Winning the tech war with Chinese characteristics
Behind the resolve to beat the US stand Chinese experts convinced China can take the lead, says Valarie Tan. This is the second in a series of short analyses that looks at China’s systemic competition and normative rivalry with the US and the EU. A look beyond the Beijing leadership shows how far debates about the features of political systems and the power to interpret events reach into Chinese society – and possibly shape the country’s actions.
China and the United States are locked in a bitter competition over technological primacy. For prominent Chinese experts, winning this battle is of geopolitical significance. The victor stands to gain first-mover advantage, establish standards and develop the overall infrastructure for the rest of the world to follow. Tech leadership equals global leadership.
Fang Xingdong, a widely published IT entrepreneur and director of the Centre for Internet and Society at the Communication University of Zhejiang, puts it like this: “Technology is the lever of history, the source of change in world hegemony and the fulcrum in the rise of great powers” (科技是历史的杠杆，是世界霸权更迭的根源，是大国崛起的支点).
As a result, it is not surprising that the tech sector has been described as the “strategic high ground” (战略高地) in Sino-US competition and the “biggest geopolitical challenge of the 21st century” (21世纪最大地缘政治挑战) in bilateral relations, writes Liu Jinhe, from Fuxi Institution, a government-linked think tank on digital development with “Chinese wisdom”.
Convinced that China has the upper hand in a contest of the greatest importance, Fang and Liu form part of a chorus of experts that is backing Beijing’s hardline approach towards the battle for tech supremacy. According to Ruan Zongze, Deputy Director of Xi Jinping Center for the Study of Diplomatic Thought, “time and momentum” (时与势) are on China’s side. Ruan is also Executive Vice President of the China Institute of International Studies (CIIS), a think-tank under China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry.
Even though the United States and Europe are still ahead in certain high-tech capabilities, China’s efforts to catch-up have shown “strong scientific and technological potential” (极强的科技潜力) argues Chen Jing of the Society for Science, Technology and Strategy, a grouping of nationalistic researcher. Chen points to recent breakthroughs as examples – landing the first spacecraft on the dark side of the moon, landing and rovering on Mars.
Experts often cite the superior strength and virtues of Chinese civilization
Secondly, experts often cite the superior strength and virtues of the Chinese civilization as the driver of these advances. In contrast to “Western monolithic Christian civilization” (西方一元化基督教文明), the Chinese civilization has “a big heart and a far-sighted vision”（心量大见识远）, writes Xie Maosong, of the China Institute for Innovation and Development Strategy, a Beijing-based policy research institute that studies “China’s path to peaceful rise.”
Tolerant of other cultures and political systems, China is a more inclusive and reliable partner. Chinese tech, argues Chen, can therefore provide better options for developing countries (中国科技能给发展中国家更好选择) keen on economic progress without “compromising their national dignity and security.” In other words, China’s foreign policy of non-interference in the domestic politics of other countries gives it a competitive edge over the United States to gain more global partners and a greater market share.
Thirdly, Chinese experts mock US efforts to contain China’s rise in science and tech as doomed for failure. Lacking any real industrial advantage over China, America has resorted to political means to maintain its “digital hegemony”（数字霸权）, argues Shen Yi, Director of the Research Center for the Governance of Global Cyberspace at Fudan University. Washington’s restriction of tech exports to Chinese companies has harmed not just US suppliers, but also Europe and global supply chains, according to Fang.
There is overall consensus among experts that China’s “unwavering” (毫不动摇) will, the result of withstanding years of hardship, can overcome US-led constraints. As testament to Beijing’s resilience, Ruan cites Huawei’s development of the Harmony OS as replacement for its smartphones after the Chinese firm was banned from using Google’s Android system.
China is forging ahead to establish its model of cyber and digital governance
In part, these writings provide an explanation as to why China has taken a resolute approach towards tech competition with the United States. In response to Washington, Beijing has doubled down. Mirroring US steps, it has added American companies to an “unreliable entity list”, and passed an anti-sanction law to retaliate against foreign sanctions on China. And beyond this tit-for-tat, China is forging ahead to establish its model of cyber and digital governance.
It held its first Internet Civilization Conference in November 2021 to promote censorship and control to combat online disinformation and misinformation. A year before, it launched the “Global Initiative on Data Security" as a multilateral platform based on “mutual respect for sovereignty of other countries” (各国应尊重他国主权). Domestically, China has introduced strict rules to govern the internet, personal information, and data security. In contrast to the US, it mandates localization of data and tight control of cross-border transfers.
Establishing a Chinese model of digital governance is a crucial way to counter Washington’s dominance in the global market based on internet freedom and the free flow of data, argues Zhou Li, a former Chinese diplomat and Vice President of the Chinese People's Association for Peace and Disarmament. Fang has called for Beijing to consider “increasing the costs of other countries joining forces with the US” (增加其他国家跟美国合纵连横的代价).
But ideology-led cooperation is no longer the global benchmark, argues Ruan. Europe’s trust in the United States has also declined. Pointing to the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, Ruan echoes a view common among his peers: America’s power is waning and China has “a multitude of tools and no shortage of friends and partners” (有多种工具可供选择，也从不缺乏朋友与伙伴) to prevail this technological showdown.
This analysis is part of a series supported by a Ford Foundation grant and is licensed to the public subject to the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.