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 gathering 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.
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.”
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.