China’s Top Ideologue Calls for Tight Control of Internet

China’s Top Ideologue Calls for Tight Control of Internet


WUZHEN, China — Little heard from but hugely influential, the professor turned Communist theoretician who has been a major adviser to three Chinese leaders finally stepped out of the shadows on Sunday.

Known as the brain behind President Xi Jinping, Wang Huning made his first major speech since joining the Politburo Standing Committee, the seven-member group that rules China, at a conference created to show off China’s technological strengths to the world.

Well known for his icy remove and support of authoritarianism, Mr. Wang called for security and order on the internet as part of five proposals he made to guide the future of cyberspace. He also emphasized China’s technological prowess, and said more should be done by the government to guide the development of new industries like artificial intelligence and quantum computing.

Mr. Wang stepped onto the world stage before an audience that included the chief executives of Apple and Google, Tim Cook and Sundar Pichai, along with an all-star cast of Chinese tech entrepreneurs, such as Jack Ma of Alibaba.

Mr. Wang, 63, had emerged as the ideological counselor to Chinese leaders and the wordsmith of Mr. Xi’s more authoritarian style before being tapped to join the Standing Committee at a Communist Party congress in Beijing two months ago. A close confidant of Mr. Xi and the two previous Chinese presidents, Mr. Wang was promoted despite never having governed a province or run a state ministry.

On Sunday, Mr. Wang praised China’s president for his “deep understanding” of internet governance. He said the international community had “warmly received” Mr. Xi’s ideas about the internet, including the concept of cyber sovereignty — a Chinese policy term used to argue that countries should be free to control the internet within their borders, even if that means censoring.

“Global cyberspace governance has no onlookers — we are all participants,” he said, adding that “all parties” should have a say over how the internet is managed across the world.

The speech echoed arguments that Mr. Wang has made before. In the 1990s, as a professor at Fudan University in Shanghai, he wrote that because China was so large and poor, it needed a stronger hand from the government to push through economic development. He said that such authoritarian rule was necessary for China to restore its national greatness after what the Communist Party often describes as a century of humiliation at the hands of foreign powers.

This has made Mr. Wang a longtime skeptic of calls for China to allow greater democracy despite his extensive experience abroad, including in the United States. And while he has said he admires the strength of the United States, Mr. Wang has also been deeply wary of American power.

His speech on Sunday showed how China’s vision of the internet attempts to wrestle with such tension. Chinese leaders have long lauded the economic power of the internet, while being deeply cautious about its democratizing and internationalizing influence.

In his speech, Mr. Wang highlighted China’s openness and the need for equal access to the internet. Yet China has led the way in cutting its internet off from the world with filters and blocks known as the Great Firewall of China. It has also blocked internet access in areas where minorities live, to limit the potential for unrest.

Such contradictions were evident at the World Internet Conference, which was dreamed up by Chinese officials who wanted to create a Davos-style conference for technology. It has been held annually since 2014 in Wuzhen, an ancient canal town an hour from Shanghai.

While many major foreign websites are blocked in China, the wireless connections at the conference allowed open access to the global internet. A promotional video that ran before Mr. Wang’s speech showed the web connecting China to the world, ignoring the existence of the Great Firewall.

For the format of his talk, Mr. Wang followed the lead of Mr. Xi. His offering of five proposals was likely inspired by a speech by Mr. Xi at the second World Internet Conference, when the president offered five ideas for developing the internet.

The conference also marked a fresh start of sorts for its organizer, the Cyberspace Administration of China, the government body that also oversees the country’s internet. Weeks before the conference, Chinese state media reported that the administration’s former head, Lu Wei, was put under investigation by the Communist Party’s anti-corruption agency.

Mr. Lu’s successor, Xu Lin, was present at the conference, which also included more prominent foreign chief executives than in the past. Analysts say Mr. Xu has been ordered to consolidate the administration’s power, and also turn the conference into a higher-profile event.

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