19 September 2018
Big Brother in China
Every New Year, Xi Jinping gives a televised address from his office, in which two bookshelves can be partially seen in the background. The event prompts an online scurry to identify which new books the leader is reading.
At his last address Xi had included, in addition to classics such as Marx’s Das Kapital, two books about technology and artificial intelligence. This seemed designed to highlight his plan to end China’s reliance on Western technology and to become a world leader in areas such as robotics, artificial intelligence, biomedicine and autonomous cars by 2025.
The scheme seeks to turn China into a high-tech industrial powerhouse, equal to or surpassing countries such as the United States, Germany, South Korea and Japan. Malcolm Turnbull proposed spending AU$1.1 billion over four years to turn Australia into an “innovation nation”; Xi plans to spend US$300 billion over a decade. This includes the development of an enormous army of robots to fill labour gaps as the country’s population ages – a looming problem for China, given its one-child (now two-child) policy.
But the plan, titled the “Made in China 2025”, has infuriated the United States and been greeted cautiously elsewhere. While Australia has much to gain from China’s growth and technological prowess, and the two countries’ economies tend not to directly compete, the plan raises significant concerns for China’s regional neighbour.
There are serious worries about the uses to which these technologies could be put. Unlike some of Xi’s predecessors, who signalled that steps towards democracy could prove a healthy outlet for domestic opposition and criticism, Xi’s instinct is to crack down on dissent. And technology is turning out to be one of his best weapons.
Chinese technology firms and social media apps, including WeChat, have apparently been used by security services to find out the location of users and follow them. And then there is the vast surveillance network being set up as part of China’s “social credit” system, which assigns citizens scores that can potentially be used to assess their suitability for jobs, studies, even flight bookings, or the choice of school for their children. The points-based system is disturbing – as with so many developments in China – because the ends to which it will be put are not yet clear. A good score might help would-be renters lacking a rental history to lease a property; it may help first-time home buyers to secure a loan. And the system is expected to help combat problems such as fraud, money laundering and congestion. But most observers are sceptical and believe that emerging technologies are further entrenching the Communist Party’s rule and enabling the vast data-driven repression of 1.4 billion people.
Curbs on dissent, and further measures to manipulate public opinion and government data and statistics, will make it even harder for countries such as Australia to understand what is happening inside China. This could seriously damage trade and political relations between the countries.
Another concern about China’s innovation push is that it may breach global trade rules. Beijing wants to create self-sufficient technologies that could exclude other countries from providing parts or engineering expertise. This could allow China to manipulate markets and defeat competitors by deliberately oversupplying products, while limiting foreign investors’ ability to invest in or share technology. And officials in the United States and elsewhere believe that China’s innovation relies on forcing outside firms to hand over technology they have developed, as well as on large-scale industrial espionage.
These anxieties are fuelling Donald Trump’s trade war with China. “The actions President Trump has taken are purely defensive in nature: they are designed to defend the crown jewels of American technology from China’s aggressive behaviour,” the president’s trade adviser, Peter Navarro, said in June.
There is a final concern about China’s technology push: that China may export its increasingly elaborate capacity for surveillance and repression. Countries such as Vietnam and Ethiopia have already begun importing China’s system of internet censorship.
For Australia, the consequences of China’s next leap forward, like Xi’s bookshelves, are worth watching. Other titles spotted at his last New Year speech included Goetzmann’s Money Changes Everything and Tolstoy’s War and Peace.