U.S. Tech CEOs Tout China Cooperation Amid Tighter Internet Rules

By Liza Lin Features Dow Jones Newswires

WUZHEN, China -- China's tightening grip on the internet has forced U.S. companies to recalibrate their efforts here, but there was little outward sign of friction as American executives on Sunday touted their commitment to the crucial Chinese market during the government's annual cyberspace conference.

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Apple Inc. Chief Executive Tim Cook and Cisco Systems Inc. head Chuck Robbins were among those echoing the conference theme: "Developing [a] digital economy for openness and shared benefits."

That theme "is a vision we at Apple share," Mr. Cook said. "We are proud to have worked alongside many of our partners in China to help build a community to join a common future in cyberspace."

That common future has caveats. Despite the assertion of openness, China's internet is walled off from the rest of the world, with Alphabet Inc.'s Google search engine and Facebook Inc.'s eponymous social network among the platforms blocked.

A new cyberspace law that went into effect June 1 tightened restrictions, leading Apple to remove virtual private network programs from its Chinese App Store that enabled people to evade the internet firewall.

Cisco, meanwhile, is one of many U.S. companies that has found it expedient to partner with a Chinese company to do business here, a situation overall that some believe amounts to unfair trade practices. Mr. Robbins also sounded a cooperative note, touting the billions of dollars in local procurement Cisco has made in China.

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"In order to build this common future, we must also embark on a new area of global cooperation and new partnerships," Mr. Robbins said. "No one company, no one country can do it alone. "

Mr. Cook and Mr. Robbins both spoke to large crowds. Not so Google Chief Executive Sundar Pichai, who faced hundreds of empty seats during his panel discussion after lunch. Google has had limited operations in the country since it pulled out of China in 2010 amid complaints that its content was censored and a cyberattack it traced to Chinese hackers.

As U.S. tech execs gather in Wuzhen, U.S. President Donald Trump's trade team is weighing actions against China for suspected trade violations, including alleged pressure by China on U.S. tech companies to turn over their intellectual property for access to the Chinese market.

The executives may have decided to come in part to ease potential tensions that could jeopardize their businesses in China, said Paul Triolo, head of geo-technology at consultancy Eurasia Group.

Now into its fourth year, the Wuzhen World Internet Conference is organized by the Cyberspace Administration of China, the powerful internet bureau whose job includes censorship of content and blocking access to unapproved sites.

Since the Wuzhen conference began in 2015, China has used the three-day event to promote its view of a policed internet as an alternative to the free-for-all that exists in most of the world.

This year, China added a new twist, announcing what might be called a "One Belt, One Road, One Internet" initiative that adds cyberspace to the transportation infrastructure campaign it is promoting to make China the center of a new international trade hub.

"The Belt and Road" digital-economy cooperation international initiative seeks to expand cooperation in 15 areas, including e-commerce, regulation and international standard-setting, with countries such as United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Thailand.

Wang Huning, the newly named member of China's Politburo Standing Committee, gave his first speech since his appointment in October and called on countries to work together to promote compatible web policies and to cooperate on cybersecurity. A former politics professor, Mr. Wang now has the responsibility to handle party affairs including ideology and propaganda.

Other executives participating at Sunday's sessions included Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. Executive Chairman Jack Ma and Tencent Holdings Ltd.'s CEO Pony Ma. Facebook Vice President Vaughan Smith; LinkedIn' Corp. Vice President Allan Blue and Microsoft's Executive Vice President Harry Shum are among those scheduled to speak at sessions Monday and Tuesday.

Write to Liza Lin at Liza.Lin@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

December 03, 2017 09:05 ET (14:05 GMT)