Public officials and firms worth $2.5 trillion in market value, from
Apple Inc to Facebook Inc, got first-hand exposure in the
postcard-perfect town of Wuzhen as China showcased its first 'World
Internet Conference' (WIC).
"This place (Wuzhen) is crowded with tourists, who are perfectly
orderly," Lu Wei, China's Internet czar and director of the
Cyberspace Administration of China, said at the opening ceremony.
"Cyberspace should also be free and open, with rules to follow and
always following the rule of law."
Many attendants saw China hosting the summit as a step forward. Yet
for skeptics, the controlled environment of the summit reinforced
industry concerns that Beijing's lip service to a "free and open"
Internet rings hollow, with the government's iron grip on the online
At a summit hosted by government leaders, nothing was left to chance
and reporters were not allowed to ask questions directly in numerous
events, a common practice at industry conferences in China.
After one panel discussion was filmed with an official moderator,
state media reporters were then given the cue to address empty
chairs on a podium as cameras rolled.
That footage was set to be spliced into the TV broadcast of the
panel, featuring big industry names, in late November, said a person
with direct knowledge of the matter, giving the impression that the
reporters had carried out a dialogue with the industry leaders.
Telephone calls to state broadcaster CCTV, which the person with
knowledge said was meant to broadcast the show, met with refusals to
make officials available to comment.
Everything displayed at Wuzhen, about 120 kilometers (75 miles)
southwest of Shanghai, was meant to convey a specific message to the
international community, attendees said.
China's leaders spoke of an Internet that should be free and open -
and controlled on its own terms.
"China has made, at the top level, a decision that it needs to be
part of a global Internet," said Fadi Chehade, president and chief
executive of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and
Numbers, a non-profit organization which manages the infrastructure
of the Internet.
"China is also telling the world...'We're no longer going to be
bystanders in how the Internet is governed'," Chehade said.
The country has the world's largest population of Internet users,
more than 630 million. Chinese firms like Tencent Holdings Ltd,
Baidu Inc and Alibaba Group Holding Ltd are in the world's top 10
online companies by market value.
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Increased sway over the global Internet could also help Beijing
promote its economic policy interests, as the private Chinese online
heavyweights that play by its rules make more investments abroad.
"China wants to participate further in Internet governance and also
in a certain sense it wants to advocate the China model of Internet
regulation, including Internet control and censorship," said Fu
King-Wa, an assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong's
Journalism and Media Studies Centre.
China has the world's most sophisticated online censorship system,
known elsewhere as the 'Great Firewall', a degree of control
reflected in Wuzhen itself.
The University of Hong Kong's Fu said comments on the WIC on Chinese
social media were censored. Authorities also detained a small group
of students demonstrating outside the town seeking access to
Facebook, attendees said.
Conference organizers didn't immediately respond to questions about
censorship surrounding the event.
WIC guests were often able to use websites not usually accessible in
China. But that openness did not extend off-line.
"Please do not ask questions to guests during sessions in order not
to cause disturbances," the WIC's media handbook said.
Summit staff, many of whom wore tracksuits similar to Chinese school
uniforms, also reflected the oddness of an event on global internet
governance constrained by local concerns.
"It feels very weird," said one volunteer, sporting the summit
(Editing By Kenneth Maxwell and Ryan Woo)
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