What does 'freedom' mean? 6 takeaways from China's Wuzhen Internet conference

The word “freedom” means different things to different people.

That’s perhaps the greatest takeaway from China’s second World Internet Conference, which began Wednesday morning in Wuzhen, a historical village near Shanghai. President Xi Jinping delivered the keynote address — a rare move that underscored the event’s official gravitas. Wearing a red tie and neutral expression, Xi called for more “freedom” online, disregarding the fact that his administration oversees perhaps the world's most sophisticated Internet censorship apparatus.

"On one hand, we should respect the freedom of expression,” Xi said. “On the other, we need to create a fine cyberspace order following relevant laws.”

“Freedom is what order is meant for,” he continued, “and order is the guarantee of freedom”.

Observers were floored by the irony. The Communist Party, obsessed with maintaining its grip on information, censors topics deemed sensitive on domestic social media platforms — Tibet, the Tiananmen Square protests, the treatment of Uighur minorities in Xinjiang — while completely blocking access to Facebook, Twitter, Google, the New York Times and a host of other foreign websites. (The New York Times, the Washington Post, and several European news agencies applied to attend the three-day conference and were rebuffed.)

“I hope China’s Internet can truly link up and communicate with the rest of the world,” wrote one wry observer on Sina Weibo, the country’s most popular microblog.

Here are five more takeaways from the conference’s first day:

China wants other countries to accept its model of Internet control — but it faces a tough crowd

Beijing perceives the West’s vision of the Internet — a platform for the free exchange of ideas and information — as a potential threat to its rule. Not long ago, Communist Party officials habitually dodged censorship-related questions and shirked the topic in state media reports. Yet since Xi took the reins in late 2012, Beijing has increasingly boasted of its censorship prowess, most often under the banner of “cybersovereignty” — meaning the right of a national government to control the information that flows across its borders.

Officials are using the Wuzhen conference as a platform to legitimize the concept abroad.

Yet while authorities typically couch their Internet controls in the language of national security, critics call the concept a thinly-veiled excuse for stifling dissent. On Monday, authorities tried Pu Zhiqiang, one of the country’s most prominent civil rights lawyers, for sending seven tweets. He faces up to eight years in prison.

“The impact of China’s ‘Internet sovereignty’ is real and devastating,” Roseann Rife, Amnesty International’s East Asia research director, said in a statement. “It is women’s rights activists, anti-corruption campaigners and those urging debate on political reforms who are silenced and face the threat of long prison sentences for falling foul of the authorities’ online-censorship.”

She called the government’s propaganda push “an all-out assault on Internet freedoms.”

Some countries are listening

Representatives from dozens of countries attended the Wuzhen conference — Malawi, Barbados, Iran, Laos, Sudan and Afghanistan among them — many of which look to China as a major trading partner. Also attending were Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussain, Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Massimov and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who on Monday evening tweeted photos of Wuzhen’s placid moonlit alleys and burbling canals.

“No country alone can claim the role of the sole universal regulator of the world-wide web,” he later tweeted, making a veiled jab at the United States.

As are some U.S. Internet firms

Joining officials at the conference were executives from Microsoft, IBM, Apple, Facebook and LinkedIn. Jimmy Wales, a cofounder of Wikipedia — which is intermittently blocked in China — also made an appearance. These companies have an awkward relationship with China. Although they’re drawn to the country’s irresistible, 670-million-member Internet market, bowing to Beijing’s censorship demands could create a public relations nightmare at home.

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FOR THE RECORD

Dec. 17, 8:45 a.m.: An earlier version of this article stated that Wikipedia is blocked in China. It is intermittently blocked, though on the day this article appeared, the English-language site was available. The Chinese-language site was blocked.

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Beijing has tried repeatedly to tip the scales in its favor. At last year’s conference, authorities urged global Internet executives to sign a pact vowing to “respect the Internet sovereignty of all countries.” Some executives resisted and the effort failed. (Apparently, it didn’t stop the executives from coming back this year.)

Beijing is still working out kinks in the system

Despite Xi’s apparent pride in China’s homegrown “sovereign” Internet, conference attendees were treated to an uncensored global Web and state media broadcast of Xi’s remarks on Twitter and YouTube.

Officials have not yet explained why they would abandon their own principles for the occasion.

China’s Internet is a work in progress

In his address, Xi promised progress on what he called the “Last Kilometer Network Infrastructure” project — a $22-billion initiative to equip all of China’s rural villages with broadband Internet by 2020. It’s a reminder that half the nation's population is not yet online — and that despite its growing global heft, China is still in many ways playing from behind.

Follow @JRKaiman on Twitter for news out of China

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