The World Internet Conference (WIC) is China’s attempt to assert itself as a leader in global Internet governance. Held in the lovely, historically preserved town of Wuzhen, there have now been two annual events; the latest just concluded December 18. The conference could be seen as just another Chinese business networking event, full of empty speeches and suited men trying to forge connections and ingratiate themselves to the gatekeepers of the China market. Yet WIC has become another source of ICANN controversy.
ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade has agreed to co-chair a committee consisting of 31 business and government “leaders” that will advise the Wuzhen conference’s Organizing Committee secretariat. Despite efforts to make this another Fadi-issue, however, Chehade is not the only putative multi-stakeholder Internet governance advocate represented on this committee. There is also Paul Wilson, General Manager of APNIC, the address registry for the Asia Pacific region; cyber security expert Eugene Kaspersky; Leonid Todorov, a Russian formerly associated with .RU who now directs the Asia Pacific ccTLD association; and Bruce McConnell of the East-West Institute.
Are Chehade and friends aligning themselves with China’s Great Firewall approach to Internet control? Or are they cleverly and pragmatically attempting to keep the doors to China open and so leaven the PRC’s repressive sovereignty with a more open perspective? Or are they just dealing themselves into an insider’s game? Rather than reacting in a knee-jerk fashion, it is best to consider this question carefully. It is not a new question. How best to engage with a China that is opening up economically and is a political and economic presence that cannot be ignored, yet is still a one-party, repressive state with an agenda that is contrary to liberal-democratic principles is an important question that has been debated in other contexts (trade, telecoms) for about 35 years.
Typically, the argument for this kind of engagement goes like this: there are constituencies within China who are open-minded and businesses that want to make deals; greater engagement with outsiders exposes all Chinese to diverse and innovative viewpoints; greater economic engagement with the West will by osmosis lead to a softening of the harshness; if we don’t engage and leave them alone things will only be worse.
Most of these arguments are correct, but they do not justify lending one’s name and advice to a Chinese government policy initiative.
Our opinion is that the advisory committee members are making a mistake. Like so many deluded businessmen and politicians before them, they think that being friendly and cooperative with the regime will either gain themselves privileged access to the market, or will somehow change the basic principles and policy direction of the Chinese state. It may do the first (though it is unlikely) but it certainly will not do the latter.
The WIC is intended to justify and advocate a more repressive Internet. There are dozens of ways for the rest of the world to engage with China, including in institutions like ICANN and the RIRs, without cooperating with WIC. Rather than contesting ideas on a terrain in which internet freedom, bottom up initiative and openness have an advantage, they have foolishly chosen to play the conference diplomacy game on a terrain chosen by the Chinese Communist Party.
Like almost everything in China, the WIC is unabashedly state-driven. Its status as a vehicle for the Chinese Party-state’s policy agenda was made clear when the original date for the 2015 conference was abruptly changed from late October to mid-December. Why? Because the PRC’s President, Xi Jinping, could not make it on the original date. President Xi had to be there because he wanted to make a major keynote speech calling for “cyber sovereignty” and new rules for Internet governance that are “multilateral, democratic and transparent.” This should make it clear that the purpose of WIC is to push China’s political agenda in Internet governance. Translated into clearer language, “sovereignty” means a bordered Internet in which the state gets to decide what information is available, “multilateral” means intergovernmental and state-driven rather than transnational and civil society-driven, “democratic” means one country, one vote, and transparent means negotiated in intergovernmental arenas rather than in private contracts.
To whom is the Advisory Committee which Chehade and the others are joining giving advice? It is the World Internet Conference Organizing Committee Secretariat, a CCP organ.
China’s government is, of course, welcome to hold its own Internet conferences and to advocate its own views. But why help them? China’s vision for the internet is not one that has broad appeal. Its emphasis on sovereignty and repressive order will only warm the hearts of other authoritarian governments, and businesses like Baidu and Ali Baba that are protected in their domestic market but free to raise capital and enter markets in other countries. On its own, China cannot ever become a thought leader in global Internet governance debates. Why legitimize them by participating and advising?
The need for external legitimization was apparent from the conference itself: China used an obvious double standard to further its public relations campaign: foreign reporters and guests were all given special passwords for in-room WiFi that provided access to all the services China usually blocks, such as Twitter and Google. Chinese reporters were not given these privileges. In other words, China’s “sovereign” Internet was suspended for external conference attendees. Apparently, a sovereign internet is nice to advocate but not so nice to experience. State media broadcast Xi’s remarks on Twitter and YouTube, both blocked in China. Additionally, conference attendees were given a Xiaomi Mi Note LTE phone – to keep for their own. Fearing surveillance, many conference attendees treated them as radioactive.
We do not believe in shunning or boycotting China, Chinese events, or discriminating against Chinese Internet service providers or equipment manufacturers. We do not, however, see the logic or practicality of helping President Xi promote a sovereigntist vision for the Internet.