Booming e-business and tight censorship: China wants to have the internet both ways – Business Insider
Liu Yunshan, the No. 5 in the Politburo Standing Committee
and in charge of ideological control, doesn’t look like an
internet guru or a man who can influence the future of one of
humanity’s great inventions.
Yet the 69-year-old senior cadre will be the keynote
speaker at the third World Internet Conference, an event
organised by the Chinese government.
He will instruct a gathering of leading lights of China’s
internet industry, as well as guests from dozens of developing
countries, on how to build “a community of common future in
At last year’s conference, President Xi Jinping voiced the idea
of “cyberspace sovereignty”, an unambiguous announcement that
Beijing will step up its censorship and control of the internet.
The Chinese Communist Party is trying to match its social control
in the real world in the virtual world. The country has a huge
online police team patrolling the internet, requires
pre-licensing for performing or broadcasting online, and is
enhancing the “Great Firewall” as a border control line to keep
unwelcomed barbarians like Google and Twitter out.
But the internet is also a booming business and a way of life in
China, a country of 1.3 billion people. Literally everyone is now
connected via their phones, and online shopping, cashless
payment, mobile taxi-hailing and virtual entertainment services
in Beijing and Shanghai are as widespread and sophisticated as in
New York and Tokyo. Chinese online service firms, including
Alibaba – which owns the South China Morning
Post – and Tencent Technologies, are now among the
world’s biggest and most powerful.
It is against this backdrop that communist party leaders hope to
allow a booming business-wise internet while maintaining rigid
“China will continue to pursue a leadership role in global
cyberspace governance,” said Zhang Lifan, a Beijing-based
historian and political analyst.
“But China is unlikely to achieve concrete results, since most
developed countries are shunning the internet conference. Those
with underdeveloped internet infrastructure are more interested
in the economic benefits, rather than internet control.”
Most overseas guests will be from developing countries, from
Cambodia in Asia to Comores in Africa. There will be a
conspicuous absence of speakers from big name global internet
firms like Google, Apple or Twitter.
Alibaba’s Jack Ma, Tencent’s Pony Ma, Baidu’s Robin Li and
Netease’s Ding Lei will be the heavyweight participants at the
This year’s conference starts on Wednesday in Wuzhen, Zhejiang
province. It has sessions on cybersecurity, smart health care,
the mobile internet and China’s One Belt, One Road infrastructure
The theme is “Innovation-Driven Internet Development for the
Benefit of All – Building a Community of Common Future in
The event would see China seek “enhanced international
cooperation” to cope with the “complicated world economic
situation, risks and challenges”, said Ren Xianliang, deputy
director of the Cyberspace Administration in Beijing last month.
China has been trying in the past few years to strike a deal with
conference participants on “cyber governance”. Such an agreement
would give international recognition to the way Beijing has been
managing the internet, but observers are not optimistic that such
common ground can be found.
Huang Chengqing, vice-chairman of the Internet Society of China,
said it was unlikely Beijing could achieve any kind of agreement
with participating countries during the summit.
The Internet Governance Forum, another annual global meeting that
saw wider participation, had never reached any consensus since
its establishment in 2006, he said.
“It’s an issue of seeking balance for each country. Different
countries have different understandings on what is harmful
information, as they have different religions and values, or are
at a different phase of growth.”
Xu Longdi, from the China Institute of International Studies,
also doubted if China could promote its own system of internet
governance to other countries through the forum.
“It’s a nice try to establish a platform, to invite people to
speak out on their opinions and show them an open-minded and
cooperative China. But we really need time to see whether this
can be accepted by others.”
The problem for Beijing is that it wants to contain the role of
the internet in fanning radical social changes, in the way social
media facilitated the Arab Spring movement. But it also wants to
use the internet to upgrade its economy.
“We will try to amplify the positive effects of the internet, and
minimise its negative effects,” Ren, the cyberspace official,
But this will be hard to do, since restricted information flows
hurt economic activities.
For instance, China’s controversial cybersecurity law, which will
further strengthen Beijing’s grip on information, was passed this
month and comes into effect in June 2017. The law, which required
firms to store key data in Chinese servers and hand over
encryption codes to authorities, could run against the country’s
Industry 4.0 vision of an enhanced industrial economy, according
to German ambassador to China Michael Clauss.
“Fast, secure and transnational internet access is a decisive
factor for economic growth and innovation. But in China, the
balance between security and online innovation is more and more
tipping towards security,” Clauss said in a recent interview.
“The digital environment in China is becoming so restrictive,
observers are starting to speak of the ‘world’s largest
intranet’,” he said.
Additional reporting by Wendy Wu