Author(s): Raghu Gopal
Last week, the fifth World Internet Conference opened in Wuzhen in eastern China. The event is organized by the Cyberspace Administration of China and the government of Zhejiang province. Its goal is to advocate exchanges, mutual learning, cooperation and sharing in the digital field.
The conference was first held in November 2014, when Chinese President Xi Jinping delivered the inaugural keynote presentation. Since then it has since attracted several notable figures from the technology industry to headline keynote sessions, including Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Apple CEO Tim Cook, who called for more humanity in the field of technology at the 2017 edition.
In his keynote speech in 2014, President Xi portrayed China as ushering in a new era of digital openness and projected the nation as a champion of Internet governance. However, there's a major irony in the fact that, despite boasting the world's largest online population with about 775 million users, China blocks Google and Facebook services. Authorities tightly control online content and censor or punish those who post material seen as opposed to "core socialist values".
Beijing is craving a role influencing the direction of the global Internet at a time when its home-grown web giants are struggling, partially because of the unpredictability of Mr Xi's tightening control. Tencent, for example, hasn't had a game approved in months. The company's market value has taken a $250 billion hit since the government launched a campaign to fight addiction and myopia among children in 2018. Baidu and Alibaba also recently revised down their forecasts for full-year sales, blaming economic uncertainty.
"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," according to Mr Xi.
The World Internet Conference started off with a great deal of promise four years ago, but this year's event appears to have struck a different tone. This is in large part a result of growing mistrust between the US and China. In a sign that the event is losing its sheen, Mr Xi didn't actually attend this year. His speech was delivered by a proxy. Not even Jack Ma, Alibaba's chairman, was present at the conference this time.
Despite past disappointments, Silicon Valley companies are still gently probing ways to enter —or re-enter — China. The lure is clear: it's the world's largest Internet market, and that's particularly the case for mobile usage. At the same time, the Chinese web champions are expanding rapidly outside their home territory as they take their services worldwide. Their investments in Silicon Valley have slowed recently, partly because of trade tensions between the two countries. Although there's talk of openness and global cooperation, the ongoing friction between the US and China means this is unlikely to happen.