Li Keqiang
Li Keqiang holds his umbrella in the rain during a ceremony marking the 64th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, Oct. 1, 2013 Getty Images/Feng Li

SHANGHAI -- Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has said the Chinese government should give the public and businesses greater access to data, as he seeks to push the development of the country’s big data industry to transform its economy. However, analysts say the move could come into conflict with continuing government desire to control information flow — amid growing speculation that Premier Li could be at odds with President Xi Jinping who has launched a tough crackdown on internet freedoms.

Speaking at the China Big Data Industry Summit in Guiyang, capital of southwestern Guizhou province, Premier Li said that big data is integral to what he called the “global technological revolution,” and, along with cloud computing, would help “transform … traditional sectors” of the country’s economy, including manufacturing.

However, he said the Chinese government “still holds 80 percent" of the country's data. Li said that while national security and commercial and individual privacy needed to be protected, other types of information should, and would, be opened to the public.

"By doing this, the government can create a market for fair competition while integrating with the internet and big data to streamline administration," he said, according to the China Daily.

China’s big data industry remains in its early stages — the market was worth just around $17 billion in 2014, the China Daily said, equivalent to a 13 % share of the global market. However the government says this figure will increase at least eight-fold by 2020. And China’s cash-rich major internet companies, including e-commerce giant Alibaba and social media pioneer Tencent, have begun to invest significant sums in mining data from the hundreds of millions of people who use their platforms.

Tencent founder Pony Ma is reported to have said at the event Wednesday that the company would in future focus on building an “ecosystem of big data,” from its mobile payment, online shopping and group purchasing apps and platforms, among others. State media also quoted him as saying Tencent saw a 40 percent year-on-year increase last year in revenue from the “sharing economy,” including China’s biggest ride-hailing app Didi Kuaidi, which it co-owns.

The government has also vowed to boost the sector, with Premier Li keen to promote innovation and what he calls the Internet Plus economy — combining online platforms with other types of business — as China seeks to move away from a reliance on low-end manufacturing and develop value-added industry and a knowledge economy.

The authorities are also seeking to promote such development in China’s hinterland, away from traditional high-tech hubs such as Shenzhen and Shanghai.

Guizhou, one of China’s poorest provinces, has received government backing for its plan to become a hub for big data and cloud services. Last year, the government established what it calls the “Global Big Data Exchange” in the province – offering “tax breaks, grants and housing allowances” in order to lure investors in the sector, the Global Times reported.

The authorities are hoping that cheap labor and energy will also attract businesses to set up servers and research and development facilities in the region. Network technology company Qualcomm is among major companies that have come to Guizhou, having invested in a joint-venture chip maker worth an estimated $280 million. And computing giant Dell, whose CEO Michael Dell attended the summit, is also reported to be working with a Guizhou-based company to build a cloud service platform for China's small and medium-sized companies and local governments — the first of its kind in the country. Its local partner, which has set up a $46 million cloud computing centre, in Guiyang, also plans to establish a “cloud computing incubator for innovation startups” with funding from Dell, Microsoft and Intel, the China Daily said.

Premier Li also inspected an online logistics platform, which reportedly helps 1.7 million drivers and 300,000 logistics companies to "locate their optimal partners to transport freight.” Li said Chinese companies should incorporate new technologies, such as big data, “into the craftsman’s spirit,” so that their products would “better meet the demands of consumers.” And he encouraged companies “from all countries” to invest in the sector, saying China would “create an equal business environment for domestic and foreign-funded firms.”

Robin Li, founder of China’s biggest search engine operator Baidu, took up Premier Li’s theme, calling for the government to provide more access to “the enormous amount of data it controls,” the South China Morning Post reported. And he said this would benefit the development of the artificial intelligence sector.

However, while Premier Li, seen as a technocrat, has expressed his enthusiasm for the “sharing economy,” it remains to be seen how far the authorities are willing or able to go in data openness.

Li has stressed the need to streamline bureaucracy and increase the openness of government on a number of occasions – but analysts say such moves face opposition from local officials. And data transparency may not be top of the agenda for China's top leader Xi Jinping, who has warned of the need for stricter cybersecurity to guard against foreign infiltration, and has overseen tighter restrictions on the internet, including the drafting of a new internet law with tough controls on foreign companies operating in the sector in China.

The Chinese government also recently cracked down on major web companies offering cloud storage services — saying these were being widely used to store and share “pornography” (a phrase which sometimes includes other types of information with which the government disagrees). Several operators, including Huawei and Sina, are reported to have shut down such services.

There have also been questions raised about plans to use big data to link citizens’ credit ratings to criteria that critics say could include their political attitudes.

And there has been speculation in recent weeks that Li Keqiang himself could be replaced as premier following the country’s five-yearly Communist Party congress next year, possibly by Wang Qishan, the architect of President Xi’s tough anti-corruption campaign.

And the Global Times also quoted industry experts as suggesting that China’s big data companies still have a lot to learn, saying they “tend to sort data instead of deeply analyzing them.” It also noted that China’s local government databases are currently not inter-connected, hindering the sharing of their data. And the China Daily quoted a senior academic as saying the country needed more foreign participation in the industry to boost infrastructure and train professionals.