Xi’s worrying tech curriculum
The CCP’s leaders use Collective Study Sessions to signal how technologies can be harnessed politically. Kai von Carnap says they reveal the challenges that the international community needs to recognize.
Huawei, one of tech war’s main supporting actors, recently introduced its new operating system, Harmony 2.01, as an urgent liberation from China’s dependency on US technology. A dependency that tech conflict’s least favorite character, Donald Trump, had turned into an existential threat. However, while Harmony 2.0 appears to be success story of Chinese-led innovation (自主创新) and scientific and technological progress, it also gives China’s party state significantly more power in cyberspace.
Unlike its US rivals iOS and Android, Harmony 2.0 requires third-party developers to go through an extensive identification process involving IDs, passports, and bank credentials. These developers – the growth-drivers of such platforms – will be rendered, at least to some extent, subjects to Chinese law regardless of where they live. These are new avenues for Chinese authorities not only to exercise legislation over previously unassailable individuals by applying or threatening with sanctions, fines or bans but to gain leverage over newly developing cyber territories.
Harmony’s strict developer identification process can be seen as part of a general regulatory wave against big tech in China. But it is also a reflection of China’s successful transition towards a "government steered market economy": Only over the last decade, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has gained the ability to formulate, implement and evaluate impactful government interventions. Such "industrial policy" in China is today managed through new institutions, interlocking policies and the strong integration of Chinas tech companies. China’s industrial policy stands out as it has focused on developing emerging technologies and on appropriating science and technology to reinforce the CCP’s own legitimacy and power.
Setting course for such policies, the CCP’s Politburo Standing Committee has long staged Collective Study Session (集体学习) to introduce the leadership to new ideas but also to establish geopolitical contexts, new vocabulary and rhetorical frameworks. For two decades now, these visions are mimicked throughout the party and across provinces for implementation into policies and laws. A consequential first step of institutionalizing party doctrine into emerging technology.
The cornerstone for Harmony 2.0 to expand the party’s sovereignty over cyberspace was set during 38th Collective Study Session on the development of internet technology on January 23rd 2007. Then president Hu Jintao called for the "construction and management of cyber culture" (网络文化建设和管理) to "spread [Chinese] advanced culture" (以先进技术传播先进文化) and "the advanced culture of socialism" (社会主义先进文化). He discussed a "purified network environment" (净化网络环境) and a new "order for the dissemination of online information" (互联网信息传播秩序). This Study Session was followed by the ban of the US’s Google and Facebook, the expansion of China’s Great Firewall and tighter online censorship.
Studying and directing the purpose of technology
Under today’s CCP General Secretary and Chinese President, Xi Jinping, government interventions have become more potent and the expansion of Chinese cyber sovereignty has accelerated: Chinese national security interests were extended to cyberspace in 2017, and the independent innovation capabilities of Chinese tech giants is suffering from a narrowing proximity of military and civil industries and increased accountability to the state for search engines, instant messaging services, websites, online payments, e-commerce and software providers.
Xi Jinping has also strengthened the signaling power of CCP Study Sessions to appropriate emerging technologies. He has put more emerging technologies – big data, artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain – on the study agenda than his predecessors and has made sure that the meetings are managed by close allies.2 Once portrayed as a proof of the party’s learning capacity, Study Sessions are now a feature of a personality cult, used by the General Secretary to signal his technological vision to reinforce the party's hold on power. His interest in "studying" emerging technologies should not only be taken as an acknowledgement of their economic gravity, but as the recognition of their central function to China’s strategic development.
Xi declared in 2019 that blockchain would not only reduce cross-departmental and cross-sectoral data islands, but also help China exert "normative, discursive and rulemaking power" (话语权和规则制定权) through the application of the "rule of law." His words caused a redirection of Chinese blockchain projects towards government services.
Similarly, Xi last year stipulated that quantum technology was an "emerging sector of strategic importance" (战略性新兴产业) that would ensure "national security" where China needed to "seize commanding heights of international competition" (抢占量子科技国际竞争制高点). Two years before that, he declared AI important so that China could win the global science and technology race by "becoming the pack leader" (头雁).
Chinas increased governmental steering of the economy has to be seen as inseparable from Xi’s vision for emerging technologies and will continue to have global implications. Harmony’s strict registration requirements could soon include every user of the operating system, not just developers. Given Huawei’s strong and briefly world-leading share in the mobile phone market and Chinas integral role in 5G mobile technology and the development of the internet of things, this could before too long affect a significant part of the global digital economy.
As a result, one should eye Chinas efforts to standardize emerging technologies with more caution. That includes Beijing’s growing influence over the governance structures themselves (at Europe's expense), regional standardization cooperation, and the standardization of technologies such as 5G and autonomous vehicles. Otherwise, tech standards will be developed rather disharmoniously in the primary political interests of Chinas party-state alone.
1 | Published in China as Hongmeng 2.0, 鸿蒙, eternal mist, not to be confused with hongmeng 红梦, a red dream.
2 | Ding Xuexiang (丁薛祥) director of the General Office of the CCP and Jiang Jinquan (江金权) director of the Central Policy Research Office are supervising lengthy rehearsals and ensure that propaganda and the implementation of decision-making are the result of the sessions, not a learning exercise of the ideas of invited lecturers.