Xi pushes “cyber sovereignty” at the World Internet Conference in China
The 3rd World Internet Conference, initiated and hosted by China, wrapped up last week in Wuzhen. During the conference, President Xi made several remarks promoting ”cyber sovereignty”, or the idea that each country should be free to govern the internet the way they see fit. Emphasis was placed on governance and maintaining “peace and order” while still respecting “freedom of expression”. However, reactions to these comments from within China and from outside were polarised. Acts of censorship within the conference itself only highlighted the difficulties of reconciling the Chinese cyber sovereignty with the “free web” adopted by most countries outside China.
The vast majority of Western news outlets were quick to point out the empty rhetoric of these “order and freedom” speeches, citing the trial of Pu Zhiqiang, a human rights activist jailed for nearly two years for a handful of Weibo post that were critical of the government. This double-speak rhetoric was echoed in comments made earlier by Lu Wei, the head of China’s internet administration, when he claimed that there was “no internet censorship in China”. Wei followed his assertion by saying that content was merely being “managed”. Others look to the Great Firewall, a country-wide internet filter that blocks out major western web services and information, as evidence that China is heavy on “order” but light on freedom of speech.
Observers on Xinhua, the government controlled news site, have been overwhelmingly positive in regards to Xi’s cyber sovereignty. In one article, a writer called for the end of the “taboo” of cyber sovereignty, stating that all countries police their internet in some way or another. Comments from some Chinese netizens, seemed to agree with a cyber sovereignty policy, suggesting that economic progress was enabled by the current way the internet is regulated by the government. In a way, this sentiment is true — the censorship of internet giants such as Google and Facebook have ensured the rise of domestic companies such as Baidu and Tencent, and all the profits associated with the domestic market.
Reconciling Freedom and Order
Despite its name, the World Internet Conference was lacking in significant global participation. Google and Twitter, two of the largest internet companies in the world, did not attend (they are also blocked in China) . While certain high profile Western internet leaders such as Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, and executives from companies looking to expand in China participated, their presence only highlighted the difficulties of reconciling two very different cyber agendas. In fact, Wales’ comments on freedom of information were so antithetical to the cyber sovereignty agenda, they were censored when translated to Chinese.
At the conference, Wales said:
We will see, not perfect, but very much improved machine translation, which will very much enhance person-to-person communication worldwide. This will be a very powerful thing. I believe as a result of this, the idea that any one government can control the flow of information of what people know in their territory will become completely antiquated and no longer possible.
Which was translated to:
Probably we will see improved machine translation, which will very much enhance person-to-person communication. And also the government could conduct good analysis on people’s communication in various relevant areas.
Further highlighting the cyber ideology differences, foreign attendees were given VPNs or special internet accounts to be able to access Facebook and Google during their stay at the conference, while Chinese journalists were not. Journalists from the New York Times, were also banned from entry to the conference for the second year in a row.
Xing is a guest writer at Ministry of Tofu. He hails from Canada and now lives in China.