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Values as a quality seal: Germany should be more active in shaping cooperation with China

In areas such as data protection and ethics AI, Europe should use debates with China to present itself as a role model, argue Kai von Carnap and Kristin Shi-Kupfer.

When Margarete Bause, a German Green politician and human rights activist, recently had her visa application for a trip to China rejected, the entire Bundestag committee she was due to travel with cancelled their trip.

It is rare to see such a clear stand taken in German policy toward China. Yet this attitude should be standard, because this is the only way to establish a clear framework for future cooperation between Berlin and Beijing.

The cause of the recent friction is, at heart, the difference between the two value systems. China has seen it as an unjustified intrusion into its domestic affairs. Cases like this will likely become more frequent in the future. Representatives of the German government and parliamentarians should continue to express their views on human rights – and China will continue to be touchy about the subject.

Debates on digital ethics will reveal political and cultural differences with China

There should certainly not be any concessions. The Chinese leadership is increasingly inclined to see foreign players who compromise as weak and spineless. Tacit acceptance also entails the risk of experiencing human rights violations - at least indirectly - for oneself. Mass surveillance in the autonomous region of Xinjiang in northwest China shows what digital technology, at its worst, can do.

There is a good reason why in Germany and Europe the development of future technologies is increasingly linked with ethical questions. The EU is pushing ahead with requirements for the development of trustworthy Artificial Intelligence (AI) that respects privacy, creates transparency and prevents discrimination. It also wants to create guidelines for cyber security certification in order to better protect personal data.  

These debates will continue to reveal political and cultural differences with China, with very different implications. Take, for example, the question of how AI should behave in a moral dilemma. Should an autonomous vehicle protect passengers or pedestrians in an accident? Who should decide which criteria an autonomous vehicle uses? Could this decision be based on the evaluation of individuals under the social credit rating system? Automobile manufacturers in China and Germany have to ask themselves whether they want to limit themselves to the domestic market or offer both variants and thereby risk a public outcry.

Another example is the protection of private data. Earlier this year, Cambridge Analytics was blamed for the failure of a free voting system in the West because it had created and sold psychographic profiles based on social media data. Similar practices in China cause less outcry - often because the media is not allowed to report on such cases.

Chinese government is under increased pressure to take action on data security

This does not mean that data security is not an issue in the People's Republic. On the contrary, the Chinese government is under increasing pressure to take action in this sphere. It is China's privately-owned companies that have put the protection of private data on the agenda because Beijing has to date placed almost all responsibility for the matter on them. With many cases of personal information being obtained by fraudulent means, there is a growing need within the Chinese population to protect their personal information. It is true that, according to surveys, many Chinese see video cameras as fundamentally positive, but at the same time just as many fear the psychological consequences of surveillance. Around 80 percent of Chinese citizens say in the annual official report on the state of the Internet that they have already been a victim of data leaks.

Many Chinese are concerned about tech ethics – the EU can contribute to the debate

Many Chinese are concerned not only about their own interests but also about ethical principles. A large part of the population reacted with horror to the news that one of their compatriots was the first scientist to help parents have genetically manipulated babies modified with the CRISPR gene editing method. What has been missing in China so far is the translation of these discussions into political action.

This is exactly what the EU is good at – publicly discussing values and incorporating the results into the design and certification of technology. Europe should use debates with China to present itself as a role model and cooperation partner in areas such as data protection and ethics in AI. “Made in Europe” should be a synonym for the successful integration of values.

German companies should take their Made-in-Germany reputation for quality into the digital world and actively advertise with it in China. Why not bring competent and committed ethics or human rights experts on board? There are plenty of opportunities – the Chancellor's next trip to China starts on Thursday.

This is a slightly shortened version of an article that first appeared in the German newspaper Tagesspiegel on August 26, 2019.