China

Decoding China’s latest World Internet Conference

Cybersecurity "Common Prosperity" and Internet control were high on the agenda. Partying, not so much.

Chinese Vice Premier Liu He at the 2021 World Internet Conference Wuzhen Summit.

This year's Wuzhen Summit is more serious and quieter than ever before.

Photo: Ding Hongfa/Xinhua via Getty Images

This year's China World Internet Conference, also known as the Wuzhen Summit, a state-run conference where bigwigs in China's tech industry used to gather, party and tout their grand ideas and growth strategies, was more serious and more quiet than it's ever been.

The summit, which concluded (in real life) Tuesday, introduced the idea of "digital civilization." The conference, in its eighth year, has reliably offered a look at Beijing's particular vision of global internet governance and digital sovereignty. With China's digital economy now making up 38.6% of the country's GDP, at a value of $6.07 trillion, this year's internet summit put particular emphasis on cybersecurity, digital governance and tech firms' social responsibilities.

Chinese Vice Premier and Xi Jinping's top economic adviser Liu He set the tone in his virtual opening keynote. "Technology for good is an inherent requirement of the community of human destiny," Liu said. "All countries should work together to maintain safe and reliable infrastructure ... combat cyber crimes, protect fair competition and promote innovation … [and] close the digital divide, in order to achieve inclusive growth."

Chinese reporters who covered this year's Wuzhen conference, named for its location in the Venice-like eastern Chinese town of Wuzhen, in Zhejiang province, noticed that the conference was more serious in the topics it covered, and attendants didn't experience the same vigor they used to feel. "In the past, Jack Ma rarely spoke with a script in hand. Richard Liu would openly diss ecommerce and real estate bigwigs when he felt like it. And Lei Jun would talk about his products incessantly," a writer for the WeChat tech blogger Xinshang wrote. "At this year's live-streamed conference, the big names all held scripts when speaking about the digital economy and artificial intelligence."

The summit used to attract founders and CEOs of Chinese tech giants, but many renowned Chinese tech CEOs were absent this year. The tech entrepreneurs who did attend kept low profiles, delivering tightly scripted speeches toeing the "common prosperity" line. And they did not party like they used to.

Here were the three major signals the Wuzhen Summit sent:

Stepped-up cybersecurity & digital governance

Cybersecurity has been a recurring theme throughout the summit's brief history. But this year, in a congratulatory letter to the summit, Communist Party Chairman and President Xi Jinping talked up China's resolution to "build a strong digital security barrier." Even more talks than usual centered around cybersecurity and data governance. Of 20 forums held during the four-day conference, four focused on data regulation and legislation, cybersecurity and digital governance.

A Monday forum on cybersecurity technology and international cooperation focused on building cybersecurity partnerships and consensus with other countries. Among the topics covered at the forum was strengthening the protection of so-called "critical information infrastructure." On Sept. 1, China's long-anticipated Critical Information Infrastructure Security Protection Regulations, a critical set of cybersecurity regulations that provide guidance about how regulators will designate "Critical Information Infrastructure" operators and the regulatory scrutiny they will face, became effective. CII regulations are a critical pillar of a broad cybersecurity apparatus that Beijing is building, which also contains China's Data Security Law and its Personal Information Protection Law.

Tech for good

Three of Wuzhen's forums looked at tech companies' responsibilities to self-regulate — and donate.

Unlike previous summits, where tech executives gathered to talk up their own business strategies and share optimistic outlooks, the big names who did show up this year pledged fealty to Xi's now-ubiquitous "common prosperity" agenda.

"Platform companies must address issues of deep government and public concerns, such as corporate governance, user data privacy protection and cybersecurity governance," Alibaba CEO Daniel Zhang said. Xiaomi co-founder Lei Jun delivered a speech reinforcing the company's commitment to close the digital divide and access inequalities tech has helped create. He called for tech companies to make digital products more accessible to all users and "not let any group fall behind." Wang Gaofei, CEO of social media platform Weibo, pledged to increase his company's annual spending on public interest projects to 3% of its annual revenue from the current 1%.

Extracurricular activities were also more subdued. For the second consecutive year, according to tech blogger Xinshang, high-flying Chinese tech executives did not gather for an offsite group dinner, an informal Wuzhen tradition.

(Even more) internet control

Apart from promoting social causes, another major component of the internet sector's social responsibility is what Chinese companies call content moderation, and what observers frequently call censorship. At a Monday session, a gaggle of execs including representatives from online gaming giant Tencent and social commerce platform Xiaohongshu pledged to "create a cleansed cyberspace" and to "implement products and services to protect underage users." These were clear responses to the new policy guidelines the Chinese Cyberspace Administration issued recently that require internet companies to step up their control over online expression, as well as a parade of internet rules designed to intervene in Chinese youth's online entertainment consumption.

Three other forums at this year's Wuzhen Summit were dedicated to the governance of the internet and the regulation of online content and algorithms. For the first time, the summit added a session on combatting disinformation. Participants discussed fake news' challenge to internet governance and workshopped ideas to debunk rumors and "proactively" control the channels of information dissemination.

This forum may have been a response to new policy initiatives that have called for "strengthening online civilization construction." One mandate requires further standardization of "online content production, information release and the dissemination process," and the building of a national mechanism to combat disinformation based on a new national Internet Rumor-Debunking Platform, which, fittingly, co-organized this session.

Enterprise

How I decided to leave the US and pursue a tech career in Europe

Melissa Di Donato moved to Europe to broaden her technology experience with a different market perspective. She planned to stay two years. Seventeen years later, she remains in London as CEO of Suse.

“It was a hard go for me in the beginning. I was entering inside of a company that had been very traditional in a sense.”

Photo: Suse

Click banner image for more How I decided seriesA native New Yorker, Melissa Di Donato made a life-changing decision back in 2005 when she packed up for Europe to further her career in technology. Then with IBM, she made London her new home base.

Today, Di Donato is CEO of Germany’s Suse, now a 30-year-old, open-source enterprise software company that specializes in Linux operating systems, container management, storage, and edge computing. As the company’s first female leader, she has led Suse through the coronavirus pandemic, a 2021 IPO on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange, and the acquisitions of Kubernetes management startup Rancher Labs and container security company NeuVector.

Keep Reading Show less
Donna Goodison

Donna Goodison (@dgoodison) is Protocol's senior reporter focusing on enterprise infrastructure technology, from the 'Big 3' cloud computing providers to data centers. She previously covered the public cloud at CRN after 15 years as a business reporter for the Boston Herald. Based in Massachusetts, she also has worked as a Boston Globe freelancer, business reporter at the Boston Business Journal and real estate reporter at Banker & Tradesman after toiling at weekly newspapers.

Sponsored Content

Great products are built on strong patents

Experts say robust intellectual property protection is essential to ensure the long-term R&D required to innovate and maintain America's technology leadership.

Every great tech product that you rely on each day, from the smartphone in your pocket to your music streaming service and navigational system in the car, shares one important thing: part of its innovative design is protected by intellectual property (IP) laws.

From 5G to artificial intelligence, IP protection offers a powerful incentive for researchers to create ground-breaking products, and governmental leaders say its protection is an essential part of maintaining US technology leadership. To quote Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo: "intellectual property protection is vital for American innovation and entrepreneurship.”

Keep Reading Show less
James Daly
James Daly has a deep knowledge of creating brand voice identity, including understanding various audiences and targeting messaging accordingly. He enjoys commissioning, editing, writing, and business development, particularly in launching new ventures and building passionate audiences. Daly has led teams large and small to multiple awards and quantifiable success through a strategy built on teamwork, passion, fact-checking, intelligence, analytics, and audience growth while meeting budget goals and production deadlines in fast-paced environments. Daly is the Editorial Director of 2030 Media and a contributor at Wired.
Enterprise

UiPath had a rocky few years. Rob Enslin wants to turn it around.

Protocol caught up with Enslin, named earlier this year as UiPath’s co-CEO, to discuss why he left Google Cloud, the untapped potential of robotic-process automation, and how he plans to lead alongside founder Daniel Dines.

Rob Enslin, UiPath's co-CEO, chats with Protocol about the company's future.

Photo: UiPath

UiPath has had a shaky history.

The company, which helps companies automate business processes, went public in 2021 at a valuation of more than $30 billion, but now the company’s market capitalization is only around $7 billion. To add insult to injury, UiPath laid off 5% of its staff in June and then lowered its full-year guidance for fiscal year 2023 just months later, tanking its stock by 15%.

Keep Reading Show less
Aisha Counts

Aisha Counts (@aishacounts) is a reporter at Protocol covering enterprise software. Formerly, she was a management consultant for EY. She's based in Los Angeles and can be reached at acounts@protocol.com.

Workplace

Figma CPO: We can do more with Adobe

Yuhki Yamashita thinks Figma might tackle video or 3D objects someday.

Figman CPO Yuhki Yamashita told Protocol about Adobe's acquisition of the company.

Photo: Figma

Figma CPO Yuhki Yamashita’s first design gig was at The Harvard Crimson, waiting for writers to file their stories so he could lay them out in Adobe InDesign. Given his interest in computer science, pursuing UX design became the clear move. He worked on Outlook at Microsoft, YouTube at Google, and user experience at Uber, where he was a very early user of Figma. In 2019, he became a VP of product at Figma; this past June, he became CPO.

“Design has been really near and dear to my heart, which is why when this opportunity came along to join Figma and rethink design, it was such an obvious opportunity,” Yamashita said.

Keep Reading Show less
Lizzy Lawrence

Lizzy Lawrence ( @LizzyLaw_) is a reporter at Protocol, covering tools and productivity in the workplace. She's a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, where she studied sociology and international studies. She served as editor in chief of The Michigan Daily, her school's independent newspaper. She's based in D.C., and can be reached at llawrence@protocol.com.

Climate

Microsoft lays out its climate advocacy goals

The tech giant has staked out exactly what kind of policies it will support to decarbonize the world and clean up the grid.

Microsoft published two briefs explaining what new climate policies it will advocate for.

Photo by Jeremy Bezanger on Unsplash

The tech industry has no shortage of climate goals, but they’ll be very hard to achieve without the help of sound public policy.

Microsoft published two new briefs on Sept. 22 explaining what policies it will advocate for in the realm of reducing carbon and cleaning up the grid. With policymakers in the U.S. and around the world beginning to weigh more stringent climate policies (or in the U.S.’s case, any serious climate policies at all), the briefs will offer a measuring stick for whether Microsoft is living up to its ideals.

Keep Reading Show less
Brian Kahn

Brian ( @blkahn) is Protocol's climate editor. Previously, he was the managing editor and founding senior writer at Earther, Gizmodo's climate site, where he covered everything from the weather to Big Oil's influence on politics. He also reported for Climate Central and the Wall Street Journal. In the even more distant past, he led sleigh rides to visit a herd of 7,000 elk and boat tours on the deepest lake in the U.S.

Latest Stories
Bulletins