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.