China anticipated the role of new technologies and devised strategies accordingly.
The Chinese idiom, “the backward catches up with the advanced” (后来者居上) rightly explains China’s great leap forward in Artificial Intelligence (AI) in just over a decade’s time. China’s desire to “catch up with and surpass” (赶超) the United States since Mao Zedong’s time, appears to have been realized at least in AI if we believe in the number of research papers published and the AI firms established by China. A study conducted by AI data analysis researchers of China Academy of Information and Communications Technology (CAICT), reveals that as of March 2019, the number of Chinese AI firms has reached 1,189 against the US’ 2,169. India was shown at number 5 with 169 firms. China’s global share of research papers in AI stood at 27.7%, surpassing the US (20.4%), while India ranked third at 5.8%. This phenomenon has also been revealed by Lee Kai-Fu’s bestseller, AI Superpowers, in which he envisions China and the US forming a powerful duopoly in the AI. So what is behind China’s AI dream?
One, China anticipated the role of new technologies in the fourth industrial revolution and devised strategies both at the levels of central and provincial governments. This could be gauged from the policy documents China released from time to time. Some of the most important ones are Made in China 2025 and New Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan released by the State Council in 2015 and 2017, respectively. The former sets a goal of achieving 40% self-sufficiency in core components and critical materials in a wide range of industries, including aerospace equipment and telecommunications equipment and achieve international recognition for Chinese brands by 2020 and enhance the same to 70% by 2025. It also identifies ten core areas that include AI, robotics, quantum computing, aerospace, new energy vehicles etc. The aim is to make China a “manufacturing power” (制造强国) from its current status of the “world’s factory” (世界工厂). The second report is AI specific, and identifies China’s approaches and goals to be achieved by 2030. It could be regarded as a blueprint to “lead the world” in AI. Recently, China has adopted the Data Security Law, that makes it mandatory for all Chinese companies and entities to acquire government approval before providing any China based data to foreign entities and agencies.
Two, the legitimacy of the Communist Party of China is closely linked to the economic growth. In fact, it was the liberalization drive that buried the ghost of Tiananmen in China. China is perhaps the only country in the world that has universalized AI across its industrial ecosystem, be it finance, health, military, power grids, hospitality or personal homes. The earlier-mentioned 2017 report envisages that by 2025, the scale of AI’s core industry and AI related industries will exceed 400 billion RMB (US$ 60.3 billion) and 5 trillion RMB (US$ 754.0 billion). The same in 2030 will be more than RMB 1 trillion (US$ 150.8 billion) and RMB 10 trillion (USD 1.5 trillion), respectively. The global market is expected to reach US$15 trillion in the same year. It is expected that by this time, China’s AI theories, technologies, and applications should achieve world-leading levels and establish China’s primacy in AI.
Three, it is under such a futuristic strategy that China has directed its universities to offer degree courses in AI. According to the 2018 China’s AI Development Report, compiled by China Institute for Science and Technology Policy at Tsinghua University, 36 universities across China are offering bachelor’s degree program in “Intelligence Science and Technology” and 79 are offering AI-related programs. Top Chinese universities have set up their AI labs. The state has also directed big-tech companies like Baidu, Tencent, Alibaba, JD etc., to spearhead research and development in core and related AI industries pertaining to computer vision, speech, hardware, algorithm, and natural language processing. According to data released by International Federation of Robotics in June 2018, the global robot market reached US$50 billion in 2017. The market posted 380,000 industrial robots sold in 2017, of these 138,000 were sold by China. Nevertheless, China is also apprehensive of its big-tech companies undermining the state-controlled finance sector as well as breaching data security by filing IPOs abroad. Investigations against DiDi in the wake of its Nasdaq IPO could also be analysed in this context, albeit like Alibaba’s IPO stalling, it’s indicative also of a factional feud in the Communist Party of China.
Four, China has used AI for so-called social governance or maintenance of social stability in restive regions such as Xinjian and Tibet. In 2019, leaked Chinese government documents detail how AI is being used against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. The 400-page documents was also examined and reported by the New York Times. Surveillance is not limited to the Uyghurs, but to every Han Chinese as well. According to a BBC report filed in December 2017, “China has been building what it calls ‘the world’s biggest camera surveillance network’,” albeit the reporter was told by the police this is meant to help the general public. Across the country, there would have been around 570 million CCTV cameras by the end of 2020. It is believed that by 2030, China will possess 30% of global big data. Notwithstanding the benefits, AI like other technologies will remain a double-edged sword.
Finally, AI undoubtedly will enhance productivity and generate more wealth in society. According to the above cited Tsinghua report, in the coming days, AI will be applied in more industries and bring substantial efficiency improvements—82% for education, 71% for retail, 64% for manufacturing and 58% for finance. In the long run, it may be instrumental in ameliorating the labour shortage faced by an ageing China, however, the same has led to involution among the Chinese millennials owing to the 996-work culture and an increasingly uphill social mobility which has resulted in the lying flat syndrome. China issuing various policy documents may have created a favourable environment for investors and enabled China to leapfrog in such a short time. Nevertheless, China’s weak privacy regulations, data sharing among government agencies and companies, big-tech companies such as Tsinghua Unigroup (Ziguanag) going bankrupt owing to bad debt, the ongoing cold war with the US, China’s decoupling from the West, especially in the hi-tech sectors will pose serious challenges for China’s AI dream.
B.R. Deepak is Professor, Center of Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.