SHANGHAI -- China’s President Xi Jinping has called for an internet guided by order and law, and said countries should respect each other’s sovereignty online. Xi’s comments came at the opening of the World Internet Conference, an event China has organized over the past two years in what analysts say is an attempt to win global support for its vision of a controlled internet space filled with "positive energy."
Xi’s government has presided over tightening controls of the internet in recent years, introducing rules allowing people to be jailed for spreading rumors, drafting a tough new internet law and detaining a number of people for online posts. One of China’s leading civil rights lawyers, Pu Zhiqiang, was put on trial Monday for seven tweets he wrote criticizing government policy and lack of democracy.
In his speech Wednesday, Xi said that respecting internet users' rights to exchange ideas and express views was important. But he stressed that “cyberspace is not outside the law,” and reiterated China’s official line that internet freedom is dependent on “order."
“Freedom is the aim of order, order is the guarantor of freedom,” he said. He also called for a clarification of internet users’ “rights and duties,” and for stronger web ethics and moral guidance online.
Xi also urged countries to respect each other's "path of internet development and management." He said: “We should never seek internet hegemony, [or] interfere in other nations’ internal affairs,” and added that the web should not “become a battlefield of countries struggling against each other.”
He described current management of the web as “unbalanced,” with information gaps between different countries, and said “the current rules in cyberspace can’t reflect the wishes and interests of majority of countries.” Xi described the web as rife with threats to global society, including “the shadow of terrorism,” and crimes, including identity theft, drug dealing, money laundering and gambling.
The Chinese president criticized hacking for commercial espionage and against government networks -- activities the U.S. has accused China of sponsoring in the past -- though he also said there should be no double standards in such areas.
Xi said China wanted to see a “cyberspace anti-terrorism treaty,” and the formulation of “international cyberspace rules acceptable to all... The future of cyberspace should be in the hands of all countries,” he said.
Observers said the proposals, while vaguely worded, were a sign that China is seeking to use its growing economic influence to fight back against what it sees as Western domination of the internet. The Chinese government has launched a campaign to eradicate the influence of what it calls “hostile Western values,” and China’s military newspaper this year described the internet as a core battleground for forces seeking to undermine the ruling Communist Party by influencing young Chinese people.
China’s growing international influence was highlighted by the fact that many major technology companies -- including Microsoft, LinkedIn and Facebook (which is blocked in China but has been seeking to improve its relations with the government) -- sent representatives to the conference. China’s new national security law and draft internet law stipulate tightened rules for foreign web companies operating in China, insisting that their servers must be located inside China and they must allow Chinese authorities to inspect their facilities. “We warmly welcome enterprises and entrepreneurs to invest in China, as long as they are in accordance with Chinese laws,” Xi emphasized in his speech.
China said that delegates from some 120 countries participated in the conference, including the Prime Ministers of Russia, Pakistan and several central Asian nations, who had attended a security conference in northern China earlier in the week. Many other countries were represented by locally based diplomats. However, the organizers do not appear to have repeated last year’s attempt to get diplomats to sign a protocol on the internet, stressing respect for each other's sovereignty. Foreign diplomats say such a declaration was put under their hotel room doors on the last night of the conference last year, but they refused to sign it.
At this year's conference in Wuzhen, Zhejiang province, at least one journalist from the New York Times said he had not been allowed to attend, and while some international media were present, others said they had been told last week that it was too late to register. China’s top internet official, Lu Wei, said last week at a preview event for the conference that foreigners who made money out of China but were hostile to the country were "not welcome."
The official Global Times newspaper on Wednesday dismissed “news and information freedom” as a “detail, a small corner” of the “vast field of internet freedom.” And in a sign of China’s growing assertiveness on the internet, the paper suggested that China’s "experiments" in creating a different definition of internet freedom were attracting interest from many countries that it said were alienated by the current "U.S. dominated" model.
Meanwhile, President Xi stressed that China was committed to developing the internet for commercial purposes, emphasizing the potential of big data and online business. And he said China was willing to help other countries learn from its development of the internet.
China has pledged to create an "Internet Plus" economy, linking online and offline businesses, and says this will be a core plank of its future development. It has also said it will invest tens of billions of dollars in spreading web infrastructure across the country and into rural areas. At the same, time president Xi has set up a new group within the country's leadership to oversee the internet, which he himself chairs. And the Communist Youth League this year called for ten million volunteers to help promote the "healthy development" of the internet, and to help denounce and delete negative content.
Observers say the Chinese government sees no contradiction between building a flourishing web economy, and tightening its grip on social media, which has become the main channel for public criticism of the government in a country where the mainstream media is heavily controlled.