Chinese tech moguls pledge support for Xi Jinping's ‘common prosperity' drive at the World Internet Conference

Xiaomi, Alibaba Group Holding, stock exchange in Beijing, both attended in 2017, delivered addresses via video

Some of the biggest names in China’s tech industry made an appearance at the World Internet Conference (WIC) in Wuzhen on Sunday to pledge support for the country’s “common prosperity” and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) nearly a year after the government began an extensive crackdown on the sector.

Xiaomi co-founder Lei Jun and Alibaba Group Holding CEO Daniel Zhang Yong were two of the more high-profile names to deliver speeches at the state-run conference. Both men asserted their companies’ commitment to helping society, something President Xi Jinping has made a priority after targeting Big Tech through investigations, fines and new regulations that have wiped US$1 trillion in value from tech stocks and left high-flying executives keeping a low profile.

In his opening speech delivered over video, Chinese Vice-Premier Liu He, Xi’s top economic adviser, emphasised the importance of supporting innovations of entrepreneurs and encouraging smaller businesses, saying the country would support the development of the internet and digital economy, according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency. These themes were echoed by tech titans vowing to do their part.

“Platform companies should stand up to help solve top concerns from the public and the government regarding corporate management, user privacy protections and data security,” said Alibaba’s Zhang, according to a transcript of his speech on the WIC’s website. “Platform economies can only sustainably develop if they are more inclusive, more fair, more standardised and allow more people and more SMEs to participate.”

The executive added that Alibaba, which owns the South China Morning Post, is already supporting SMEs and digital transformation through its platforms. Alibaba is the operator of Taobao and Tmall, two of the country’s largest e-commerce platforms.

Xiaomi’s Lei also stressed the importance of using technological development for social good. Tech companies should not let any group fall behind, he said in his speech, and should help build a good life for everyone.

“One person may go fast, but a group of people can go far,” Lei said. “Enterprises belong to society, and large enterprises should take the initiative to help smaller ones develop rapidly and healthily.”

Also making an appearance were Neil Shen, founding and managing partner of Sequoia Capital China, and Zhou Hongyi, chairman and CEO of Qihoo 360, the country’s largest cybersecurity firm.

Shen also emphasised the importance of SMEs in his speech, saying the upcoming stock exchange in Beijing that was announced earlier this month reflects the importance of smaller enterprises in national innovation. The exchange could become a platform for companies rooted in digitalisation, he added, such as software companies.

Zhou focused his speech on cybersecurity. Network security needs to be reshaped, he said, to guard against new and more complex threats that will arrive with the growth of the Industrial Internet, the Internet of Vehicles, the Internet of Energy, digital finance, digital government and smart cities.

Liu, the vice-premiere, opened the conference by reading comments from Xi sent in a letter. Xi promised to work with other countries to “stimulate the vitality of the digital economy, improve the efficiency of digital government and … enhance digital security safeguards.”

Xiaomi, Alibaba Group Holding, stock exchange in Beijing, both attended in 2017, delivered addresses via video

Chinese Vice-Premier Liu He attends the opening ceremony of the 2021 Zhongguancun Forum in Beijing on September 24, two days before the World Internet Conference. Photo: Xinhua

The WIC, also called the Wuzhen Summit, has been held in the eastern city in Zhejiang province since 2014.

The event has attracted some of the biggest names in tech over the years. In addition to Chinese entrepreneurs like Alibaba’s Jack Ma and ByteDance’s Zhang Yiming showing up to support government policy, foreign CEOs have also made appearances in past years while courting China. Apple’s Tim Cook and Google’s Sundar Pichai both attended in 2017.

Multiple foreign CEOs also delivered addresses via video this year, including Tesla’s Elon Musk, Intel’s Pat Gelsinger and Qualcomm’s Cristiano Amon.

The conference is seen as a platform for the Chinese government to promote its version of global internet governance and export its model of “cyber sovereignty”, a concept used to justify the country’s strict internet censorship regime that includes the Great Firewall.

The WIC has been quieter since the coronavirus pandemic started, however. It is being held while the country still maintains rigid controls and quarantine measures for cross-border travel. Several executives in China, however, still showed up in person, including Zhang and Lei.

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