On the 11th of February, Bit hosted the Emerging tech of China webinar. Here our colleague Maartje Bakker together with Clingendael Research Fellow Xiaoxue Martin updated us on the latest tech developments in China, including facial recognition applications, deepfake innovation and more.
Scientifically China is becoming a real powerhouse, and they are in a rush to become the world leader in scientific research. In 2018, China overtook the US as the world’s most prolific scientific researcher, publishing an average of 305,000 papers a year. Quantity is not quality, but here China is making leaps forward. Looking at citations, in the last 3 years, China climbed from sixth place to second place. Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu, Bytedance, and ZTE are the big challengers out of China. They lead in numerous ways, from facial recognition to chatbots.
During the webinar, our guests raised many interesting questions and we thought it was important to share the answers. In case you missed the webinar, you can find the link to the recording at the end of this post.
So here we go,
Q: Where does China's autonomous driving capabilities exceed the US, which was leading over the last 5 years.
A: China exceeds the US with its traffic management tech development. China is using, among others, C-V2X technology to allow for simultaneous autonomous aerial vehicle flights and safer road conditions. Regulations and privacy laws in China allow them to use Cellular-Vehicle-to-Everything tech to its full potential: connecting smartphones, smartwatches, cyclist navigation computers, street cameras, and many more internet of things devices. The U.S.is barely getting started with this technology.
Q: What do you mean with electrical vehicles? Cars, trucks, Trains but also bicycles and scooters?
A: We see lots of different electric vehicles pop up in China: from cars to trucks, to warehouse robots to bikes and scooters. Autonomous ports, for example, Qingdao Por.t is using electric intelligent container vehicles (ICV) to move containers around.
Q: Great to hear about these great innovations. Within our western world, a lot of innovations are slowed down by old (organizational bureaucracy) systems, risks of cybercrime, and all the policies around privacy / GDPR. For Eg, we don't even organize digital elections. We know that China can force innovations/changes easier because of their system. How do you see this in relation to the adoption of these Chinese tech innovations?
A: While the Chinese central government can attempt to force top-down changes, this system has its own set of challenges. The local implementation of top-down directions is often difficult to realize in practice, leading to inefficiencies, and the system creates an environment less conducive to bottom-up innovations.
Q: All these strategies seem to rely on globalization, whereas, given the pandemic and possible new pandemics, a case could be made for the better resilience of smaller, more local economies and for technologies that rely more on smaller scales. Could you comment on that?
A: Made in China 2025 and China Standards 2035 are focused on increasing self-sufficiency so that the Chinese economy is indeed more resilient against global crises like the current pandemic, or against geopolitical struggles like the US-China trade war. For example, the Chinese government wants to increase China’s domestic manufacturing of high-end products to reduce its reliance on global supply chains.
Q: Does China have a real 'domination' policy. I think China has never, ever tried to concur with 'the world'. A lot of 'barbarians' have tried to exploit China. China wants to ensure (with raw materials etc) that China can flourish
A: It is true that the Chinese government’s policies are primarily aimed at securing stability at home. It is logical that it is pursuing economic growth to improve citizens’ lives, and it is not seeking world domination’ as an end goal per se. However, it aims to ensure economic growth by (among others) gaining a strategic foothold over key industries and sectors, which in practice will mean that China’s global influence will increase as well. This changes the international balance of power in China’s favor, which is beneficial for Beijing.
Q: Do you also foresee China becoming more of a global powerhouse with their own brands instead of producing for the big western brands?
A: Indeed, there are already quite a lot of globally successful Chinese brands: Huawei, Lenovo, Alibaba, Xiaomi, DJI, etc.
Q: I fully agree with the point on implementations inside China - the vertical control sometimes is an illusion. can you refer to the dual circulation economy and 14th FYP - to what extent it will slow down all ambitious plans of Beijing?
A: The dual circulation policy, which is an important part of the 14th Five Year Plan (FYP) of the Chinese central government, is in line with Beijing’s ambitions to stimulate economic growth based on domestic consumption and self-sufficiency instead of export and dependence on the global economy. The global pandemic and the geopolitical struggles with other countries have emphasized the importance of these plans.
Q: What can we learn from China, do better, and reuse - how can we not put ourselves in defensive mode, but use it to our advantage
A: One of the possible lessons on economic policies: China’s successful economic reform since 1978 has focused on experimentation (the infamous ‘crossing the river by feeling the stones) rather than pursuing a ‘one-size fits all’ strategy of economic growth such as the Washington Consensus that was in vogue at the time. By trying out different policies on a small scale, and then using these lessons to inform national policies, Beijing was able to oversee decades of economic growth.
Q: Is the energy focus for China only on 'owning' the battery domain?
A: China’s focus is both on batteries and on green energy. They are taking steps in solar power (like the solar space station) but also in creating an artificial sun, or fusion reactor, that can heat plasma up to 360M degrees Fahrenheit and is part of China'sBeautiful China 2050’ energy system plan to move away from coal and towards green energy.
Q: Energy and climate change is one of the hardest jobs for the future. Do you see a growth in the energy of the future in China? Next to owning the resources?
A: See comment about ‘Beautiful China 2050’ plan.
Q: With "peak Cobalt" approaching quickly surely battery manufacturers are looking to other solutions? That would seem more viable than Space Mining?
A: That is true, we see Tesla for example researching into cobalt-free battery solutions. This is an active research topic for them.
Q: First off, thanks so much for this webinar. Extremely interesting! My question: since China is so powerful and influential already and they have the backing of the Communist party that enables them to have an unfair advantage (in other words, they don't play by the same the rules) and on the other hand our incredible dependence on Chinese products, is there really anything the west can do to prevent this?
A: The Netherlands, although a middle power, is not powerful enough to go at it alone. Cooperation with allies, in Europe, the United States, or elsewhere, is crucial. While the Netherlands does not have to completely close off its economy, more measures should be taken to protect strategic/critical industries. For example, our recent Clingendael publication discusses geopolitical considerations for an investment screening mechanism: www.clingendael.org/publication/china-geopolitical-considerations-investment-screening
Q: Could you comment on the development on the Digital-Silk-Road and the threat of cybercrime. As a western economy NL should participate in a certain way, but at the same time keeping cyber-security at a strong level to protect domestic industries?
A: Rather than simply ‘participating in the Digital Silk Road’ on Chinese terms, the Netherlands should pursue a digital policy based on its own interests. The Dutch government has already made several steps in this direction, such as formulating a Dutch Digitalisation Strategy in 2018: https://www.government.nl/documents/reports/2018/06/01/dutch-digitalisation-strategy
Q: What is China's stand on climate change and what do they do about it from an innovation point of view?
A: Climate change is an important issue for Beijing, as the country struggles with increasing environmental disasters, pollution, etc. On the one hand, the Chinese government pursues many policies to fight climate change (e.g. pledging to cut carbon emissions entirely by 2060, investing in renewable energy), on the other hand, Chinese actors continue to finance environmentally unsustainable projects both inside and outside China (e.g. coal plants). A recent commentary on this topic: https://www.clingendael.org/publication/chinas-infrastructure-investment-environmental-sustainability
Continuing to encourage green finance according to international standards would be a step in the right direction.
Q: As far as I can see, Chinese innovation relies on fine engineering, focus and brute force (also a kind of focus, that is). And less on creativity. Could you comment on that?
A: While it is not true that creativity is not valued in China, its weak institutions pose a real obstacle to domestic innovation. Weak IPR protection, rule of law, corruption, etc all discourage innovation. The Chinese government, on a central and local level, has implemented several policies to strengthen institutions, but there is still a long way to go.
Q: @Xiaoxue, it seems that China is going to become the biggest superpower sooner or later. In the Netherlands, we are US-oriented currently, but do we need to become China-oriented at some point for our own benefit? Is it even possible for us, given our different set of values?
A: Rather than a binary choice between the US and China, the Netherlands should protect its strategic autonomy to engage with both countries when beneficial. Avoiding dependence on a single actor is important. Cooperation with China is necessary on issues like climate change, so the Netherlands definitely should not (and is not planning to) shut down cooperation with China completely despite differing values.
If you missed the webinar or you just want to watch it again or share it with your colleagues, you can find the full video on our YouTube channel: https://youtu.be/DvmIelnCVJc