SHANGHAI -- As China tightens its grip on the internet, there are rising concerns that its form of information suppression will spread to other emerging countries keen to win Beijing's favor.
The Chinese government justified internet censorship as "a question of sovereignty" at the fourth World Internet Conference it hosted in Wuzhen, Zhejiang Province, from Sunday through Tuesday, as it signaled its intention to further tighten the lid on information access by deploying cutting-edge technologies.
With the annual meeting attended by high-ranking government officials from Southeast Asian and African countries, there are worries that China's style of policing the internet could be adopted elsewhere.
In an address at the conference, Chinese President Xi Jinping welcomed technological innovation, saying that a new industrial revolution was unfolding, led by information technology. But he also warned that the spread of information on the internet poses an unprecedented challenge to the sovereignty and security of countries.
Xi positioned the internet as the main battlefield for information control. China has imposed the so-called Great Firewall to block access to news sites and social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, where information damaging about the government could be disseminated. In the past, Beijing had punished Sina and major Chinese internet companies on grounds that they had distributed illegal information. In June, China implemented the internet security law to further tighten its grip on information.
Under the law, customer data collected in China can only be kept in the country. Such data can only be transferred out of China if they had been screened by authorities. The Japan Business Federation (Keidanren) and 53 other business organizations in the world called for China in May to delay the introduction of the law, saying that it would exert influence on the global economy adversely. But China went ahead anyway.
Despite the high-level presence from Southeast Asia, Africa and the Middle East, the Wuzhen meeting was attended by few government officials from European countries, the U.S., Japan and other developed nations.
Many of the emerging countries that took part in the meeting are those that would benefit from China's Belt and Road Initiative, suggesting that Beijing was using its economic might to sway its neighbors. It called on Laos, Thailand, Turkey, Saudi Arabi and other countries in the Belt and Road Initiative to jointly promote digitization and enhance "order" in cyberspace.
For some of these countries, it isn't just a matter of winning economic support from China. Some are also keen to suppress freedom of speech and to use the internet to put their citizens under scrutiny to stamp out political dissent. Some are said to be keen to import China's advancing monitoring technology that combines face authentication and other cutting-edge tools with the internet.
In the meantime, major U.S. companies that have blossomed by taking advantage of moves toward digitization are struggling to figure out how they could fit in with China's vision of the internet. Top executives of Google and Apple attended the Wuzhen conference but refrained from criticizing China.