The Chinese party-state’s technological advantage is not invincible

Remember “little green men”? These anonymous irregular forces spearheaded Kremlin efforts in Ukraine. Amid artificially stoked chaos they seemed irresistible. Now they look dated. A well-run country can block, trace, detain and (if necessary) shoot these intruders.

This decade’s threats are much graver, featuring electrons not atoms, brainpower not brute force. The battlegrounds range from cloud computing to surveillance technology and the human body. The perpetrators are hard to identify and even harder to arrest, not least because they may not be human. Science fiction may be a better guide than strategy textbooks. What is possible today may become impossible tomorrow (the ability to be anonymous in a crowd, for example), and vice versa: quantum computers will soon be able to cracks years-worth of your most secret encrypted messages in minutes.

China already has formidable advantages, from drones, batteries, and polymers to artificial intelligence and virtual reality. The Leninist party-state devotes huge resources to research and development and runs ruthless industrial espionage programs. But its greatest asset is capitalism. The Chinese Communist Party not only exploits the innovation, dynamism, resilience, and efficiencies of market economics at home. It enjoys their benefits abroad too.

Vladimir Lenin (supposedly) said, “Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them.” He could not have foreseen that our generation would invest our savings in the rope factory, help it tap international financial markets, and let it steal our best braiding and plaiting techniques, send its brightest students to study cordage at our top universities, and hire our retired politicians as its lobbyists.

As a result, whereas the Soviet Union could afford only narrow technological progress in military related fields and space technology, China advances on a broad front. We cannot ignore its technological clout, nor can we avoid it. Our options are shrinking.

The big bet we made in 2001 was wrong. Welcoming China into the world trading system resulted in the expected economic progress but not the hoped-for political liberalization. The Trump administration’s belated policy of sanctions and tariffs has been partially successful, notably in blocking Huawei’s advance in some European countries and other U.S. allies. But results elsewhere have been patchy. Trying a stronger embargo is risky. Faced with a sharp choice between China and the West, right now many countries might choose Beijing. For 64 countries, China is the largest trading partner, against only 38 for which the United States matters most. We have a lot of ground to catch up.

Humility is called for, but not despair. We can compete if we wish to. Firstly, we need alliances. Western countries combined are still bigger and richer than China. The technical standards and legal environment on next-generation topics (such as digital currencies, biometric identification, and the status of artificial intelligence entities) will shape the world economy for the next decades. They are being drawn up right now in boring-but-important international agencies where Western governments are regularly outmaneuvered. Nobody makes us lose; we choose to.

We can spend more on research and offer our scientists and engineers more freedom and less form-filling. We can boost the resilience of our supply chains, looking at strategic considerations rather than cost.

More broadly, we have to show that our approach to digital and technological issues is rooted in self-confident, clearly articulated contestability, openness, transparency, and redress — features of our societies that are so profoundly lacking in mainland China. Self-criticism is healthy; self-doubt is crippling; self-hatred is pernicious. Both Russia and China want the West to be consumed in debilitating, divisive rows about its past and present shortcomings. Don’t make it easy for them.


Photo: A giant screen shows Chinese President Xi Jinping attending the opening session of the National People’s Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People, in Beijing, China March 5, 2021. Credit: REUTERS/Tingshu Wang

WP Post Author

Edward Lucas

See author's posts

March 22, 2021

Europe’s Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.