The annual World Internet Conference (WIC), held earlier this week for the fourth time in the city of Wuzhen in northeastern China, featured the chief executives of domestic companies including Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu, Xiaomi, along with the heads of international businesses Apple, Google and Cisco. There’s few events in tech that can compete with with headline-grabbing names like that.
Wuzhen is an odd choice for such a major summit. The city on the Yangtze River was basically closed for the duration of the three-day event, save for the 1,500 delegates, the vast majority of whom were from China. It features a restricted scenic area (pictured, right), with a more than 1,000-year history.
The event is organised by the Cyberspace Administration of China, which oversees internet regulation including censorship, to highlight the country’s technology advancements. It certainly has a lot to shout about: China sports 1.3 billion mobile connections, nearly 70 per cent 4G penetration and is a leader in artificial intelligence (AI) investment.
Wang Huning, a member of China’s Politburo Standing Committee (pictured, left), delivering his first major speech in his position with the country’s top decision-making body, took a swipe at internet domain name organiser ICANN in his opening address, stating: “[W]e should reform those unreasonable and unfair arrangements on the ruling system of the internet so concerns of various parties can be reflected in new international rules and standards so conditions will be created for equal participation.”
Unsurprisingly, he called for respect of cyberspace sovereignty and resolving the “disharmonisation of rules, policies and standards”.
Huang Kunming, head of the publicity department for the Communist Party’s Central Committee, read a note prepared by Chinese president Xi Jinping that went a step further, stating: “Development of China’s cyber economy will enter the fast lane…China’s door will become more and more open.”
Liu Zhenmin, under-secretary general of the UN, said the conference is an opportunity to reflect on the steps required to reduce inequalities, a view shared by a number of other speakers.
Dominique de Villepin, former prime minister of France (pictured, right), said on the positive side the number of internet users worldwide reached more than half the world’s population. But he pointed to growing geopolitical risks between the US and China, increasing global cyber security issues and privacy concerns.
He noted the shift in the digital economy from the west to the east, with the rise of companies including Tencent and Alibaba, meaning “US leadership is being increasingly challenged by Chinese technology.”
De Villepin called for new ways of exploring and regulating cyberspace.
Meanwhile it was certainly ironic to hear Prajin Juntong, deputy prime minister of Thailand, declare: “We are committed to an open and transparent internet”. Such a statement follows the country’s telecoms regulator in May ordering Facebook to remove material the government deemed illegal.
Arguably the biggest draw (at least for the majority of China-based delegates) was Jack Ma, executive chairman of e-ecommerce giant Alibaba, who called for more global cooperation and stressed IT companies need to take responsibility for making economic growth more sustainable.
“The first technological revolution brought the First World War, the second technological revolution brought the Second World War. Does this mean the third world war will come? No. Actually, it will be a world war against global disease, climate change and other global challenges,” he reflected, adding the world not only needs a G20 but also a G200.
Ma believes over the next few decades the internet will become omnipresent in daily life and then will become invisible.
Indeed, inclusion, balance and openness were central themes of the event here in Wuzhen. But that seems like a strange mix at a gathering the Chinese government has used over the last few years to promote its strategy of tight controls online.
The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.