Internet freedom was much on the agenda at China’s second World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, but there are clearly different readings on what online freedom means.
At 668 million, China has the world’s largest population of internet users. It also has the most tightly controlled internet, with the Great Firewall of Chinasuppressing content seen as a threat to the Communist Party. Controversial social media posts are quickly taken down.
Among the sites currently blocked are Facebook, Twitter, YouTube,Instagram, the New York Times and Bloomberg, and the only way to access them is by using a virtual private network (VPN), an external server.
Speaking to 2,000 delegates at the conference, Chinese president Xi Jinping said that “no country should pursue cyber hegemony”. He defended China’s right to independently choose its own model of cyberspace governance.
Xi said existing codes governing cyberspace “hardly reflect the desires and interests of the majority of countries”. “On the one hand, we should respect the freedom of expression,” he said. “On the other, we need to create a fine cyberspace order following relevant laws. Freedom is what order is meant for, and order is the guarantee of freedom.”
Since Xi came to power in 2012, the government has tightened control of the internet, including a “cybersovereignty” law, a ban on circulating “rumours”, and a requirement that companies have a “safe and controllable” online presence.Dozens of people have been punished for fabricating or spreading rumours about the stock market rout, Tianjin warehouse blasts and other key events, according to the ministry of public security.
In addition, some 24,000 pornographic websites were shut down and 596 cases prosecuted this year. The country’s internet tsar, Lu Wei, head of the Cyberspace Administration of China, said Beijing would push for new rules in the cybersphere.
“China is exploring a new way of internet governance with rule of law at its core,” said Lu. “In other words, we should correctly handle relations between freedom and order.”
Xi’s position is backed by China’s big online companies. Internet regulation was necessary, said Alibaba founder and executive chairman Jack Ma. The booming e-commerce sector, he added, was evidence that the Great Firewall wasn’t strangling the web.
China’s three biggest online players are the “BAT” companies – Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent. Earlier this year, Xi reached out to the BAT chiefs, including Ma, to help with his mission to “purify the internet”.
Learn and ‘rethink’
“Many people from overseas told me that China might be too tight on internet control,” Xi told the conference. “But I think, no matter what, under regulation the country produced 700 million internet users, BAT, and numerous innovations, and there’s still a lot for us to learn and ‘rethink’.“It will be a challenge to humankind if we do not regulate the future development of the internet systematically.”
One picture that captured the imagination of the Chinese media was of 84 key delegates, including BAT chiefs Ma, Robin Li and Pony Ma, and various government leaders at the conference. The firms represented in the photo have combined assets of more than $600 billion (€552 billion), according to the China Daily.
“There is no international protocol on global cyberspace governance. China aims to create one, and it depends on whether major players such as theUnited States. are keen to join hands,” Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University, told the South China Morning Post.
Alibaba has had its own problems with regulations, including pressure to do more to stop the sale of knock-offs on its websites.
“At Alibaba, I used to be against regulation,” said Ma. “But today we have fake products and frauds, and people are saying you don’t have enough regulations. So we still need to regulate.”