As Cook and Pichai leave China, Valley confronts rising internet tyranny in world’s second largest market

It’s been a bad few months for internet freedom in China (and really, a bad few decades, but who is counting?). The government brought into force a broad-ranging “cybersecurity law” earlier this year that empowers Beijing to take unilateral control over critical internet infrastructure, while also mandating that foreign companies keep all citizen data local inside China — preventing cloud services like Amazon Web Services from moving information between local and foreign data centers, for instance.

That’s not all, though. As Jon noted earlier today, China’s government has also asked Apple to remove hundreds of apps from the China-version App Store this year, including popular social messengers like Skype and VPNs that allow Chinese citizens to access information outside of the Great Firewall.

So it was with great irony that as China has been cutting itself off from the rest of the world’s internet, it hosted the fourth-annual World Internet Conference in Wuzhen this past week. And in an unannounced surprise, Apple and Google chief executives Tim Cook and Sundar Pichai showed up to take part in the “festivities.” Cook even delivered a keynote, and a bow to the audience that was met with a standing ovation.

The theme of the World Internet Conference might have been “Light of Internet,” but the theme of the conference really needed to be: “How far is too far?”

Chinese President Xi Jinping has repeatedly increased government controls over the internet throughout his administration, and with his ascension to “core leader” at this year’s 19th Party Congress, those controls are only expected to continue to tighten. Therefore, it’s not unusual for foreign tech execs these days to be making the pilgrimage to China to try to maintain their access to the market — or to get any access at all. Just a few weeks ago in October, Cook was in China again along with Mark Zuckerberg to attend the annual advisory board to Tsinghua University’s business school, which Cook joined in 2013.

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