Ever since Chinese President Xi Jinping marked the opening of the first World Internet Conference in 2014, it was meant to usher in a new era of digital openness and project China as a champion of global cyber-governance.
The forum’s mastermind – then-cyberspace czar Lu Wei – began aggressively courting US technology giants, leading delegations of the Chinese industry’s brightest around Silicon Valley. In 2017, Apple Inc chief executive officer Tim Cook and Alphabet Inc’s Google CEO Sundar Pichai headlined the event in the town of Wuzhen.
Those promises are now starting to lie fallow. China’s Internet is more censored than ever, Silicon Valley’s attempts to break into the Chinese market remain stymied, and Lu languishes in prison, awaiting trial over allegations of corruption.
This year’s forum kicked off in Wuzhen on Wednesday, two days after Xi made opening remarks to his new pet conference – the China International Import Expo in Shanghai.
Delegates trudged through Wuzhen drizzle only to hear a subordinate – a member of the country’s powerful Politburo – deliver Xi’s remarks on his behalf, repeating the exhortations of years past.
It was left to the event’s de facto headliner, Tencent Holdings Ltd’s Ma Huateng, to champion China’s vision – defending the country’s right to influence the direction of the Internet as it grows into its role as a true technology power.
Xi wasn’t the only leader who stayed away. Richard Liu, the founder of JD.com Inc, was absent from this year’s event after appearing in 2017. The head of China’s second-largest e-commerce company is the subject of a rape investigation in the US.
Meanwhile traditional headliner Jack Ma, chairman of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd and China’s richest man, was a notable absence from the first day’s programme with no public speaking events.
Amid a trade war between the US and China, American technology giants – no longer courted with the assiduousness of Lu’s era and struggling with issues of their own – were largely absent. While Google sent its CEO last year, the search giant was represented by regional head Karim Temsamani and the company said he wouldn’t be speaking.
“There’ll be unforeseen and unprecedented challenges and issues” as the global digital economy unfolds, Ma told delegates. “China will fulfil our dream of becoming an Internet and technology power.”
While Beijing still craves a role in dictating the direction of the global tech industry, many of its trendsetters – including Tencent’s Ma – are struggling with the unpredictability of Xi’s tightening control.
Among the more visible victims of Beijing’s intensifying grip is Tencent, which hasn’t had a game approved for money-making in months. It’s shed more than US$200bil (RM832.32bil) of market value since the government launched a campaign against addiction and myopia among children this year.
This year’s conference appeared to have back-pedaled from the government’s original ambition: Fostering a Davos-like gathering of global tech minds.
There wasn’t a list of expected guests posted to its website as the opening ceremony got under way, unlike years past. The highest-profile government figure on display Wednesday was former Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz. Staff outnumbered delegates and media.
“At the end of the day, security is still the key concern of the Chinese government agenda,” said Kitty Fok, managing director of market research firm IDC China.
“I’m not seeing the government opening up the Internet here. Whatever was mentioned three years ago, I’m not seeing any improvement in censorship,” she said, adding that the lower executive turnout could be linked to trade tensions rather than Internet crackdowns.
That’s not to say Silicon Valley isn’t gently probing ways into the world’s largest Internet and mobile arena – take Google and its Dragonfly censored-search experiment. Facebook continues to float trial balloons. But a degree of ‘promise fatigue’ is setting in.
“Countries should deepen practical cooperation, take common progress as the driving force and win-win results as the goal, and blaze a trail of mutual trust and governance to make the community of common destiny more vibrant,” Xi said in his remarks, as delivered by Politburo member Huang Kunming.
That’s a far cry from the vision touted by Lu and his newly-created Cyberspace Administration of China when they kicked off the first conference four years ago. – Bloomberg