The World Internet Conference that took place last week revealed a few nuggets about the personal habits of China’s web tycoons. During the three-day event – which was held in Wuzhen, Zhejiang province – Robin Li, CEO of search engine firm Baidu, told the audience that he is an early-riser. “I wake up early every day,” he admitted. “More often than not, I’m up at 5am and then I will start to panic. I think about all the opportunities there are in the tech industry and how there is no way I can do everything and will have to narrow my focus.”
But Li isn’t the only one with a lot on his mind. Jack Ma, too, says he has been losing sleep, although his problem is slightly different – how best to spend Alibaba’s cash.
“As our business continues to grow, all the profits we make ought to be spent on helping improve the lives of others. If you are really rich and yet you can’t spend the money well, what’s the point of having so much,” asked the chairman of Alibaba Group.
Leading names from firms worth $2.5 trillion gathered to hear the views of the Chinese internet tycoons (Premier Li Keqiang also made an appearance). But it was another attendee – Fang Binxing – who offered the timely reminder of why it might be a little paradoxical to hold a global internet conference in China.
Fang, of course, is the man credited with creating the Great Firewall – the technology that segregates China’s internet from the rest of the web, blocking unwanted foreign sites. Somewhat deliciously, this filter was deactivated at the Wuzhen event, with attendees enjoying unfettered access to forbidden sites including Facebook and YouTube.
The temporary access didn’t last beyond the conference itself, although the people of Wuzhen are now benefiting from a free Wi-Fi service that was installed for the delegates.
Wuzhen – a canal town with architecture dating back to the Ming Dynasty – is little known internationally. But in many ways it symbolises China’s own development in the tech world, says National Business Daily. While the country is known for its 5,000-year history, it now wants to be recognised as home to some of the world’s biggest tech firms.
Or as Tencent’s Pony Ma put it: “Out of the world’s 10 largest internet companies six are from the US but China accounts for four. Compared to the industrial revolution era, the gap between China and the rest of the world in advanced technology has narrowed significantly.”
The state-run newspaper China Press made a similar point: “The speed of China’s mobile and internet development is nothing short of extraordinary. No matter how many big tech bosses show up, or how many new contracts are signed during the conference, what’s important is that China wants the world to see where its internet sector is at today.”
The gathering in Wuzhen was also a “coming out party” for the people who regulate China’s interent, suggests The Paper, a website. Lu Wei, director of the new internet regulator (established in February), said China wants the World Internet Conference to become the industry’s answer to the World Economic Forum of Davos.
Lu also took the stage to explain his regulatory mission: to ensure that China’s internet is clean and controlled.
It was a message that required a metaphor, though not one likely to get Silicon Valley executives too excited.
“Cyberspace should be free and open, with rules to follow and always following the rule of law,” Lu proclaimed. “Just like this place (Wuzhen), crowded with tourists but perfectly ordered.”
Quite how “free and open” the Chinese internet is today wasn’t one of the topics up for debate at the event. Perhaps that explains why the only major international tech boss at the conference was Paul Jacobs, the chairman of smartphone chipmaker Qualcomm. But there was another explanation for Jacobs being in town: he was meeting Premier Li to discuss Qualcomm’s alleged antitrust violations in China, the verdict on which is imminent and it’s rumoured will involve a significant fine.
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