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Belt and Road

Beijing exports 'China-style' internet across Belt and Road

Xi pushes controlled ecosystem with assist from big business

A display at the World Internet Conference in Wuzhen: Xi Jinping envisions a digital Silk Road that overlays China's internet ecosystem on top of Belt and Road.   © Reuters

WUZHEN, China -- Chinese censorship has soared under President Xi Jinping through such measures as mandatory face scans and registration of phone numbers and bank account information for internet access.

Social media content is tightly policed, with material disfavored by the Communist Party removed. Now China is eager to export its model to countries across its Belt and Road Initiative -- a strategy clearly in evidence at the sixth annual World Internet Conference, which kicked off here Sunday.

It is the common responsibility of the international community to develop, use and govern the internet well so that it can better benefit mankind, Xi said in a message conveyed at the conference's opening ceremony.

China has many internet controls, such as a comprehensive cybersecurity law that took effect in 2017. In addition to the heightened scrutiny for internet access, foreign players including Google and Facebook are shut out, with the government pushing their domestic counterparts to monitor users and quash dissent.

Such moves have met with little resistance because the Chinese internet has also made life incredibly convenient. E-payment platforms operated by Alibaba Group Holding and Tencent Holdings protect businesses from counterfeit bills while letting users pay by smartphone in stores and online. Ride-hailing and other services are also easily accessible.

Xi now seeks to build a digital Silk Road, overlaying China's internet ecosystem on top of Belt and Road.

Chinese President Xi Jinping's message to the World Internet Conference is read by Huang Kunming, head of the Communist Party Central Committee's propaganda department. (Photo by Shunsuke Tabeta)

The BeiDou Navigation Satellite System -- China's answer to GPS -- went global near the end of 2018, mainly in Belt and Road countries. Huawei Technologies is helping Cambodia and the Philippines with 5G mobile networks. China Telecom has installed a fiber-optic connection between China and Pakistan, while China Mobile has launched its first overseas data center in Singapore.

Alibaba is also powering a blockchain remittance service for Pakistanis living in Malaysia. JD.com is incorporating drones into logistics chains in Indonesia.

Many Belt and Road countries see significant advantages to working with China. Many Chinese companies, like Huawei, offer cheaper products than Western rivals, enabling countries to cut costs for digital infrastructure.

"Some governments are also interested in stability for their regimes through Chinese-style censorship of public opinion," a telecommunications executive said.

The Xi leadership is redoubling efforts to push Chinese corporate interests through Belt and Road as the conflict with the U.S. drags on. With the rift in the high-tech sector in particular expected to continue, Xi sees the initiative as a way to leverage China's influence over a broader area.

These developments are altering American companies' strategies. In previous years, the World Internet Conference drew CEOs from Apple, Google and Qualcomm as speakers. This time, Western Digital CEO Stephen Milligan was the only top executive from an American technology company to speak.

But China, with more than 800 million internet users, is too big a market to ignore. Qualcomm and Microsoft opted to send lower-ranking executives to speak at the 2019 conference as they sought to strike a balance between Beijing and Washington.

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