China made an impressive display of its clout in the digital economy during a three-day internet conference in Beijing last week by pulling together the participation of U.N. agencies, the World Telecom Union and CEOs of major US based IT companies like Google, Apple and Cisco System.
The conference started with a message from Chinese president Xi Jinping who said, “China would never close its doors. They will only be open wider and wider going forward.”
But at the same time, Xi and Wang Huning, one of the ruling Communist Party’s seven most powerful men, emphasized the need for “cyber sovereignty,” which allows individual countries to establish cyber boundaries to protect their respective sovereign interests.
Xi said that besides benefits, “the internet has also brought many new challenges to the sovereignty, security and development interests of nations across the world.”
The Cyber Administration of China, which organized the World Internet Conference in Wuzhen city, was trying to obtain public confirmation about its Internet policies. This was also the first time the annual conference, which started in 2014, had attracted a high-profile attendance from heads of major international companies and agencies.
Analysts are skeptical the conference helped to boost China’s quest to influence rulemaking in the digital world. Many have noted that none of the foreign speakers specifically referred to Internet controls in China, which include bans on U.S. based services like Google, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.
“I certainly don’t see (this) as China’s role as a rule setting has expanded. The regulatory bodies and standards actually usually doesn’t apply to China,” Jacob Cooke, CEO of consulting firm, Web Presence in China told VOA. “There is actually a noticeable lack of Chinese presence… And, likewise here there is no international presence in terms of regulatory body or rules and regulations.”
Apple recently removed hundreds of apps from its app store in China to adhere to the Chinese great firewall of censorship. Apple CEO Tim Cook did not mention that at the conference but said Apple shared the same vision with China on open Internet.
“The theme of this conference—developing a digital economy for openness and shared benefits—is a vision we at Apple share,” Cook said adding, “We are proud to have worked alongside many of our partners in China to help build a community that will join a common future in cyberspace.”
But in the wake of Apple's decisions to remove APPS and similar moves, questions have surfaced about whether American CEOs are indirectly endorsing China’s censorship methods in their eagerness to obtain a larger slice of the country's lucrative market.
Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy specifically targeted the Apple chief for failing to promote freedom of expression. "Apple is clearly a force for good in China, but I also believe it and other tech companies must continue to push back on Chinese suppression of free expression," Leahy said.
Cook responded with a statement saying, “Each country in the world decides their laws and their regulations, and so your choice is do you participate or stand on the sideline and yell at how things should be.... And my own view, very strongly, is that you show up and you participate, you go in the arena. Because nothing changes from sideline.”
Cooke of Web Presence in China agrees, adding that such questions are not Apple’s responsibility.
“If you want do to business in a country you got to obey rules and laws of that country. That’s with any business. I mean it is not up to you to criticize or change the laws that serve the politicians,” Cooke said.
Robert Elliot Kahn, regarded by many as father of the Internet for co-inventing Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) and Internet Protocol (IP) views the controversy over China’s internet restrictions in a somewhat different light.
“Governments are going to impose their own rules and regulations; that’s the way the world works,” he told VOA on the sidelines of the conference. “But if we can make it easier for people to build better products and services, to get more services to the public and is supported by people and governments around the world, I think that’s progress for humanity.”
It was apparent from the meeting that western businessmen, including Cook and Google CEO Sudar Pichai, were doing what they can to expand in the Chinese market. Although Google’s browser and Gmail is banned in China and the company left China more than seven years ago, Bloomberg recently reported that the company was making a comeback investing artificial intelligence.
“A lot of work Google does is to help Chinese companies. Many small and medium-sized businesses in China take advantage of Google to get their products to many other countries outside of China,” Pichai said.
Cook pointed out that Apple’s app store has helped give China’s 1.8 million developers total earnings worth $16.9 billion, which is the highest earned by developers in any country.
In a quote widely used in state media Cook said, "many people see China as a big market, but for us the main attraction is the quality of the people."
But in the end, analysts note that China’s influence remains limited to the extent of the market it can offer to foreign companies and this is limited by the fact that several giant Chinese companies are jostling to fill every inch of the space.