Apple, Google CEOs Bring Star Power as China Promotes Censorship

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  • Tim Cook speaks at China event that promotes censored internet
  • Google CEO Pichai speaks on panel about digital economy
Bloomberg Intelligence’s Vey-Sern Ling discusses the outlook for Chinese Internet companies.

Apple Inc.’s Tim Cook and Google’s Sundar Pichai made their first appearances at China’s World Internet Conference, bringing star power to a gathbering the Chinese government uses to promote its strategy of tight controls online.

Apple’s chief executive officer gave a surprise keynote at the opening ceremony on Sunday, calling for future internet and AI technologies to be infused with privacy, security and humanity. The same day, one of China’s most-senior officials called for more aggressive government involvement online to combat terrorism and criminals. Wang Huning, one of seven men on China’s top decision-making body, even called for a global response team to go well beyond its borders.

Wang Huning

Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

It was Cook’s second appearance in China in two months, following a meeting with President Xi Jinping in October. The iPhone maker has most of its products manufactured in the country and is trying to regain market share in smartphones against local competitors such as Huawei Technologies Co.

“The theme of this conference -- developing a digital economy for openness and shared benefits -- is a vision we at Apple share,” Cook said. “We are proud to have worked alongside many of our partners in China to help build a community that will join a common future in cyberspace."

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The Wuzhen conference, which until this year has had a primarily local presence, is designed to globally promote the country’s vision of a more censored and controlled internet. The attendance of leaders from two of the world’s most valuable tech giants lends credibility to China’s efforts to influence the global internet so it better resembles its own.

“It is interesting to see Apple and Google at the WIC, but we doubt there will be any meaningful changes in China government policy,” said Kirk Boodry, an analyst with New Street Research. “Current policies have worked very well so far: two of the top five internet companies in terms of market cap are Chinese -- supported by growth in consumer spending which is a key government priority.”

The two companies Boodry referred to participated in the conference, with Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. Chairman Jack Ma and Tencent Holdings Ltd.’s Pony Ma taking part. The other technology executives in attendance included Cisco Systems Inc.’s Chuck Robbins and Baidu Inc. co-founder Robin Li.

Cook’s comments come at a pivotal point for the company’s future in China, which is now its biggest market outside of North America. It relies on the sale of hardware and services in the world’s most populous country to propel revenue and profit growth. But the efforts required to stay in China’s good graces are causing tensions with civil libertarians and politicians at home.

Tim Cook at the World Internet Conference in Wuzhen on Dec. 3.

Photographer: AFP via Getty Images

He said Apple’s operations in the country began three decades ago with a handful of employees. Today, it helps support more than 5 million jobs in China, including 1.8 million local mobile app developers, he added.

Apple has come under fire for cooperating with Chinese authorities in removing apps that give users there uncensored communications. In November, Apple complied with government orders to pull Microsoft Corp.’s Skype phone and video service from the Chinese version of its popular app store. Cook used an earnings call with investors to justify such moves, saying it obeyed the laws of the markets where it operates.

“Much has been said of the potential downsides of AI, but I don’t worry about machines thinking like humans. I worry about people thinking like machines,” he said. “We all have to work to infuse technology with humanity, with our values.”

Technology of the future should have openness, creativity and safeguards to protect users while providing privacy and decency, he added.

It’s a goal that, according to Cook’s Chinese hosts, can only be accomplished through more laws and regulations that control what can be shared online. Wang, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, called for a global emergency response team that would respond in times of crisis using new and undetermined measures. China goes far beyond censoring content that could support terrorists and criminals. It also blocks Facebook, Twitter and many Western commercial and educational web sites.

New Order

“What we propose is we should promote a controllable security and build a new order,” Wang said through a translator. “Cybersecurity is a serious challenge. Cyber crimes and cyber terrorism have grown more rampant. The world’s destiny has become more intertwined in cyberspace.”

Read more on the Great Firewall of China

Unlike Cook, Google’s Pichai did not deliver a keynote speech and was instead on a panel to discuss the digital economy. The vast hall remained mostly empty for much of the session as a result of confusion among conference staff over when the session would begin.

Wuzhen holds special significance for the search giant, whose AI program defeated the world’s top-ranked player of the ancient board-game Go at the same venue earlier this year -- a point Pichai alluded to as he promoted the company’s kit of AI software tools called TensorFlow.

“There are many small and medium businesses in China who take advantage of Google to get their products to many other countries outside of China,” he said. “Technology is giving opportunities at a global scale, driving interconnectedness and cooperation and I think it’s a big trend and I think it’s almost irreversible at this point.”

— With assistance by David Ramli

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