How to Understand and Address U.S.-China Technology Tensions

Kaiser Kuo could not have spoken at a more critical time in the U.S.-China relationship. Recently, Meng Wanzhou, the Finance Chief of Huawei, China’s biggest telecommunications company, was arrested in Canada for extradition to the United States. In retaliation, China detained two Canadians, Michael Spavor, and former Canadian diplomat, Michael Kovrig. 140 academics and former diplomats from around the globe have written letters to convince China to release these men. There is no doubt that this public event has further strained the U.S.-China relationship.

But what is the root cause of tense U.S.-China relations in 2019

Kaiser Kuo, host of the popular Sinica podcast, which covers Chinese political and economic affairs, illuminated these causes on Friday, January 18that CSCC.

Kaiser is unique in the China space, not only because of his background but also because of his perspective. He started in the rock music scene in China, playing in the band, Tang Dynasty, and forming the heavy metal group, Spring and Autumn. He then moved to the digital space, serving as the Director for International Communications for Baidu, the dominant Chinese search engine. His different kind of career has shown him different angles of the U.S.-China relationship. He advocates concepts that many traditional China watchers would not, such as: increased engagement, “celestial cross-pollination”, and understanding between the U.S. and China. 

In order to analyze technological tensions between the U.S. and China, Kaiser stresses that China watchers must realize that the U.S. and China perceive of technology differently. 

It is no secret that the Chinese government is spooked by social media. Reviewing history, Kaiser explained that Chinese Communist Party (CCP) did not approve of how the U.S. advanced social causes on social platforms. In fact, the first rule of soft power in China is to not talk about it. With unrest in Tibet came, and with the Urumqi riots and the Green Revolution in Iran came blocks to Twitter and YouTube. One only need look ten years back to see that the CCP began blocking social media, cracking down on Chinese dissidents, and giving trouble to human rights lawyers.

By developing a sensitivity to the CCP’s perspective, China watchers will be able to better address these technological challenges. 

Kaiser maintains that tensions go beyond forced technology transfer, intellectual property theft, overproduction of steel and aluminum, and disregard for human rights. Rather, he believes that the primary anxiety driver is the rise of China as the U.S.’s first “multi-dimensional peer” since World War I. While the Soviet Union challenged the U.S. militarily and ideologically, it did not sellany goods to the U.S. In other words, the U.S. did not needanything from the Soviet Union. 

The difference is that, today, the U.S. needs technology from China. China, more than any other country, rivals the U.S. in terms of purchasing power and defense capabilities. What is even more staggering is that China has developed technology in defiance of American values, such as: free market enterprise and bottom-up innovation. The “Made in China 2025” plan, the CCP-led top-down innovation approach, exists in a closed society, with a regulated internet, controlled by an authoritarian regime. The U.S. is used to technology thriving in an open society, with an unregulated internet, led by a democratic regime. 

This kind of “cognitive dissonance”, as Kaiser explains, gets us to the root of the technological tensions between the U.S. and China. Kaiser thinks that U.S. China watchers overestimate the technological advancements in China. He fears that this kind of over-exaggeration will result in greater distance between the U.S. and China. American high-tech companies have already grown concerned about the reductions in STEM visas, and American farmers have already felt the effects of tariffs in the trade war. 

So, what can China watchers do to address this tension? Kaiser proposes a series of measures. First, the U.S. and China should realize that each country has different social and cultural understandings of technology. Kaiser jokingly stated that: “In terms of technology, the U.S. is in the Black Mirror phase, and China is in the Star Trek phase.” While everyone laughed at this comment, they also paused to find the truth in it. Kaiser explained that while China’s tech enlightenment developed later than that in the U.S., China’s has dug deeper. In a society where WeChat dominates economic and social ways of life, it is not hard to see that China has “technophilia.” Second, the U.S. and China should create a list of best practices for a form of “enterprise governance.” This would allow the U.S. to make a list of national security-worthy technology which it could more forcefully protect from harm, such as intellectual property theft and forced technology transfer. Kaiser used the term “Small Yard, High Fence” to encapsulate this idea. Third, the U.S. should engage rather than retreat. Historically speaking, American businesses and investors have yearned to tap into the China market. America should not pull out now, especially given the challenges the world faces. The U.S. and China, as the two largest economies in the world, should work together to eradicate disease, fight climate change, improve access to education, and alleviate poverty. 




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