Tim Cook and Sundar Pichai’s surprise remarks at China’s “open internet” conference

Due deference.
Due deference.
Image: Reuters/Aly Song
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Sunday (Dec. 3) marked the start of the fourth World Internet Conference, an annual gathering at which the Chinese government promotes its closed, censored version (paywall) of the internet under the premise of “cyber sovereignty.” And while last year’s event was a quiet affair, this year a few high-profile guests made surprise appearances.

Apple CEO Tim Cook and Google CEO Sundar Pichai were among several foreign tech executives to attend the conference—the first time chiefs from those companies have done so—and both spoke publicly on Sunday. Their arrival marks a coup for the conference’s organizers, and highlights the degree to which the Chinese government can exert political leverage over the world’s biggest tech companies.

According to Reuters, Cook gave a surprise keynote address in which he highlighted how Apple has boosted China’s economy. He said that the app store has helped give China’s 1.8 million developers earnings that total $16.9 billion. He also re-affirmed the conference’s commitment to an “open” internet. “The theme of this conference—developing a digital economy for openness and shared benefits—is a vision we at Apple share,” Cook said, according to Bloomberg. “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.”

Cooks comments come months after the company removed hundreds of apps from its Chinese app store that help consumers jump the so-called “Great Firewall.” In an earnings call last August, Cook admitted that Apple was “required by the government” to take the apps away.

Cook reportedly also met with Wang Huning, one of Xi Jinping’s most important political strategists, who spoke at the conference Sunday.

Sundar Pichai did not give a speech but appeared on a group panel alongside Xiaomi founder Lei Jun. Like Apple, he hinted at how Google helps the economy in China. “A lot of work Google does is to help Chinese companies. Many small and medium-sized businesses in China take advantage of Google to get their products to many other countries outside of China,” he said, according to the South China Morning Post.

YouTube, Google’s search engine, Google’s email system, and other Google products have long been blocked in China, though the company retains a teams of engineers and ad salespeople there. More recently, a live broadcast of Google’s AlphaGo software playing Go against Chinese champion Ke Jie (who ultimately lost) was censored in China. Google has recently begun hiring more AI talent from within China.

In addition to Cook and Pichai, Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins gave an address on Sunday. Facebook vice president Vaughan Smith spoke on the morning of Dec. 4, while LinkedIn vice president Allen Blue, and Microsoft executive vice president Harry Shum are expected to speak as well (paywall). Collectively, their attendance makes this year’s World Internet Conference the most star-studded one yet.

Strong proponents of internet freedom might quiver over this. For the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), China’s main internet regulator and the conference’s organizer, the World Internet Conference marks an opportunity to seek public affirmation for China’s internet policies—which include rampant censorship and barriers on foreign competition. Getting on stage with China’s chief censors after a year that has seen unprecedented censorship can’t help but lend legitimacy to China’s increasingly closed internet, and render praise of “openness” hollow.

At the same time, attending the event gives foreign tech executives one of the few opportunities they’ll ever have to gain insight into the inner workings of the CAC. And if these foreign companies are committed to doing business in China in any capacity, such insights can be invaluable.