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September 27, 2021updated 29 Nov 2021 8:40am

Gelsinger, Musk and China tech CEOs all bow down to Xi’s vision

By Elles Houweling

The 2021 World Internet Conference (WIC) kicked off in Wuzhen, in the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang, on Sunday. Prominent figures from Chinese and Western tech companies made an appearance and voiced their support for President Xi Jinping’s plan for “common prosperity” and greater international cooperation.

The CEO of Chinese ecommerce giant Alibaba, Daniel Zhang, and the co-founder of smartphone brand Xiaomi, Lei Jun, were among the high-profile speakers to deliver speeches at the state-run conference. Both executives doubled down on their companies’ commitment to President Xi Jinping’s latest mandate ordering big tech companies to help establish a fairer society.

“Platform companies should stand up to help solve top concerns from the public and the government regarding corporate management, user privacy protection and data security,” said the Alibaba CEO.

Xiaomi’s Lei also stressed the need to support socioeconomic equality. “One person may go fast, but a group of people can go far,” he said in his speech. “Enterprises belong to society and large enterprises should take the initiative to help smaller ones develop rapidly and healthily.”

GlobalData analyst and China specialist Michael Orme is not surprised about the companies’ response. “The Chinese companies have to kowtow. They know that what happened to Ant Group and recently to Didi can happen to them,” he told Verdict.

Moreover, the conference is co-organised by the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), a regulatory body established by Xi himself.

Prominent foreign CEOs including Tesla’s Elon Musk, Intel’s Pat Gelsinger and Qualcomm’s Cristiano Amon also gave speeches voicing support for President Xi’s plan for more international cooperation.

“Tesla is pleased to join and support China’s digital economy,” Elon Musk said via video conference during the event. “The company already hosts all its China user data locally and is looking forward to the economic transformation that will be brought about by self-driving cars,” he added.

Qualcomm’s newly appointed CEO also gave a speech commenting on the speed of China’s 5G network and the many relationships the company has with domestic device manufacturers, urging for a deeper alliance between US and Chinese companies.

“Qualcomm, Intel and Tesla and Apple have to kowtow as well,” Orme added. “The first three posted positive messages to the conference. Qualcomm gets 60% of its revenue from its China sales, Intel over 30% and Tesla over 20% and it has its Shanghai giga plant and relies on Chinese battery supplies from CATL and BYD.”

During the event’s opening ceremony, Vice Premier and Xi’s chief economic advisor, Liu He, read a congratulatory letter sent by the President, which called for more international cooperation between China and other countries.

“China is willing to work with other countries in the world to jointly bear the historical responsibility for human progress, stimulate the vitality of the digital economy, enhance the effectiveness of digital government, optimise the digital social environment, build digital cooperation ties, build a digital security barrier and let digital civilisation benefit the people of all countries and foster a community with a shared future for humankind,” Xi wrote.

This comment underscored Xi’s speech during the Zhongguancun Forum in Beijing on Friday, an event the city uses to promote the country’s technology exchanges, in which he made a similar appeal:

“All countries in the world need to open up and cooperate more in science and technology and jointly explore methods to solve important global problems,” Xi said during the event.

The tone taken by domestic and international entrepreneurs corresponds with President Xi’s latest call. However, it contrasts starkly with the protectionist measures taken by Beijing and Washington amid the ongoing tech trade war.

Many Chinese telecom companies such as Huawei and ZTE have been sanctioned by the US over national security concerns. Meanwhile, Chinese tech companies are also under more pressure to keep national data within its borders, following the introduction of the country’s new Data Security Law.

Moreover, it will become increasingly harder for Chinese companies to make their stock market debut in the US as China continues to push for domestic listings in Shanghai, Shenzhen and Hong Kong.

The event also comes at a time of unprecedented scrutiny of China’s tech sector. Since Jack Ma’s Ant Group had its stock market debut torpedoed at the eleventh hour, many Chinese Big Tech firms have fallen victim to the tech crackdown, including gaming giant Tencent, ride-hailing app Didi, food delivery platform Meituan and the social media company ByteDance.

As Beijing has taken strides to regulate China’s hitherto chaotic cybersphere, companies have been forced to conform to Xi’s ideology. As a result, many big firms have pledged to donate a chunk of their corporate revenue or private wealth to China’s “common prosperity” goal.

Alibaba recently promised to set aside 100bn yuan (US$15.5bn), making it the biggest single corporate pledge to narrow the nation’s wealth gap yet. The company said that the allocation would be disbursed before 2050 to promote investments in technology, support small businesses, foster development in rural areas, help small businesses expand overseas and improve welfare among gig economy workers, including delivery people and drivers.

Tencent also announced that it would invest 50bn yuan (US$ 7.7bn) in a “common prosperity” fund that would promote the development of rural regions, low-income groups, primary medical assistance and grassroots education, among other things.

Meanwhile, former ByteDance CEO Zhang Yiming, Pinduoduo founder Colin Huang and Xiaomi CEO Lei Jun have vowed to donate much of their personal wealth. Five of China’s tech billionaires have pledged at least US$13bn of their private fortunes to charitable foundations and initiatives, a sum that far exceeds previous years’ totals.

The WIC is an annual event organised by the CAC and the local Zhejiang government. Since its inauguration in 2014, the event has attracted some of the biggest names in the tech industry. In addition to Chinese entrepreneurs like former Alibaba CEO Jack Ma and former ByteDance CEO Zhang Yiming, prominent foreign speakers have also made appearances: for example, Apple’s Tim Cook and Google’s Sundar Pichai both attended in 2017.