Will tech firms challenge China’s ‘open’ internet?

Sometimes you can gauge how proud someone is about being at an event by the extent to which they want to talk about it. When that event is China’s annual global internet get-together in Wuzhen there are plenty who turn up, but fewer who want to advertise their attendance.

China has been smart and ruthless in its control of the internet within its borders. It blocks some foreign sites altogether and it censors – heavily – what Chinese are allowed to see.

Nonetheless the big idea at this gathering is openness.

There wasn’t much openness about the “great firewall” that keeps out Twitter, Facebook, Google and the New York Times to name a few.

Not from the government minister I hastily followed down a corridor. Not from a senior Facebook executive. Not from one of the co-founders of LinkedIn.

Chen Zhaoxiong’s minders tried to push me away and the familiar hand went up over the camera as the vice minister for industry and information technology ignored my questions at the same time as saying “no problem, no problem” to me.

This was a rare chance for me to talk to – or rather at – a China government minister. He’s partly responsible for maintaining that firewall that keeps the social networks so familiar to many outside of China barred from most within it.

In the end he told me: “The question you raised is very interesting. We will consider your advice.”

Winning on the web

China doesn’t need advice, because the truth is it’s winning on the web.

It’s embracing innovation as it moves towards a digital economy, at the same time as using it as a tool of persistent oppression. It’s online self promotion, at home and abroad, becomes slicker by the day.

China is ramping up its investment in how the web works; artificial intelligence, big data and cloud computing. All while it presents the world with the fastest growing online market.

I’ve gotten used to hearing this phrase; the next billion Facebook users are coming from one place. Which is why the social network is pushing very hard to try to get into China, legally.

 

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