The world’s annual most ironic internet conference was made even more so this year thanks to a keynote speech from none other than Apple CEO Tim Cook.
For the last four years, China has been inviting tech leaders and innovators from across the globe to the scenic rivertown of Wuzhen for a gathering used to promote its own vision for the internet. The theme for this year’s conference is “Developing digital economy for openness and shared benefits — building a community of common future in cyberspace.”
And who better to speak on that subject than Tim Cook? Over the past year, Apple has been accused of frequently kowtowing to the wishes of Chinese censors in order to gain official favor and shore up sliding sales in its second biggest market. In that vein, Apple has removed the New York Times app, VPNs, and even Skype from its China app store to comply with government regulations.
During a surprise keynote address to open the World Internet Conference on Sunday, Cook made no reference to Apple’s frequent troubles in China or the country’s tightening internet restrictions, instead focusing on his company’s cooperation with Chinese entities.
“The theme of this conference — developing a digital economy for openness and shared benefits — is a vision we at Apple share,” Cook said, according to Bloomberg. “We are proud to have worked alongside many of our partners in China to help build a community that will join a common future in cyberspace.”
Tim gives a shoutout to the folks who tell him to disappear apps. pic.twitter.com/qL4OkbG3eC
— Chris Buckley 储百亮 (@ChuBailiang) December 3, 2017
Of course, at the moment, China’s internet community is blocked off from the rest of the world by mankind’s most sophisticated censorship network, helping the country to rank at the bottom of Freedom House’s global survey on internet freedom for the last three years. However, foreign attendees to the Wuzhen conference have no trouble logging on to Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, being given access to a special Wi-fi network to get around the Great Firewall.
Cook has not yet made any comments addressing why he decided to attend this year’s conference, though he may well argue that it was in order to uphold the principles of freedom of speech. Last month, Apple justified its decision to remove VPN apps from its Chinese app store by claiming that by doing so it was actually promoting freedom of expression.
“We believe that our presence in China helps promote greater openness and facilitates the free flow of ideas and information. We are convinced that Apple can best promote fundamental rights, including the right of free expression, by being engaged even where we may disagree with a particular country’s law,” the company said in a statement replying to inquiries from the US Senate.
This is Cook’s second trip to China in just a little more than a month. Following the conclusion of the 19th Party Congress, he and other American tech executives, including Mark Zuckerberg, listened to Xi Jinping tell them about how China was “opening up.”
Apple-China collusion really hit home when a Wuzhen volunteer handed me his brand new iPhone and asked how he could download a VPN and read the WSJ. I could find none on iOS china app store. Apple’s taken most away. @GreatFireChina says Apple took 674 VPN apps away this year.
— Liza Lin (@Liz_in_Shanghai) December 3, 2017
Google CEO Sundar Pichai was not at that meeting in Beijing, but he did find the time to make it to Wuzhen. Rather than be rewarded with a keynote address, Pichai was shoved off to a panel discussion, the starting time of which wasn’t even listed on the agenda.
Though, Pichai got a bit of revenge by bragging to the half-full house about his company’s AI program AlphaGo, which defeated all-comers, including the best Chinese player, at China’s oldest game of strategy.
Unfair treatment? Wuzhen organizers kept the timing of Google’s CEO Pichai’s panel completely off the agenda, and press officers pleaded ignorance when asked on the time. The result? Apple’s Cook spoke to a full house, Pichai spoke to a much reduced crowd in the room. #china pic.twitter.com/ryFrkbuXne
— Liza Lin (@Liz_in_Shanghai) December 3, 2017
Chinese President Xi Jinping did not attend this year’s conference, though he did send over a letter which was read aloud to open the event. In the letter, Xi encouraged other countries to join China in the “fast lane” of the internet and digital economic development, boasting about the incredible success of China’s internet economy in recent years, while failing to mention how foreign companies have been hampered by Chinese regulations and restrictions from taking full advantage of this boom.
On hand to speak, however, was Wang Huning, chosen in October to be on the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s most powerful body. Wang is a political theorist who has helped to shape the political thoughts of the last three administrations, but had never spoken publicly before.
Wang reportedly stuck closely to Xi’s pronouncements on the internet, particularly regarding the pressing need to regulate it, calling on countries to do more to crack down on cyber criminals and terrorists, as well as emphasizing the importance of cyber sovereignty and security.
Meanwhile, attendees in Wuzhen were also witness to the importance of normal, everyday security.
At Wuzhen for the World Internet Conference we've got the Wujing greeting us with guns and what I guess is a people catcher? pic.twitter.com/1NuIVSPq2e
— Paul Mozur (@paulmozur) December 2, 2017