On Sunday, China's fourth annual World Internet Conference commenced in scenic Wuzhen. The annual gathering is organized by the Cyberspace Administration of China to discuss internet policies and is primarily used as a platform to promote the internet under President Xi's notion of cyber sovereignty.
Despite the perceived controversies, this year's conference featured some of the world's top technology leaders including Apple CEO Tim Cook and Google CEO Sudar Pichai – marking the first time heads of the major U.S. companies have attended the event. Cook's surprise keynote address was criticized by many in the West who viewed his speech as an endorsement of the closed version of the internet in China. "From my American mindset, I believe strongly in freedoms. They are at the core of what being an American is, and I have no confusion on that," responded Cook. "But I also know that every country in the world decides their laws and regulations."
The spectacle appeared to be a paradox on multiple levels. Some of the headlines surrounding the event celebrated China's hint at a more open cyberspace, while others saw it as a stark defense of China's state-controlled system of censorship. One New York Times journalist inside the conference described the new technology demonstrations as "worthy of both wonder and worry." New advancements in facial recognition, tracking, and drones left observers awestruck at China's technological prowess, but others voiced their concern at the direction this technology is heading.
Wang Huning, Executive Secretary of the Secretariat of the CCP Central Committee, who is an often unseen but incredibly influential adviser to President Xi, emphasized the need for tighter internet censorship and the need for foreign governments to respect China's cyber sovereignty, in his first major speech since joining the Politburo Standing Committee. He said the international community had "warmly received" Xi's ideas about the internet.
One certainty is that the United States can no longer discount China's role in the global internet.
For the latest issue of China This Week, an exclusive weekly review and analysis of major trends and developments impacting the China-U.S. relations, please visit here.