China’s top leaders absent as internet conference draws less interest from US tech elite

China’s annual World Internet Conference, used in past years as a high-profile platform for its narrative on internet governance, starts today in the misty river town of Wuzhen with the inauspicious absence of a senior leader.

The event in the country’s eastern Zhejiang province seemed slightly toned down this year against a backdrop of the prolonged trade war with the United States and increasing international wariness of the spreading “China approach” to internet control.

Intended partly to attract international support for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s notion of “cyber sovereignty” – that each country has the right to regulate the internet within its own borders – the gathering also showcases China’s use of the internet to serve economic growth and life improvement. Xi outlined Beijing’s vision for internet governance at the conference three years ago.

Since 2014’s first conference, a member of the Communist Party’s supreme Politburo Standing Committee had always been present to give the keynote speech at its opening ceremony, in a symbolic show of support for the event and its importance.

It was the Premier, Li Keqiang, in 2014, followed by Xi a year later. In 2016, the then ideology tsar Liu Yunshan was there, with Xi sending a video message. And last year, Liu’s successor as ideology guru, Wang Huning, read out a letter from Xi.

But this year, Wang is not due to attend, and nor is any other member of the seven-strong standing committee, according to the official conference handbook. Instead, it will be the party’s propaganda chief Huang Kunming, a member of the wider 25-member Politburo, who reads Xi’s letter to the conference and gives a speech.

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Huang will address the topic of “creating a digital world for mutual trust and collective governance”.

This is the first time a standing committee member is not present – an apparent downgrading of the event in the tea leaf reading of Chinese politics. It is overshadowed by the ongoing inaugural China International Import Expo in Shanghai, one of Beijing’s top events of the year and attended by Xi and other top leaders including Vice-Premier Hu Chunhua.

In addition, while the three-day forum beginning on Wednesday is still the biggest annual gathering for a who’s who of China’s internet world – including Pony Ma of Tencent and Jack Ma of Alibaba – the presence of Western internet firms in Wuzhen is light.

Unlike last year, when Apple’s chief executive Tim Cook and Google’s Sundar Pichai took the stage, there are few A-list US tech firms on the schedule. Steve Mollenkopf, the chief executive of Qualcomm Technologies, is the guest of honour and will speak at the opening ceremony.

The lower ranking of attending Chinese officials may be designed to reflect the light presence of top foreign tech chiefs, said Severine Arsene, managing editor of the digital journal AsiaGlobal Online, published by the University of Hong Kong’s Asia Global Institute.

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“Given the fact that fewer top executives from abroad are coming, putting a higher-ranking leader before them would be a loss of face,” she said, adding: “Meanwhile, the choice of the head of the propaganda department shows where the priority is.”

The conference comes with China having been ranked bottom for internet freedom by Freedom House for the fourth year in a row.

The US-based web watchdog said in its latest report this month that China’s restrictive internet policies were being actively exported around the world, and warned that China’s “digital authoritarianism” could threaten democracies in other countries.