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.


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