Internet & Tech

Decoupling doublespeak

US tech execs speak at China internet conference in Wuzhen


Intel’s boss Pat Gelsinger participated in the Wuzhen event

After decades of keeping a low profile, aka ‘hide your light and bide your time’, China’s diplomatic mantra has been rebooted to one about striving to build “a community with a shared future for mankind”.

The phrase first found its way into the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) National Congress in 2007, as then leader Hu Jintao applied it to address the common interest between mainland China and the self-ruling island of Taiwan. It has since become a favourite saying whenever Hu’s successor Xi Jinping talks about China’s diplomatic objectives.

Unsurprisingly, when President Xi gave his congratulatory message to the World Internet Conference this week, he again called for the delegates from different countries to build a “community with a shared future in cyberspace”.

The World Internet Conference has been staged in the scenic town of Wuzhen in Zhejiang province for nine consecutive years. Since the Chinese government’s crackdown on the internet industry in 2019, the event seemed to have lost its zest. Gone were the days when a plethora of internet tycoons would gather and take photos during group dinners. The last couple of conferences have bordered on boring.

All the same, the gathering this week seems more like a typical tech conference. The big names that turned up, including Zhang Yong, chairman of internet giant Alibaba, which has its headquarters within an hour’s drive of Wuzhen, offered their support for Xi’s governing principles as laid out in the 20th CPC National Congress last month. Both Zhang and rival CEO Xu Lei have pledged support for Xi’s goals to integrate China’s digital and real economies, for instance.

In the wake of travel restrictions under China’s zero-Covid policy, foreign guests were few and far between, although some high-profiles figures did take part via online video. Most of the international delegates did not touch on the ‘shared future’ championed by Xi. But few of them seemed to see a decoupling with China as a feasible option for their companies either.

“Intel has great expectations in China. Intel and China have engaged in a long-term and collaborative partnership to build and shape our digital world,” the CEO of the US semiconductor giant, Pat Gelsinger said via video, adding that his firm remains committed to help Chinese customers address their “most significant challenges”.

The sheer size of the China market explains why foreign chipmakers are reluctant to part ways entirely, despite Washington’s pressure on them to reduce ties with Chinese tech firms. China’s digital economy reached Rmb45.5 trillion ($6.3 trillion) in revenues last year after growing another 16.2% from 2020.

But given the frosty mood between China and the West were some conference participants ignoring the geopolitical realities and instead just telling their hosts what they wanted to hear?

WiC senses the heavy hand of PR platitudes in some of the speeches.

“The company [Cisco] remains deeply committed to being a partner to Chinese businesses and communities and we will continue to do all that we can to be a model for constructive US-China cooperation,” Chuck Robbins, chairman and CEO of Cisco said. “We are confident the Chinese market will continue to create significant and exciting opportunities as the country advances towards its high-quality development goals and uses technology to transform the post-pandemic world.”

Likewise German tech firm SAP. Christian Klein, CEO of the software group, told the conference: “China is and will continue to be one of the world’s key growth markets and drivers of innovation. We are excited about what we can achieve in the country, and we are proud to contribute to China’s continued economic, social and sustainable development for the next 30 years and beyond.”

One thing Cisco’s Robbins said that few business folk would disagree with: “The global economy will be stronger with the US and China working together.”

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