World Internet Conference Reflections

First things first, I have to admit, it took me a LONG time to write this blog. Over a month passed before I finally sat down and started typing. Procrastination is partly to blame, but it’s also been tough to write about, because I didn’t want to sound ungrateful, and I wasn’t sure how to balance that with my desire to accurately explain the trip. I needed time to digest.

So, let’s start with the easy part. When I first received an email asking if I was interested in a free trip to China, I couldn’t believe it. I was being invited to the World Internet Conference? There was a World Internet Conference? It’s in CHINA? Aren’t there 18,948 more qualified people than me who should be going? I could spend a week in another country on someone else’s dime? But more than anything, why not?

It wasn’t until I had the flight confirmation in my inbox, two days before leaving Chapel Hill, that I was confident it was really happening. Details had been sparse. And it wasn’t until I was in Shanghai, sitting on the floor of a hotel conference room with 40 other American students, that I started to understand why I was there.

Our hosts, the Cyberspace Administration of China and the All-China Youth Federation, had invited me and a couple dozen other students from the U.S., as well as 20 from China, to attend the conference as youth delegates to our respective countries. It was the second annual conference, held in Wuzhen, a historic water town not too far from Shanghai. There would be an opening speech given by Xi Jinping, the president of the People’s Republic of China, as well as a handful of speeches by presidents and prime ministers from places like Pakistan, Kazakhstan and Russia.

In the forums that followed, bigwigs from American companies like Netflix, Wikipedia and Airbnb would give speeches and participate in panels, as would ones from Chinese giants like Xiaomi, Baidu and Alibaba. We, the students, would get to listen in, and be part of our own panel, titled “Internet Dreams of Chinese and American College Students.” It all sounded pretty amazing, and we shouted like kids in a candy story when the full list of speakers was read out while driving to one of the very beautiful hotels we stayed in.

But back to the conference room floor. After an elaborate round of icebreakers, we were told this: as the future leaders of one of the top world powers (their words, not mine), we were here to establish relations with the future leaders of the other top power. We were to spend time with Chinese students and learn from one another, learn about the companies shaping the way we interact with other people and how we spend our time, and understand the role the Internet is playing in all this. Aside from that, we’d get to take in Chinese culture, attending a Chinese opera, touring universities and museums and eating local food, and visiting Dream Town, the start-up hub home to Alibaba in Hangzhou.

WICgroup

The 10 days I spent in China in December were great. It was my second time in the country that year, and third in my life – something I never thought I’d be able to say. I got to visit two new cities, Wuzhen and Hangzhou – the Silicon Valley of China – and spend a few more days in Shanghai, a city I adore. I tried a ton of new, delicious food (deep fried taro bites will change your life), and met students from the United States who were curious and eager to experience this very unique week together, as a community. I also got to meet really wonderful, welcoming students and adults from China who I hope to show the same hospitality to in my own country one day.

Now, the elephant in the room. I was at an Internet conference, in China. I was there as a guest, not a journalist, and in all honesty, I couldn’t report on it if I tried. But every reporter bone in my body twitched as I sat through a speech by the leader of a country with a very different take on freedom of speech touting an open future on the Internet, then also pointing his finger and warning us of the dangers of pursuing cyber hegemony – essentially saying, leave us alone, re: open access to the Internet. We’re gonna keep doing our thing.

I had a million questions when the American delegates, but not the Chinese, it should be noted, were handed swag bags that included free Xiaomi smartphones (the #2 brand in China), fully equipped with service, a VPN (giving us access to restricted websites and social media outlets) and the Facebook app preloaded. WHAT? Who paid for these? If I log into my Gmail, will the Chinese government have access to it too? Later, when we were taking photos in front of the World Internet Conference banners and there were 30 other cameras snapping our photo, I again wondered about our purpose there. Were we just a photo op? There to represent Western support of this crazy concept of China hosting an Internet conference? Whose idea was this, anyway? These are questions I still don’t have answers to.

What I do have is my experience. So, what does a World Internet Conference hosted in China look like? For the most part, it meant tiptoeing around the awkwardness and the disconnect, whether by way of speakers avoiding the obvious questions when speaking on panels, or moderators straight up changing the translation to exclude controversial phrases spoken in English.

Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales was the only one to truly address said elephant, acknowledging the importance of encouraging free flow of information, both for people to receive information and communicate outward. He talked about the future of improved translation machines enhancing person to person communication such that governments will no longer be able to control what people know in their territory. Called out, China.

So yeah, it was weird. I wished I could fact check everything, and I left with more questions than I came with. There were very few women on stage, and the ones who were mostly acted as translators or hosts.

Like any time abroad, though, I learned and experienced so much in 10 short days that I simply could not have otherwise. I listened to speeches through translators, and watched the reactions of bilingual students skeptically listening to those same panels and corresponding translations. I live-tweeted while also attempting to follow a GOP debate happening the night before in the U.S. I got to attend a tech expo and geek out over virtual reality glasses and hoverboards. And most importantly, I got to meet a ton of really awesome people and engage in great conversation about where the United States, China, and the Internet are all headed.

This was all thanks to my boss at China.org.cn, who suggested a fellow intern and I attend. I am extremely grateful.

Until next time, China.

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