China’s digital economy accounts for nearly a third of gross domestic product, according to a report released at an annual cyberspace conference staged by the government to justify its strict internet censorship.

Beijing this year has dramatically strengthened its already tight regulation of the internet, but officials and local media have used the fourth World Internet Conference to declare Chinese cyberspace is “open” – but subject to controls for the greater good.

The report unveiled on Monday in the eastern city of Wuzhen by the state-linked Chinese Academy of Cyberspace Studies, said China’s digital economy reached 22.58 trillion yuan ($3.4 trillion) in 2016, according to conference organisers.

china internet wuzhen
This file picture taken on December 3, 2017 shows delegates listening as Alibaba Group Executive Chairman Jack Ma speaks during the opening ceremony of the 4th World Internet Conference in Wuzhen in China’s eastern Zhejiang province.
Photo: AFP.

That figure is second only to the United States and accounts for 30.3 percent of the country’s overall economy, the report said.

The report assessed global internet development from a number of factors including industry capacity and “governance”, China’s code word for restrictions.

“China’s experience suggests that both factors are crucial to a sound development of the internet that aims to serve the fundamental interests of the people,” Xu Yunhong, an official from the academy, told a news conference in Wuzhen.

The three-day conference, which closes Tuesday, was set up to counter western criticism of its internet restrictions, which include blocking Facebook, Twitter and other foreign platforms, and bans on a range of content deemed politically threatening to the Communist Party.

China has cracked down even harder this year, including enacting new rules requiring foreign tech companies to store user data inside the country, imposing fresh content restrictions, and making it more difficult to use software tools that allow users to circumvent censors.

Ironically, however, Wuzhen attendees from around the world enjoy unfettered web access during the conference.

Despite criticism of the conference by the US Congress and overseas right groups, Apple CEO Tim Cook and his Google counterpart Sundar Pichai made brief appearances this year, illustrating the pull of China’s huge digital market.

Apple has come under fire recently for cooperating with Chinese authorities in purging its app store of software such as Skype that feature secure communications. And Google is thought to be seeking a return to China after pulling out years ago in a row over censorship and alleged cyberattacks.

Both executives seem to have steered clear of any contentious comments in Wuzhen. Company representatives did not respond to AFP requests for further information.

Official estimates emerging from the conference said that as of June 2017 there were 3.89 billion internet users around the world, with 751 million of them in China, Xinhua news agency said.

China’s digital economy has exploded in recent years due to a surge in e-commerce and the use of smartphone apps for a range of daily activities including ordering food, hailing taxis, messaging and playing electronic games.

AFP is a global news agency delivering fast, in-depth coverage of the events shaping our world from wars and conflicts to politics, sports, entertainment and the latest breakthroughs in health, science and technology.