Will tech firms challenge China’s ‘open’ internet?

Will tech firms challenge China’s ‘open’ internet?

Sometimes you can gauge how proud someone is about being at an event by the extent to which they want to talk about it. When that event is China’s annual global internet get-together in Wuzhen there are plenty who turn up, but fewer who want to advertise their attendance.

China has been smart and ruthless in its control of the internet within its borders. It blocks some foreign sites all together and it censors – heavily – what Chinese are allowed to see.

Nonetheless the big idea at this gathering is openness.

There wasn’t much openness about the “great firewall” that keeps out Twitter, Facebook, Google and the New York Times to name a few.

Not from the government minister I hastily followed down a corridor. Not from a senior Facebook executive. Not from one of the co-founders of LinkedIn.

Chen Zhiaoxiong’s minders tried to push me away and the familiar hand went up over the camera as the vice minister for industry and information technology ignored my questions at the same time as saying “no problem, no problem” to me.

This was a rare chance for me to talk to – or rather at – a China government minister. He’s partly responsible for maintaining that firewall that keeps the social networks so familiar to many outside of China barred from most within it.

In the end he told me: “The question you raised is very interesting. We will consider your advice.”

Winning on the web

China doesn’t need advice, because the truth is it’s winning on the web.

It’s embracing innovation as it moves towards a digital economy, at the same time as using it as a tool of persistent oppression. It’s online self promotion, at home and abroad, becomes slicker by the day.

China is ramping up its investment in how the web works; artificial intelligence, big data and cloud computing. All while it presents the world with the fastest growing online market.

I’ve gotten used to hearing this phrase; the next billion Facebook users are coming from one place. Which is why the social network is pushing very hard to try to get into China, legally.

Facebook is banned here. Unlike LinkedIn and Microsoft’s Bing search engine, it is yet to sign up to the conditions of doing business here.

But when will that happen? Will they censor their content in China? Will they explain how important China is to the company’s future?

All those questions were met with a forced smile and a “no comment” from Vaughan Smith, a Facebook senior executive I spoke to as he left a packed session at the conference.

Censorship and control over the internet have only increased under President Xi Jinping. The machine went into overdrive earlier this year, to help him, as his second term at the top of the Communist Party approached.

Increasing censorship

Apple agreed to remove dozens of VPN apps that allow free access to the web. It’s chief executive Tim Cook said they had to comply with the rules and regulations.

He was “optimistic” the decision would be reversed. There’s no sign that’s going to happen.

Then some WhatsApp services were blocked. Unflattering pictures comparing Mr Xi to Winnie the Pooh were among the images that suddenly couldn’t be exchanged on the messaging app.

But none of that has deterred the big foreign names from coming to this conference.

RJ Pittman, chief product officer of eBay did talk to the BBC. He told me “What needs to happen is more dialogue”.

He said the auction and retail website has learned a lot in over a decade of doing business in China.

“We’ve been continuing to push the conversation, push the dialogue with the Chinese government,” he explained. As for what they’re pushing on he cited “a few things” they agree on, among them cyber security.

Sovereignty and control

This gathering is now in its fourth year. The serene and ancient water town that hosts it underpins the sense that it is China’s bid to show the world a distinctly Chinese vision of the internet.

A vision that’s centred on sovereignty and control. The proponents aren’t just politicians. The last person I spoke to, a slim and very animated figure, is an apostle.

Jack Ma is a star in China. He’s made billions. He founded the online retail behemoth Alibaba.

It’s made him China’s best known businessman, and he has a very direct message for the foreign firms who want in.

“Doing business in any country you have to follow the rules and laws,” he told me.

“I’m not in government, I cannot speak on behalf of the government. But I understand Facebook, these companies, they’ve been trying. But if they come here they have to say OK, I follow the Chinese rules and laws.”

In a congratulatory letter China’s president promised this conference he will open the doors “wider and wider”.

He knows some foreign firms don’t like his vision of the internet. But they’ll accept it – and join in.

As Tim Cook from Apple proved, when he appeared here in person, to praise China’s vision of online “openness”.

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