China's efforts to reboot an annual internet conference have received a big boost with a keynote from Apple CEO Tim Cook and the attendance of Google CEO Sundar Pichai.
The World Internet Conference held in historic Wuzhen, just outside Beijing, was started in 2014 as a way for China to exert greater influence over internet governance but immediately hit a stumbling block when organizers tried to ram through a conference statement at the last minute.
The following year, following criticism of its inaugural efforts, China banned reporters from a number of Western media from attending the conference, leading to tech company executives distancing themselves from the event.
Western governments also stayed away, with the biggest names attending being Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev and the prime ministers of Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.
That second conference was notable for two things: the head of the China's Cyberspace Administration Lu Wei playing down censorship through a range of metaphors from a busy street to inviting guests in your home; and the surprise announcement by the-then head of DNS oversight organization ICANN, Fadi Chehade, announcing that he would head up a new "high-level advisory committee" that would guide the agenda of future conferences.
Chehade's decision was not received well by the larger internet community, and in June Lu Wei was removed from his post. Last month, he was put under formal investigation for corruption.
Learn to love censorship
This year, China again brought out the person who is currently in charge of the country's vast censorship apparatus – the famous Great Firewall of China – to put diplomatic language around the government's efforts to control and remove information it decides it doesn't like.
Wang Huning was recently elected to the China's powerful Politburo Standing Committee and used his keynote to argue that there needed to be greater security and order online. He reiterated Xi Jinping's five proposals for the future of cyberspace and talked about China's advances in various technologies such as artificial intelligence.
Wang also pushed the same argument that Chinese officials have promoted for the past 15 years: that due to the country's size and large numbers of uneducated citizens that it has no real choice but to "guide" them as well as the broader economy.
"We propose a controllable security and a new order," Wang said. "Cyber crimes and cyber terrorism have grown rampant; the world's destiny has become more intertwined in cyberspace."
He also claimed that a recent expansion of controls within China have stemmed from a "deep understanding" of how the internet works from Chinese President Xi Jinping and have been "warmly welcomed."
Such controls have included: requiring people to prove their identity for online chat apps; removing in real-time images of a Nobel prize winning dissident as he was dying; a ban or block on foreign TV shows including soap operas; and the shutting down of VPNs and the anonymizing Tor browser, including the jailing of a Chinese citizen for nine months because he continued to provide VPN services that were then used to bypass the Chinese censorship apparatus.
But what could easily have become a Chinese-only event in which government officials justify increasingly authoritarian information controls to themselves was boosted by the attendance of several high-profile tech CEOs.
Apple Tim Cook has been attacked repeatedly in recent months for agreeing to Chinese government demands that no VPN apps be allowed in the Apple Store, but gave a speech at the conference in which he said that Apple was "proud to have worked alongside many of our partners in China to help build a community that will join a common future in cyberspace."
He also called for future technologies to have openness, creativity and privacy built-in but used diplomatically ambiguous wording to make his point, arguing that "we all have to work to infuse technology with humanity, with our values."
Everyone can agree that their values should be infused in new technology; the problems come when someone else's values are in place. For Apple, it helps that China provided the company with 112 billion yuan ($17bn) in App Store revenue, roughly a quarter of its total income. Now that is some value. ®