A Second Look at the Wuzhen Summit

Our initial, entirely negative take on the 3rd Wuzhen summit has been upended by a remarkable article by Professor Peixi Xu of the Chinese Communication University in Beijing. The article draws a parallel between the post-transition ICANN and the 3rd Wuzhen Summit. Referring to the ICANN Hyderabad meeting and the Wuzhen Summit, Xu says, “both events mark the victory of non-state actors.”

What? How can one make such a claim about the Wuzhen Summit, which seemed to be very top-down and stage-managed by the Chinese state? Is this just a Chinese patriot offering an apologia for the government? It might seem so at first, but Xu’s article pungently distances itself from Internet sovereigntists in China and everywhere else. The article laments the fact that “sovereignty-minded personalities like Senator Ted Cruz …and their counterparts in China and perhaps across the world have gained new momentum.” It equates the “passing of the Cybersecurity Law in China” with “the way U.S. President-elect Trump is putting together his administration,” using both as examples of threats to the global nature of the Internet. This suggests that the battle between the global Internet and sovereign partition is understood by at least one intellectual inside China, and that the sovereigntist approach to Internet governance has critics inside China.

Professor Xu argues that the 3rd Wuzhen Summit took a “multistakeholder turn.” In response to the widespread perception that the Summit promotes intergovernmental rule and cyber sovereignty, he claims it is “only half true.” The half that is true is immediately evident to Westerners. But what about the other half? Here is what he says:

The Wuzhen Summit has been an evolutionary process. The 2014 summit expressed China’s dissatisfaction about the Snowden Leaks. The 2015 summit used a convenient and conventional tool, cyber sovereignty, for self-defense. The 2016 summit, however, was more committed to building consensus and appealing to global commons, which is closer to ICANN’s value of being consensus-driven and One World, One Internet.

How was the 2016 Summit more committed to building consensus? According to Professor Xu, the statement coming out of the Summit “made some constructive linguistic compromise, using the words — multi-players, multi-parties, or multi-actors – to show support for the multistakeholder model.”

In support of Professor Xu’s thesis, contacts in China tell us that the Wuzhen Summit was constantly on national news in China throughout its duration.  A CCTV video clip of a Chinese participant told viewers how great the Internet is and how it was built by many different stakeholders. Everyone can participate in its governance, the participant claimed. It is significant that longings for democracy and participation in China can find an outlet in discussions of Internet governance.

Furthermore, the English language statement that emerged from Wuzhen (Wuzhen Report on World Internet Development 2016) included the following:

Multilateral and multi-parties participation will become the norm for Internet governance. Governments, international organizations, Internet companies, technology communities, civil organizations, academia, and individuals will all take positive actions to safeguard and promote deepening pragmatic cooperation on building the Internet shared and governed by all, and together contribute to its sustainable development.

And interestingly, we have discovered that the strongest Internet sovereignty sentiments expressed in the Chinese news article we cited in our earlier blog were actually quotes from the statement issued in the 2014 Summit, which supports the idea that there has been evolution in the Chinese position.

This might reasonably be described as a ‘multistakeholder turn.”

But it might be more accurate to call it a slight bend in the road. The more nationalistic statements were in a major Chinese-language newspaper whereas the more liberal statements are in English, which makes the inaccessible to the vast majority of Chinese. A Westerner who attended the event described it as being organized to curtail discussion and free conversation amongst the participants. Panel speakers held forth for 6 minutes, no Q&A from the audience or debates and discussions amongst the panelists were allowed, and there were no unstructured breaks in the meetings when attendees could talk freely amongst themselves. Worse, the 2016 statement was supposed to have been vetted and approved by the High Level Advisory Committee which includes former ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade and Paul Wilson of APNIC. But the Committee, according to one attendee, asked that the statement be discussed and approved by the Summit attendees as a whole. That didn’t happen. It seems that China still does not know how to run an open, multistakeholder dialogue.

The most remarkable and hopeful aspect of Professor Xu’s article, however, comes at the end. He says: “The traditional [Internet governance] model preferring larger degree of isolation, fragmentation, and confrontation is favored by those who either cling to traditional/conservative thinking, or can profit from the new Cold War mentality in the cyberspace, or, in a more understandable way, worry about becoming victims of the cyberattacks due to the lack of capabilities to discern and defend.” This shows that at least one mainstream academic in China has a good grasp of the nature of the main issue in Internet governance.


  1. Parminder

    Milton, The explanation for these ‘developments’ are not difficult to find. China is the new digital superpower, next only to the US. And being a superpower necessarily requires access to a global Internet. Chinese digital corporations are making great headway in international markets. While this economic dimension is the most important factor here, there is another, political, logic as well. They know that an Internet model that masquerades as a participative one, especially for big business, is much easier to sell to other countries, and globally. It is around 2011 that China begun to lose interest in UN role in Internet issues, a typical geo- superpower attitude. You of course know that China enthusiastically participated in the WEF’s Internet Council, through Alibaba’s head Jack Ma. Jack Ma has also been going around promoting the first real ‘multistakeholder’ governance model with eWTP . Incidentally, I wrote about it at http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/a-borderless-economy-that-will-be-controlled/article8581476.ece.

    Instead of getting happy as if China’s new moves in the Internet governance space represents its democratisation, try and see its real implication. It simply shows what multistakeholderism as practised in IG was always supposed to be (I call it corporatist multistakeholderism) – a formalised nexus of state and corporatist power, that stuck at the very roots of democracy. In its US version, it is more the big corporations that use and manipulate state power, while in the its formative Chinese version is to more the other way around, where the state is still the more key actor. But the two models converge towards a common space and logic, although to some extent the mentioned difference of emphasis may remain. And, democracy is the big loser. Trump is just a greater formalisation of the corporatist order that neoliberalism has been pushing. Multistakeholderism (as practiced in IG) has been a step in that decline of civilization, maligning the good name of participatory democracy.

    • Milton Mueller

      Thanks for your comments. As best as I can tell, you are asserting that China has joined Google, Facebook, ICANN, and other “neoliberal” Great Satans in the conspiracy to leverage multi-stakeholder ideology to thwart “democracy.” In your attempt to discredit multistakeholder governance by nonstate actors, you tell us that both Trump and China are exemplars of the neoliberal corporate order.

      Your ideological blinders have never been more evident. First, let’s get our facts straight about Trump. Trump won the election because of a populist reaction against neoliberal economic policies; he just did a better job than Bernie Sanders, Clinton and Ted Cruz at articulating and politically exploiting that anti-market backlash. He opposes free trade and market-based immigration; he threatens companies that try to leverage cross-border capital and labor mobility; he attacks free expression on the Internet as a concern of “foolish people.” Most directly relevant in this context, his platform explicitly and virulently attacked the IANA transition and advocated a nationalistic approach to Internet governance. I wonder how you explain that away when you claim that “Trump is just a greater formalization of the corporatist order that neoliberalism has been pushing.”

      Your concepts of “democracy” and democratization,” as far as i can tell, are rather anachronistic extrapolations into the global sphere of some ideal-typical version of the 20th century democratic nation-state. But this has only been enacted on a territorial scale, and even then, only about a third of today’s nation-states are democratic. So it’s interesting that you find the major threats to rights and freedom on the Internet to come from neoliberal and multistakeholder institutions and not from, say, Indian government censorship and regulations, or French emergency state surveillance powers, or Saudi censorship, etc., etc. India doesn’t even allow you to use WiFi over your territory!

      In your view, “democracy” seems to mean a global reproduction of the territorial welfare states. An electorate with voting based on majority rule, a global central parliament with legislative and taxing powers over the entire planet, a central executive (and presumably judiciary – though you rarely exhibit any concern about constitutional limits on democratic rule to protect individual rights).

      But here’s the problem with your vision: Trump, Brexit, and other nationalist-populist-borderline fascist movements are merely a strong reassertion of the national democracy you hold up as a model. They are acts of territorial majorities to disengage from the interdependencies of a globalized order. Be brave and intellectually honest and face up to that. It’s anti-trade, pro-democratic progressives like you who are haunted by the specter of Trump and Brexit, not liberals and neoliberals. Because they have taken your concerns about neoliberalism and made them politically real in a way that progressives never did.

      Second, let’s get your facts straight about China. China’s government and policies have not made any “moves” in the direction of multistakeholderism or liberal Internet governance. The discussion of Wuzhen merely showed that there are a few voices in China who understand the implications of transnational Internet governance by nonstate actors, and (possibly) that the official statements coming out of Wuzhen have made a slight bend in that direction as a concession to an international audience. If official China (i.e., the PRC) is trying to “sell” anything, it is still national sovereignty and multilateral, state-based governance. And here again, your position is closer to theirs than to ours.

      • Richard Hill


        While you do a great job in pointing out the deficiencies of the current attempts to govern democratically through nation-states, you fail to provide a realistic alternative model. As Parminder correctly points out, current so-called multi-stakeholder governance models are in fact corporatist models, ICANN being one of the best examples.

        I agree that the nation-state may not be the right model for the future, but surely governance by corporations, which is what we mostly have today, is even worse. And people recognize that, hence the votes for Brexit and Trump.

        What we need is a new vision that builds on the reality of the nation-state (which has brought us to where we are now) and goes beyond it, rather than regressing to the Robber Baron age.


        PS: Your ad-hominem attack on Parminder in which you state that he “rarely exhibit[s] any concern about constitutional limits on democratic rule to protect individual rights” is not correct. As you know, I work closely with Parminder and I can vouch for the fact that he is very much concerned about such constitutional limits and the protection of individual rights.

  2. Parminder

    Respectfully; Trump does nor arise from the defects of national democracy. He arises from the defects of supra-national bureau-techno-cracies, and their attempts to trounce national democracies. Global multistakeholderism too is a similar, continued attempt at supra-national structures subverting democracy, although it tries to wear the veneer of participatory democracy which it is not. Wuzhen’s support of state-big business compacts as multistakeholderism, and your celebration of that, merely makes that point stand out so clearly.