President Xi Jinping opened the second annual World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, China with a forceful statement of Beijing’s views of how cyberspace should be governed. Most of the ideas in the speech have been heard before–though there was a new call for an international convention on cyberterrorism–but the conference is as much about symbols as it is content. China wants to make Wuzhen the Davos of the Internet and this year Xi delivered his comments in person in an effort to consolidate the conference’s international standing. China is no longer the outside voice at venues organized by others, but has its own platform to promote a competing vision.
The United States was never mentioned by name in the speech, but was a clear presence throughout. Several points Xi stressed can be read as directed at Washington:
Respect cyber sovereignty. Referencing the UN Charter, Xi argued that no country should interfere with the internal affairs of others or use information and communications technologies to undermine stability and legitimacy. Order and freedom must go together in Xi’s framing, and cyberspace is not beyond the rule of law.
While the United States government accepts a norm of sovereignty, it has a more narrow view of how that allows for control of content and information. Moreover, in the 2013 and 2015 GGE reports, the United States has played up the acceptance of the UN charter as a first step to accepting the laws of armed conflict in cyberspace. China has walked away from that interpretation, preferring to hammer home the norm of sovereignty.
An opposition to all types of cybercrime. This was a particularly interesting part of the speech, especially in light of the U.S.-China joint statement in September. While Xi opposed cyber espionage for commercial gain, he was careful to mention it along with other types of cybercrime including “cyber surveillance” and attacks on government networks. He also called out “double standards” and stressed that no one country should define acceptable norms of cyber behavior.
Someone skeptical that China intends to cut back on attacks on the private sector might have heard this section of the speech as a rhetorical pivot. That is, Beijing intends to use the condemnation of cyber-enabled theft for competitive advantage mainly as an opportunity to criticize the United States (especially since Beijing has never admitted conducting any type of cyber operations, while the United States government has said cyber operations in search of military or political secrets are legitimate).
Remain open to foreign investment. U.S. technology firms are just as likely to hear the qualifications offered by Xi along with his welcome. Xi promised China’s protection of the “legitimate” interests of foreign companies would not change, as long as they continued to abide by Chinese law.
Reform global governance of cyberspace. Xi was clearly talking about reforming the multistakeholder model of governance favored by the United States and its allies. After describing cyberspace as common space, Xi noted that its governance should not be the purview of a small number of parties, but instead placed in the hands of all countries. In his comments, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev explicitly called for a greater role for the International Telecommunications Union. Xi did not mention any specific institution, but he stressed that governance should be multilateral and multiparty, involving governments, technology companies, academics, and civil society, each according to their own roles.
Despite a significant investment of time, money, and political capital, the risk for Beijing is that the reach and influence of the World Internet Conference remain limited to China’s friends. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization met in China this week, and most of the heads of government that spoke at the opening ceremony came from its members: Russian Prime Minister Medvedev; Karim Masimov, prime minister of Kazakhstan; Temir Sariev, prime minister of the Kyrgyz Republic, and Rasulzoda Qohir, prime minister of Tajikistan (Masimov was clearly the most popular with the crowd after he delivered his comments in Chinese). The United States and other Western governments sent representatives from the embassies in Beijing, and even the tech companies, with a few exceptions, sent country heads, not CEOs or CFOs. International conferences rarely produce big breakthroughs or new ideas, but China both wants and needs Wuzhen to be different.