China gathered its tech elite—along with the part of the world that’s answering its calls—for the country’s annual internet conference last weekend.

Founded in 2014, the World Internet Conference Wuzhen Summit (that’s a mouthful, isn’t it?) is one of the main platforms the Chinese government uses to promote its vision of the internet. Just as in previous years, the conference featured big speeches from big names, including CEOs Robin Li of Baidu and Lei Jun of Xiaomi. Unlike previous years, however, most of Silicon Valley’s tech giants were absent, although other major American companies with better market access continued to attend. With the trade war in the background, this wasn’t surprising. Indeed, the sixth edition of the conference had fewer surprises, with minimal English-language coverage from domestic and international media. TechNode, unfortunately, was not invited to cover the conference and, in retrospect, I’m not sorry we weren’t.

Bottom line: This year’s WIC was sedate to the point of boring. While previous years featured a plethora of big names, big news, and big controversies, this year’s seemed more like a typical tech conference with a slight governmental flavor. The only really interesting bits were the World Internet Development Report 2019, released on the last day, and the unrelated Hurun Report on Chinese unicorns. 5G and AI were on prominent display during the conference.

A brief timeline

  • 2014: The first World Internet Conference is held in Wuzhen. During the meeting, a draft of the Wuzhen Declaration is slipped under attendees’ hotel doors around midnight, leaving attendees little time to file for revisions. The Declaration contains language affirming each country’s right to cyber sovereignty.
  • 2015: WIC gets more confident, with attendees including Xi Jinping, Jack Ma, and the prime ministers of Russia, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. Organizers release the Wuzhen Initiative, which “calls on all countries to promote Internet development, foster cultural diversity in cyberspace, share the fruits of Internet development, ensure peace and security in cyberspace, and improve global Internet governance.”
  • 2016: A low-profile WIC is overshadowed as China’s top legislature announces draft laws on cybersecurity and nuclear safety.
  • 2017: WIC reaches peak international attention, with Apple CEO Tim Cook and Google CEO Sundar Pichai attending; Bob Kahn, a father of the internet, gives the opening speech. During the conference, the banquets featuring Ding Lei (founder of Netease), Richard Liu, Wang Xing, and Pony Ma garner attention after a photo of the Tencent ecosystem banquet sparks rumors—especially the surprising attendance of Zhang Yiming, founder and CEO of Tencent rival Bytedance.
  • 2018: Xinhua’s first AI anchor makes its debut. Qualcomm is the only American tech company to send their CEO. Even Chinese top leaders are a no-show, with Xi Jinping sending a letter instead of making a speech as he did in 2015.
  • 2019: WIC is held on October 20-21, with the theme: “Joining hands in constructing a community of shared future in cyberspace.”

Who wasn’t there

  • Apple (according to the SCMP, Apple representatives registered for the conference but were unable to attend)
  • Google
  • Pony Ma
  • Richard Liu, JD founder and CEO
  • Xi Jinping

Who was there

Many of the corporate delegates were predictable. Given the trade tensions, however, the American companies in attendance were noteworthy. Nearly all, as you would expect, have significant interest in staying on the good side of the Chinese government, but they clearly aren’t consumer-focused. Instead, many are keen on the growing B2B market.

  • Jack Ma
  • Robin Li
  • Lei Jun
  • Yang Yuanqing, Lenovo CEO
  • Mark Ren, Tencent COO
  • Yuri Milner, co-founder and former chairman Group, formerly known as DST
  • Microsoft
  • Honeywell
  • Intel
  • Cisco
  • Qualcomm
  • Huawei
  • Sequoia Capital
  • NetEase
  • Qihoo 360

Data points

  • According to the China Internet Development report (in Chinese), released in August but highlighted in Wuzhen, China’s digital economy grew to RMB 31.3 trillion (about $4.4 trillion) in 2018 and accounted for 34.8% of the country’s GDP.
  • E-commerce transactions that same year totaled RMB 31.6 trillion. E-commerce services generated RMB 3.5 trillion in revenue.
  • As of June 2019, China had 854 million internet users with a penetration rate of 61.2%.
  • Hurun released their annual Global Unicorn List, tabulating companies valued at $1 billion or more. This year shows China with 206 total unicorns, leading the US by three.
  • According to the report, China and the US have over 80% of the world’s unicorns. It argues, “The rest of the world needs to wake up to creating an environment that allows unicorns to flourish.”

Interesting happenings at WIC 2019

  • China awards Megvii and Huawei, both blacklisted by the US government, with the “World Internet Scientific and Technological Achievements.” Other firms given the recognition were Tencent, Baidu, Alibaba, Tesla, Microsoft, the chipmaker Xilinx, and SAP.
  • Lei Jun announces that Xiaomi will release 10 5G phones in 2020.
  • Zhao Ming, president of the Huawei smartphone brand Honor, announces that the 5G-enabled Honor V30 will be launched next month.
  • Huawei unveils the Kunpeng 920, claiming that it is the world’s fastest processor—up to 25% faster than competitors and 30% more energy-efficient.
  • Bank card provider UnionPay unveils a facial recognition payments system.
  • On Monday, the second day of the conference, China’s legislature announced they were reviewing a draft revision to the Law on the Protection of Minors, including the management of cyberspace, the protection of personal information, and anti-addiction measures.

Overheard in Wuzhen

Official China

  • The World Internet Development report, released at WIC, ranks China second (behind the US) in the development of the internet, but first in applications.
  • Xi Jinping, in a letter to the conference: “It is the common responsibility of the international community to develop, use and govern the Internet well so that it can better benefit mankind … Countries should follow the trend of the times, shoulder the responsibility for development, meet the challenges and risks, jointly promote global governance in cyberspace, and strive to build a community of shared future in cyberspace.”
  • Yang Shuzhen, the head of the Chinese Academy of Cyberspace Studies: “No sanctions or restrictions can hinder China’s development or the development of Chinese enterprises.”

China’s tech giants

  • Lei Jun: “People in the industry fear that next-year’s 4G models won’t sell. This is a step you have no choice but to take. So we hope that operators can speed up their expansion of 5G base stations.”
  • In a speech, Robin Li touts the safety of autonomous vehicles and praises AI for its ability to make “human beings immortal” through digital storage.
  • Li also references Deng Xiaoping on the turmoil in Hong Kong, saying, “We can also ask Mr. Deng Xiaoping what he thinks of the situation in Hong Kong today.”
  • Mark Ren: “Protecting minors is the lifeline of Tencent.”
  • David Zhang, CEO of Alibaba Group: “The new business civilization in the digital age should return to a people-oriented approach, paying attention to clients, customers and the benefit of the whole society rather than only focusing on clicks and turnover volumes.”
  • Wang Xing, CEO of Meituan-Dianping: “The digital economy should implement supply-side reform to develop. Digitizing the demand-side is easy, as most people use cellphones, but supply-side digitization will be much slower.”
  • Zhou Hongyi, CEO of Qihoo360: “While new technology and science bring convenience and automation to humans, they also bring huge challenges and risks to network security.”

US tech giants

(as reported in Chinese)

  • Guy Diedrich, global innovation officer at Cisco: “The development of China’s internet industry has brought incredible new experiences to the Chinese. Digitalization and IoT will undoubtedly promote the transformation and development of various industries in China.”
  • Harry Shum, executive vice president at Microsoft: “In the face of the rapid development of artificial intelligence, all countries, technology companies, industry organizations and all stakeholders shoulder this social responsibility and historical mission. Years of experience in the field of technology has convinced me that only openness and cooperation is the key guarantee for technological development, social progress and people’s happiness.”
  • Ian Yang, corporate vice president and president of Intel China: “The most important thing about the digital economy is adding value through innovation. If you don’t add value, numbers are useless.”

Other US attendees

  • Unnamed US attendee tells Reuters: “There is not a candid discussion of the problems foreign companies face in China, or some of the larger problems having to do with internet governance in China. Rather, there’s technological boosterism.”

Still noteworthy: Because WIC is organized and sponsored by the Chinese government, it’s easy to brush it off just because it’s dull (and it certainly was). However, for Chinese and international companies alike, it’s an important moment to not only give face and show deference, but also to have direct contact with government decision-makers. While the speeches were—as noted above—“technological boosterism,” the WIC is yet another example of China setting the agenda when it comes to internet policy. For observers, what happens at the event itself isn’t all that noteworthy, but as outlined above, it does coincide with significant developments and initiatives announced during and around the conference itself.

John Artman, Editor-in-Chief, with additional reporting by Wei Sheng

John Artman is the Editor in Chief for TechNode, the leading English information source for news and insight into China’s tech and startups, and co-host of the China Tech Talk podcast, a regular discussion...

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