Web giants such as Google, Facebook and Twitter would be welcome to operate in China if they adhered to Beijing’s strict censorship and surveillance laws, regulators have said.
Access to China’s hundreds of millions of internet users would be a goldmine for the web giants, but it would only be provided if the companies agreed to accept limits on how they operated in the country.
Speaking to the Internet Governance Forum at the UN’s European headquarters in Geneva, Chinese regulators recognised that people were asking “why Google, why Facebook are not yet working and operating” in China.
Qi Xiaoxia, director general of the Bureau of International Cooperation at the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), said of Google – which left China of its own accord in 2010: “If they want to come back, we welcome.
“The condition is that they have to abide by Chinese law and regulations. That is the bottom line. And also that they would not do any harm to Chinese national security and national consumers interests.”
The restatement of China’s tough domestic laws runs directly counter to President Xi Jinping’s promise that the nation’s internet would “only become more and more open“.
President Xi’s comments were read out at China’s fourth annual World Internet Conference, which leading figures from several US tech giants attended, including Google’s chief executive Sundar Pichai for the first time.
Mr Pichai spoke at the forum even though the search engine has been hit by the ruling Communist Party’s hard-line stance on western websites and apps, with the likes of Facebook, Twitter and most Google products and services all banned.
China is committed to the idea of “cyber sovereignty” – allowing the state to manage and contain its own internet without external influence – and recent new rules require firms to store data locally and censor tools that allow users to subvert the so-called Great Firewall.
It signed a cybersecurity pact with Russia in 2015, and both countries have sought to crackdown on any use of the internet which circumvented governmental controls in recent months.
In the vacuum left by western web and technology giants, China’s domestic industry has created other enormous companies operating on the internet.
Alibaba, described as China’s Amazon – although the company has its own merits – recorded nearly 20bn yuan (£2.1bn) in sales in a matter of minutes at the opening of its Singles’ Day annual discount sale.
Other companies, including Baidu (search engine), Tencent (social media), Huawei and Xiaomi (both hardware companies) have built up large customer bases through what have been described as China’s protectionist attitudes towards technology.