees woke up in their hotel rooms to find that a draft joint statement affirming the concept of “internet sovereignty” had been slid under their hotel doors during the night, with a note encouraging them to sign it. The ruse did not work, and no communiqué was issued. But the Wuzhen World Internet Conference happened again in 2015. Last year’s conference was number three, and Chinese wags joked online that the Third World Internet Conference was a meeting about the internet in Third World countries.

There’s a little less laughter this year, even though Lu Wei has fallen from grace and is now under investigation for corruption:

  • This year, the event Lu put on the map hosted the CEOs of Apple and Google, the first time chief executives from those companies have attended. Tim Cook and Sundar Pichai brought, in Bloomberg’s words, “star power to a gathering the Chinese government uses to promote its strategy of tight controls online.”
  • Tim Cook said, “The theme of this conference — developing a digital economy for openness and shared benefits — is a vision we at Apple share.” The Washington Post saw this as backing “China’s vision of an ‘open’ internet as censorship reaches new heights,” and notes that the nationalistic rag Global Times used his remarks as evidence that “consensus” about managing the internet is growing.
  • Wang Huning 王沪宁, a.k.a. “the brain behind President Xi Jinping,” gave a speech. The New York Times titled its story on it “China’s top ideologue calls for tight control of internet.”

It’s rather amusing to hold a “world internet conference” in a country that blocks a significant portion of the global internet, as commenters have pointed out every year since 2014. But the presence this year of the leaders of two American internet titans is a sign that even in Silicon Valley, respect must be paid to Xi Jinping’s vision of the networked future.

Sexual harassment in China

SupChina’s founder, Anla Cheng, is a woman, and more than half of our staff and contributors are women. We believe that sexism and its attendant ills comprise one of the most significant stories of our time, but there is little focused coverage of such issues in China. We’re going to remedy that. If this revs your motor, please read Simone McCarthy’s report on China’s sexual harassment problem.

Correction

My sincere apologies: On Friday, I linked to a story about a violent attack on a Chinese-run oil field in Ethiopia. It was not fake news, but it was from 2007. I’d love to blame it on an intern, but, dear reader, the fault was all mine.

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Jeremy Goldkorn

Jeremy Goldkorn worked in China for 20 years as an editor and entrepreneur. He is editor-in-chief of SupChina, and co-founder of the Sinica Podcast.

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