Fear of a red tech planet — why the U.S. is suddenly afraid of Chinese innovation

Foreign Affairs

Americans are as wrong in their overestimations of Chinese innovation today as they were in their underestimation just a few years ago.

Recalibrate expectations of Chinese tech Kaiser Kuo
Illustration by Derek Zheng

What is it that seems to unsettle many Americans so much about China’s rise as a technology power? Why have American anxieties about Chinese tech, from Huawei and ZTE to TikTok and WeChat, from cyber-espionage to the social credit system, surged so suddenly to the forefront of American consciousness?

In an age when technological prowess is a prime determinant of national strength, it is perhaps unsurprising that China’s bulked-up tech musculature would produce such anxiety in a country that has long enjoyed unrivaled technological supremacy.

But there’s more to it than that. Two fundamental narratives once gave Americans, and to a great extent, other “Westerners,” assurance of their enduring leadership in tech. These beliefs offered comforting explanations as to why authoritarian states like China not only would fail to produce truly innovative technology, but also would themselves be fatally vulnerable to it.

The first of these is the idea that technology — the internet, smartphones, and especially social media — would sound the death knell for autocracies. It might be called “liberation technology,” and for a long time, it was the most common form of techno-utopianism. This emancipatory narrative viewed technology as inherently democratizing. It conceived of the internet as a realm that floated free, above the petty concerns of nation-states, able to act upon politics without being acted upon by them. It therefore had boundless emancipatory potential.

How did Americans come to a point where they’re essentially convinced of quite the opposite? How did they arrive at this moment, where they now fear surveillance capitalism at home, where some of the U.S.’s most popular political figures are now calling for the dismemberment of Big Tech, and where they see techno-authoritarianism casting its dark clouds over the rest of the world — especially China?

The other narrative that once gave Americans assurance was also about the relationship between technology and authoritarianism. In this one, the “narrative of innovation,” tech innovation is only really possible under conditions of political freedom. Authoritarian states can’t innovate. Innovation happens when ideas and data flow freely, when people pursue their intellectual curiosity unburdened by censorship. A corollary to this is the belief that innovation bubbles up from below: It’s the scrappy entrepreneur laboring in obscurity in Menlo Park, New Jersey, or Menlo Park, California. Top-down approaches are all just doomed to fail. China, of course, was the proof of that. All of China’s companies, Americans long told themselves, were mere copycats. China somehow never managed to actually innovate, and anything that looked like innovation had to be the result of IP theft.

Americans for the most part believed that one, too, until quite recently. And then, suddenly, they didn’t.

2016: When America changed its mind about technology and innovation

All at once, sometime in 2016, the narrative flipped. The media, the pundits, investors, and even politicians stopped speaking disparagingly about the inability of Chinese tech companies to innovate, and started speaking about them with a kind of breathlessness and urgency. Suddenly, China was going to out-innovate the U.S., beating it in a new AI arms race, in the race for quantum computing, and in biotechnologies. China assumed the proportions of an unstoppable juggernaut, destined to eat the American lunch.

What is remarkable about the changes to both of these narratives is not just the suddenness with which they changed, but also the near simultaneity of the change, the extremity to which they swung — to the point of near-total inversion — and the rapidity with which they seem to have taken hold in the American mind. They weren’t calm and fact-based correctives to an outdated pearl of conventional wisdom; they were emotional responses that resulted in new narratives as unhelpful and inaccurate as those they replaced.

The emotional nature of these narrative inversions has its roots, of course, in the fact that the U.S. faces, in China, its first true multidimensional peer competitor since the end of the Second World War: an economic competitor that, while lagging far behind in terms of nominal GDP and further still on a per capita basis, nevertheless has already surpassed the U.S. in GDP by purchasing power parity, and a military competitor whose capabilities are surging. This goes well beyond what the USSR represented during the Cold War, or what Japan in the 1980s represented. While they may have been military peers (the Soviet Union) or serious economic competitors (Japan), neither was both.

It’s tempting to suggest that perhaps Americans have a psychological need for an enemy Other. Certainly the panic over Japan 30-odd years ago suggests that there may be a touch of orientalism or racism to the current panic over China. And it’s not far-fetched to suggest that the military-industrial complex needs some justification for ever-greater expenditures. These reasons are beyond this essay’s scope. But what is clear is that the competition itself, in both its economic and military dimension, is a fundamentally technological competition. Little wonder, then, that American anxieties would center on the technological dimension to the contest, and the narratives that inform the American understanding of that dimension.

Let’s turn first to this “narrative of emancipation.” Not so very long ago — in the first Obama administration, say, when these ideas were at their peak — I think it’s fair to say that most of the American cognoscenti believed that the internet really was on the side of freedom. They ascribed to technology a kind of volition and a teleology. They believed that in some sense, the internet and all digital media somehow wanted to be free, and believed it would also liberate those who lived under autocratic regimes.

This idea that technology was inherently emancipatory really took off with the advent of social media. It wasn’t very long before American media began eagerly slapping the label of some American social media property — Twitter, YouTube, Facebook — onto various democratic uprisings in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. The protests that followed parliamentary elections in Moldova in April 2009 were the first of several Twitter revolutions. The protests in Iran that began after the re-election of Ahmadinejad in the summer of 2009 became the “Twitter Revolution” and the “the Facebook Revolution” and the “YouTube Revolution.” The Tahrir Square protests in Egypt were also known as both Twitter and then Facebook revolutions.

The view from Beijing

Beijing, of course, was nervously taking notes. And from the perspective of China’s leaders, it’s easy to see why they were so nervous. They could open to the op-ed section of any American or U.K. newspaper and see this idea quite boldly proclaimed — that all these networked people, free to express themselves and to organize online, who would always find a way around the censors, would bring about the end of one-party dictatorships like the Chinese Communist Party. They’d already had one near-death experience in the age of the fax machine and CNN, in the spring of 1989. So when Tibet exploded in a violent uprising in March 2008, Beijing almost immediately blocked YouTube. In the run-up to the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen, they blocked Facebook. And Twitter was blocked after the July 5, 2009, riots in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang.

Google’s announcement that it would no longer censor search results in China (even if — as proved to be the case — it would not be able to operate in China) came in January 2010, and it really caught Beijing on its back foot. There was considerable support for Google: As a brand, Google still had something of a halo back then, and people actually laid wreaths and flowers outside its Beijing offices. Beijing responded by calling the whole thing a “war of information imperialism,” but didn’t get much traction with that — until then secretary of state Hillary Clinton made a speech just nine days after Google’s announcement. The speech was all about global internet freedom as a major goal in American foreign policy, taking aim in particular at China, and making the episode with Google a major part of Clinton’s address. She announced that the State Department would be funding projects to develop technologies for circumventing censorship.

There was plenty of reason for China to be nervous about this. By the beginning of the present decade, it was hard to go a week without seeing some dangerous (or inspiring) example of the mobilizational power of the internet — some corrupt or otherwise nefarious official brought low because of vigilant netizens.

But a funny thing happened on the road to inevitable emancipation. Three things — none of which, significantly, have anything to do directly with China — contributed to the 180-degree turn with respect to the emancipation narrative.

First was the disillusionment that set in because of the dismal end of the Arab Spring, which had failed to usher in the promised democracy and led to horrific civil war in Libya and Syria. The one country with a relatively “successful” Arab Spring uprising, Tunisia, perversely ended up supplying more foreign fighters to ISIS than any other country.

Then there were Edward Snowden’s bombshell revelations around the Prism program of domestic spying by the NSA, using America’s own tech companies.

And, finally, there were the extensive efforts by Russia to meddle in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, carried out in large part through exploitation of U.S. social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. The abuse of Facebook data by the now-defunct Cambridge Analytica, which came to light in 2018, added to the disillusionment with technology as a force for liberation.

Americans emerged on the other side of this with their belief in technology as a force for freedom in tatters. Instead, it looked increasingly like technology is the loyal handmaiden to authoritarianism. And China’s ruling party, the Chinese Communist Party, was there to confirm them in this belief. It had, after all, defied Bill Clinton’s famous pronouncement that they’d never be able to “nail the Jell-O to the wall.” It was now, in the darker accounts, rolling out a nationwide system that would assign “social credit” scores to its citizens based on online behavior and certain markers of ideological purity.

More troubling still, Beijing was creating a tech-enabled Orwellian security state in Xinjiang in its northwest. In that region, at least, China has indeed tipped into full totalitarianism. Activists have made serious and well-documented allegations about extensive biometric collection, including DNA collection, in the region, and leaked documents appear to show that extralegal detentions of Uyghur Muslims are carried out solely on the say-so of AI algorithms. Little wonder, then, that many Americans were prepared to believe the worst — that Beijing would compel Chinese companies from Huawei to TikTok parent company ByteDance to harvest data or conduct espionage on its behalf.

Paralleling, complementing, and reinforcing this fear of Chinese techno-authoritarianism was a groundswell of loathing for Silicon Valley surveillance capitalism.

When people who aren’t free learn to innovate

At the same time that the narrative of emancipation was turned on its head — in the years following the 2016 election — the narrative of innovation was also undergoing inversion. The idea that Americans are uniquely innovative because they live in a free and open society has long been one of the sturdier bastions of American exceptionalism. In 2013 and 2014, then vice president Joe Biden delivered several graduation addresses on just this theme: China, with its censored internet, would never rival the U.S. in its capacity to innovate. These same themes were echoed by Carly Fiorina, former CEO of HP, when she was running for president in 2015. Like Biden, she challenged audiences to name one truly innovative Chinese product. Biden took it a step further, not only arguing that freedom was a necessary condition for innovation, but that freedom was a sufficient condition for it.

As someone who covered tech as a reporter throughout the early 2000s and went on to work for two major Chinese internet companies, I remember when the dismissive attitude toward Chinese innovation prevailed, and I laughed, too, when people would routinely joke that C2C in China stood not for “consumer to consumer,” but for “copy to China.” Underlying this, whether it was couched in terms of China’s pedagogy or overtly in terms of censorship and lack of free information flows, was this idea that you needed freedom to innovate.

So when this narrative completely flipped, and Americans started worrying that Chinese were out-innovating them in key areas of technology like AI and quantum computing, it went right to the heart of that axiomatic belief. The tone of coverage of Chinese tech began noticeably to change in 2016, when a cascade of stories praising China’s advances in AI, its super-apps like WeChat, the ubiquity of mobile payments and mobility solutions gushed forth from newsrooms. In no time, Americans had gone from open contempt for China’s innovative capacity — coupled with a smug, hubristic faith in their own — to an exaggerated regard for, or even a panic over China’s capabilities.

A sensible correction, affirming that China had indeed managed some original and innovative things in tech, would have been needed. But Americans are as wrong in their overestimations today as they were in their underestimation just a few years ago. China’s weakness in core technologies, its continued dependence on American tech especially in semiconductor technology, was laid bare after Washington cut off exports of key components to ZTE, long thought to be one of China’s big national tech champions, and brought that company to the brink of death.

Lessons the U.S. has failed to learn

With both of these narrative inversions, some lessons are clear.

First, a naive and dogmatic faith in the original narratives left the U.S. really complacent, and unready to respond effectively — or even to realize when reality began to encroach until it was quite late.

Second, Americans — and they are not alone in this — have a maddening tendency to impute moral or normative properties to technology, and that tendency has served them poorly both before and after the narratives changed.

Third, as it is with so many dogmas, once they’re abandoned, there tends to be an irrationally strident reaction that goes too far in the other direction.

Technology has emerged as the issue that sits at the very heart of America’s tensions with China, touching every issue in the bilateral relationship, from national security to trade and the economy, from human rights to environmental policy. Tech supremacy is increasingly cast as a zero-sum contest, and U.S. policy under the current administration seems focused not on bolstering American tech competitiveness as much as stymying China — especially in these last months. While the irremediably transactional Trump may appear to care more about soybean exports than 5G networks and the future of advanced manufacturing, the clear motivations behind the trade war launched in 2018 were ultimately about competition in technology in coming decades, and were — if not for Trump, then for his administration — ultimately about Chinese industrial policy as laid out in Beijing’s “Made in China 2025” plan, which urges China toward dominance in advanced robotics and other critical areas of manufacturing. The tech focus is in evidence even when it comes to human rights issues: The administration’s first meaningful response to the atrocity in Xinjiang, where perhaps a million or more Uyghurs have been extralegally detained, was to blacklist Chinese firms providing surveillance-related technologies to the region, and prevent U.S. firms from doing any business with them.

COVID-19 seems to have accelerated every global trend already underway, and the American narrative shifts with regard to technology. Even before the pandemic, overreaction to Chinese technology already threatened to undo the enormous good that had come of decades of cross-pollination. Now the rush toward decoupling threatens to foreclose cooperation on two issues demanding close technological cooperation: climate change and the threat of another global pandemic. Meanwhile, Americans’ faith in the competence of their leaders and their institutions has been further eroded. And, most tragically, they have lost faith that values like openness will stand them in good stead against the challenges now posed by a technologically powerful China. As the Trump administration bans Huawei from its networks and TikTok and WeChat from its app stores, it seems determined to learn only the worst elements of China’s approach to technology.

—This piece appeared originally in Wired Italia, in Italian.