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World Internet Conference 2015

Xi, Xiaomi and the censorship game: Foreign visitors at World Internet Conference in China given free smartphones and cheat codes to access blocked websites

But while Chinese reporters decry double standards, Chinese president’s keynote speech sparks guessing game about possible use of innovative teleprompter

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 December, 2015, 3:13pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 December, 2015, 1:03am

From President Xi Jinping’s keynote speech to reporters’ access to blocked websites, the opening day of a keenly awaited global internet conference in eastern China is already stirring debate and courting controversy over the use of secret new technology and what some claim are double standards.

Cybersecurity and global internet governance are expected to be among the key themes at the 2nd World Internet Conference (WIC) in Wuzhen, Zhejiang province, where all overseas guests and tech tycoons have been given a Mi Note LTE by Xiaomi, China’s top vendor of smartphones, to use Wi-fi and make calls.

READ MORE: Double standards: China’s push to develop internet for economic gain tempered by strict censorship

The phones come pre-installed with an app offering helpful information such as the conference agenda, and are theirs to keep, they said.

Moreover, guests from overseas who are attending the annual three-day event say they have been granted special access to websites that are usually blocked on the Chinese mainland, including Facebook, Twitter and Google.

One attendee representing a Hong Kong media outlet at the annual conference told the South China Morning Post that he was put in a hotel near the WIC and offered an individual account and password for his in-room Wi-fi.

Once in the room, he found he could use the account to reach Facebook and other blocked sites, he said. But if he switched the account off and tried to use the internet as normal, the sites were unavailable.

READ MORE: VPN services blocked in China as Astrill warns of ‘increased censorship’ following WW2 parade

The man said the same applied to other foreign media in his group.

When the Post asked several Chinese reporters if they were able to access the blocked sites, they all said the sites were still not reachable and that they had not received a Xiaomi phone or special Wi-fi access code.

“What are you talking about? A special account and password?” replied one Guangzhou-based reporter.

“None of us has it. Maybe it’s only for guests in other hotels.”

Moreover, some local reporters were disgruntled at how the organisers had arranged their accommodation further away from the venue than for those journalists working for foreign media.

“I and many other mainland reporters are staying at the Wuzhen Gold River Side Hotel. It’s not close to the conference. We need to take a shuttle bus to get there,” said one Chinese man, who declined to give his name.

Meanwhile, Xi’s keynote speech soon turned into a guessing game as to whether the Chinese Communist Party leader had memorised his notes or was reading from a cutting-edge teleprompter than no one could see.

His appearance in itself implied the raised stature of the event as the president’s contribution in 2014 came in the form of a congratulatory letter.

In his 30-minute opening speech on Wednesday, Xi detailed his views on internet governance and called for new rules governing international cyberspace that are “multilateral, democratic and transparent”.

The general consensus was that he used some new technology to deliver the speech, said one observer, who declined to be named.

After listening to Xi’s speech, one participant immediately sent a message to his colleagues via Tencent’s Wechat, one of the most popular mobile messaging apps in China, urging them to learn from Xi’s ability to make an unscripted speech.

He want to send another quick text after learning this: The organisers confirmed to the Post later in the afternoon that Xi had been reading from a (regular) teleprompter.

Despite the rumours and controversy to emerge from dayone, one issue that was less open to debate was the especially strict security at the event.

“We can see police officers stationed every 50 metres as we walk to the main conference hall,” said the reporter from Hong Kong.