Why you need to pay attention to China and its technology
Feb 28, 2018

You need to pay attention to China:

- China will soon pass the U.S. as the world's biggest economy (if you're not familiar with the trillion-dollar Belt and Road infrastructure project, you really should be)

- New tech emerging from Chinese companies will affect you sooner or later (AI and facial-recognition systems, smartphones, solar panels, etc.)

- Big Tech in Silicon Valley is already partnering closely with the Chinese government (see Apple's Tim Cook speaking at the Internet conference in Wuzhen, which showed new surveillance and tracking tools)

- China's government is using tech in new, Black Mirror-ish ways (see the social credit system), and the U.S. government is no doubt watching to see how those play out.

Discussing China on my radio show

On my Techtonic radio show this week (listen to the show, read the show notes, or download the podcast) I interviewed Yong Zhao, founder of Junzi Kitchen, a new Manhattan restaurant featuring modern Chinese cuisine. We had a wide-ranging conversation about China and its emerging use of technology.

Yong Zhao was very straightforward: he said China's rise is inevitable, and that our best hope - for the good of China and the rest of the world - is to foster friendship, rather than enmity. As for the social credit system, which Yong acknowledged can seem creepy, he said it was the natural progression for China's economy, which never had widespread credit cards or credit scores - and the system also fits the Party's goals of authoritarian control.

Finally, I'll add that Big Tech has been in China for some time, forming and expanding partnerships with the government there. Did you catch Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, at the opening ceremony of the Chinese Internet conference? This is the event where the New York Times said, "The technology enabling a full techno-police state was on hand." For his part, Mr. Cook extolled the conference for "developing a digital economy for openness." Around the same time, Apple removed over 600 apps from the app store in China, at the request of Party officials in Beijing. Whatever you think of these developments, they're increasing and accelerating.

The tech industry, right now, is laying the groundwork for how users (citizens, students, consumers, patients - everyone) will be affected by tech in years to come. And China will play an increasingly central role in all of this.

Pay attention.

Here are some articles I'd recommend reading:

On the Belt and Road Initiative:

The New Silk Road (TIME, November 2017)

A New Silk Road - photographs by Davide Monteleone (New Yorker, January 2018)

How China's Economy Is Poised to Win the Future (TIME, November 2017)

On Apple in China:

Apple CEO backs China's vision of an "open" Internet as censorship reaches new heights (Washington Post, December 2017): Apple's CEO Tim Cook stood up and celebrated China's vision of an open Internet. . . "The theme of this conference - developing a digital economy for openness and shared benefits - is a vision we at Apple share," Cook said, in widely reported remarks. "We are proud to have worked alongside many of our partners in China to help build a community that will join a common future in cyberspace."

Apple's Tim Cook: Internet must have security, humanity (Boston Globe, December 2017): "Cook made the comments at the opening ceremony for China's World Internet Conference in Wuzhen - an event designed to globally promote the country's vision of a more censored and controlled internet."

Inside China's Big Tech Conference, New Ways to Track Citizens (NYT, December 2017): "The technology enabling a full techno-police state was on hand, giving a glimpse into how new advances in things like artificial intelligence and facial recognition can be used to track citizens - and how they have become widely accepted here."

Apple's Tim Cook: No Point Yelling at China (WSJ, December 2017): "Tech exec defends pulling 674 apps at Beijing's request, says change can't happen from the sideline."

Apple says it is removing VPN services from China App Store (Reuters, July 2017)

Apple moves to store iCloud keys in China, raising human rights fears (Reuters, February 2018)

Why the iPhone Is Losing Out to Chinese Devices in Asia (WSJ, February 2018): "Apple's market share is stagnant or declining in Asia, paving the way for other smartphone makers."

The "social credit" system in China:

Inside China's Vast New Experiment In Social Ranking (Wired, December 2017): "The aim is for every Chinese citizen to be trailed by a file compiling data from public and private sources by 2020, and for those files to be searchable by fingerprints and other biometric characteristics. For the Chinese Communist Party, social credit is an attempt at a softer, more invisible authoritarianism. The goal is to nudge people toward behaviors ranging from energy conservation to obedience to the Party."

China's Surveillance State Should Scare Everyone (The Atlantic, Feb 2018): "The country is perfecting a vast network of digital espionage as a means of social control - with implications for democracies worldwide."

Big data meets Big Brother as China moves to rate its citizens (Wired UK, October 2017), an excerpt from Who Can You Trust? How Technology Brought Us Together and Why It Might Drive Us Apart, by Rachel Botsman. "For now, technically, participating in China's Citizen Scores is voluntary. But by 2020 it will be mandatory. The behaviour of every single citizen and legal person (which includes every company or other entity)in China will be rated and ranked, whether they like it or not."

China's Social Credit System: AI-driven panopticon or fragmented foundation for a sincerity culture? (TechNode, August 2017): "As a means of avoiding responsibility, or of hiding behind machine decision-making to avoid individual responsibility (or governmental responsibility), AI poses a danger to the integrity of any system that would so 'wash their hands' of governance."

On AI and other tech in China:

As China Marches Forward on A.I., the White House Is Silent (NYT, Feb 2018): "China unveiled a plan to become the world leader in artificial intelligence and create an industry worth $150 billion to its economy by 2030."

China's All-Seeing Surveillance State Is Reading Its Citizens' Faces (WSJ, June 2017)

China's Stopchat: Censors Can Now Erase Images Mid-Transmission (WSJ, July 2017)

In Sign of Resistance, Chinese Balk at Using Apps to Snitch on Neighbors (WSJ, December 2017)

From this week's news...

China Moves to Let Xi Stay in Power by Abolishing Term Limit (NYT, February 25, 2018): "China's Communist Party has cleared the way for President Xi Jinping to stay in power indefinitely, by announcing Sunday that it intends to abolish term limits on the presidency."

About to Break the Law? Chinese Police Are Already On To You (WSJ, February 27, 2018): "High-definition cameras, security checkpoints equipped with facial recognition, and police patrols armed with hand-held smartphone scanners blanket the region's cities and villages."

...and one closing provocation:

Will China Impose a New World Order? (WSJ, February 2018): "When Pax Britannica gave way to Pax Americana, the transition was peaceful. A repeat is unlikely, says the author of Safe Passage. "

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Oh, and you should check out other past episodes of my radio show (or just get the podcast).