At China’s Internet conference, the darker side of technology emerges
Every year at the World Internet Conference, held since 2014 Wuzhen near Shanghai, companies and government officials have convened to send a message: China is a hi-tech force to be reckoned with.
With that message now settled beyond much doubt, this year’s conference showcased something different. China’s tech industry is becoming more serious about grappling with its products’ unintended consequences — and about helping the government.
Discussions of technology’s promise were leavened with contemplation of its darker side-effects, such as fraud and data breaches. A forum on protecting personal information featured representatives from China’s highest prosecutor and its powerful internet regulator.
And several tech companies pledged their support for Beijing’s counter-terrorism efforts.
“Tencent has been dedicated to dealing with terrorist information online and other internet crimes, in line with the government’s crackdown,” Chen Yong, an executive in Tencent’s security A remote trolley unveiled at the World Internet Conference
management department, said at the event.
The conference also reflected some new challenges facing China. It was held at the same time as another big event: A sixday import expo in Shanghai aimed at showing China as a big buyer of foreign goods. With US tariffs threatening to slow a weakening Chinese economy, President Xi Jinping spoke at the expo to proclaim that China could be a positive force in global trade.
At Wuzhen, by contrast, Xi appeared only by proxy. The head of the Communist Party’s propaganda department, Huang Kunming, conveyed a message of thanks from Xi and then delivered an opening address that extolled the world-changing power of internet access.
Emissaries from the Silicon Valley were also in short supply. Last year, the speakers at Wuzhen included Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, as well as Sundar Pichai of Google. This year, the sole Western tech executive to give a keynote address was Steve Mollenkopf, chief executive of chipmaker Qualcomm. His appearance served as a reminder of US companies’ continuing travails in China, which could deepen as the two powers wrestle over hi-tech supremacy. Qualcomm scrapped a $44-billion deal to buy a Dutch chip manufacturer this year after China’s antitrust authorities declined to approve it, a move widely viewed as retaliation in the trade war.
Among Chinese companies this week, private enterprises showed off the ways in which they increasingly support and work with the government, while state-backed companies demonstrated they were not doomed to be tech laggards.
In the conference’s exhibition halls, there were lighter touches to be found. A company called Utry let loose several eager, if herky-jerky, robots that followed people around on wheels, offering to carry their
Beijing-based IrisKing, has substantial state backing, started out by making iris-recognition software for coal mines. With their faces and fingertips covered in soot, miners needed another technology for clocking in and out of work.
The company has also started working with the authorities in Xinjiang, Wang said. The goal? To have a database of the irises of all Xinjiang residents within two years, he said.