China's plans for tech forum in US rankle Washington

Meeting, which aims to gather top tech firms, could undercut Obama's stern line on China amid Xi's state visit

HONG KONG • As Chinese President Xi Jinping prepares for his first state visit to the United States this month, Washington has warned that it could hit Chinese companies with sanctions over digital attacks for trade secrets.

Beijing is now pushing back in an unorthodox way: by organising a technology forum to demonstrate its own sway over the US tech industry.

The meeting, set to take place on Sept 23 in Seattle, is planned to feature China's Internet czar Lu Wei, the overseer of China's restrictions on foreign technology companies.

BIG FIRMS FROM CHINA, US TO ATTEND

The meeting is mostly to discuss the industry cooperation of the two countries, and big companies from China and the US, like Google, will all be there.

CHINESE DIGITAL SECURITY EXPERT ZUO XIAODONG, vice-president of the China Information Security Research Institute, who plans to attend what is being called the US-China Internet Industry Forum

A number of Chinese tech executives, including Mr Robin Li of Baidu and Mr Jack Ma of Alibaba, along with executives from top US tech firms including Apple, Facebook, IBM, Google and Uber, have been invited, according to people familiar with the plan who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak about the meeting. Some invitees, including Apple chief Tim Cook, plan to attend, according to one person. The forum is being co-hosted by Microsoft, said another person.

The meeting is rankling the Obama administration by veering off the script agreed to for Mr Xi's carefully stage-managed visit, two US officials said. There are also concerns the meeting could undercut President Barack Obama's stern line on China by portraying its leadership as constructively engaging US companies about doing business in China, even as the administration suggests US firms are hurt by anti-competitive Chinese practices.

For many US tech companies, the invitation is hard to turn down because of the vast opportunities of China's tech market.

Google and Facebook are among those blocked by China's Web filters from doing business in the country, which is the world's biggest Internet market. While the tech firms have not taken positions opposing US sanctions and some are conflicted about how to approach China, their appearance at the forum would signal how much leverage China wields over them.

At the meeting, Mr Xi could briefly address the gathering, or a selected group of American and Chinese executives, according to an Obama administration official.

In Seattle, Mr Xi is also set to meet Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates at his nearby lakeside estate for dinner before heading to Washington to meet Mr Obama.

A Chinese digital security expert, Mr Zuo Xiaodong, vice-president of the China Information Security Research Institute, who plans to attend what is being called the US-China Internet Industry Forum, said: "The meeting is mostly to discuss the industry cooperation of the two countries, and big companies from China and the US, like Google, will all be there."

At stake is how the global Internet will be managed. While the US supports an Internet in which companies are allowed to operate worldwide and users are given free online expression, China has said countries should be allowed to force Web firms to follow local laws, including censoring content and hosting data about Chinese users within China.

By dangling the carrot of market access to US companies that follow its rules, Chinese officials like Mr Lu want to influence global Internet governance and have its model more widely adopted.

Uniting most companies, however, is a fear that sanctions imposed by the Obama administration could lead to a Chinese response that would hit bottom lines and growth prospects alike. Administration officials have made it clear they are considering imposing economic sanctions against China for breaches by using an executive order under which Mr Obama has the authority to freeze financial and property assets of foreign companies that engage in commercial digital theft.

The order, signed in April, is not specific to China but is meant for use against Chinese entities, among others.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 10, 2015, with the headline 'China's plans for tech forum in US rankle Washington'. Print Edition | Subscribe