Can China have difficult conversations about the internet?

Attending China’s World Internet Conference—China’s annual showcase for its vision of internet governance—was preceded by the irony of preparing to minimize connection to the internet. I took none of my usual devices. Instead, I rented a smartphone for a week and installed a minimal number of apps, including a virtual private network (VPN) service before leaving. I set up a temporary email account. I took a “thin client” office laptop with a secure VPN connector and nothing on its hard drive.

This congress was China’s fifth World Internet Congress, held each time in the ancient canal town of Wuzhen and centered on promoting China’s vision for a system of internet governance led by government and structured to protect national sovereignty. This is an alternative to the multistakeholder system that evolved in the United States and has grown organically into an international system. China, Russia, and other nations see this as a product of the U.S. and an international system they were not part of. The high-level attention and resources China puts into these congresses reflect a level of commitment to advocating its alternative unmatched by the U.S.

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