12/05/2017, 13.49
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Ambiguous praise for Xi Jinping and web control at the World Internet Conference

by Wang Zhicheng

More than 1,500 representatives from 80 countries took part in the event. China’s president offers greater openness to online markets, but reiterates Chinese sovereignty in cyberspace. China’s internet is the most controlled in the world, but also the most developed.

Wuzhen (AsiaNews) – The three-day Fourth World Internet Conference ended today in Wuzhen (Zhejiang). Its theme was building an open cyber community to bring benefits to all. More than 1,500 representatives from 80 countries and regions participated.

For the occasion, President Xi Jinping sent a congratulatory letter to the conference, saying that "Building a community of common future in cyberspace has increasingly become the widespread common understanding of international society."

At the same time, China’s leader said his country hopes to work with the international community to respect cyberspace sovereignty and carry forward the spirit of partnership to advance jointly development, safeguard security, participate in governance, and share the benefits.

"China's door to the world will never close, but will only open wider," Xi said. Many representatives praised Xi's remarks saying that they were of great significance and practicality.

However, some experts note a contradiction between the pledge of greater openness and China’s radical control imposed on the web. Beijing has justified this as protection of sovereignty in cyberspace, which every nation should exercise within its borders.

In fact, not only has China set up a Great Firewall to censor online foreign content that it deems dangerous (democracy, strikes, dissent, ethnic and religious issues, Tibet, Tiananmen, Xinjiang, etc.), but it has also forced major internet players to truncate their services.

Over the past year for example, Apple has had to remove various apps that the government does not like. Google is still not available in China after it refused to bow to Beijing's demands. Even Facebook, Skype, Twitter and YouTube have been blocked.

By contrast, big Chinese internet companies that accept the limits imposed in the name of cyber "sovereignty" are raking in the money.

A report by Deloitte and China Venture released in September said that China had 98 unicorns – 40 per cent of the world’s companies valued at least US$ 1 billion. They include Tencent, Alibaba, Baidu, JD.com and others.

China’s economic power lies in its huge market. In 2016, the country had 731 million Internet users who make use of their smartphones for services that range from cashless payments to bike sharing.

Tim Cook, CEO of Apple Inc, noted that the 1.8 million Chinese application developers have earned a combined 112 billion yuan (US$ 16.9 billion) on its China app store since the company entered the Chinese market.

The net result of this is that China ranked last in terms of internet freedom, according to Freedom House, a US-based pro-democracy group.

This does not seem to interest those who want to do business with Beijing. Indeed, China, along with Serbia, Saudi Arabia, Laos, Thailand, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, have jointly announced a Digital Belt and Road initiative on the sidelines of the conference. This includes expanding access to broadband networks, helping e-commerce cooperation, and increasing investments in the IT sector.

This has raised fears. Various organisations are concerned that through such international "collaboration", China’s "sovereignty" over its cyberspace may morph into world-wide control.

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