Collaborate or isolate the Wild East? It’s not a binary choice

Manoj Kewalramani March 13, 2019

There are two interesting strands of thought that one can derive from the recent frictions between the US and China. First, geopolitical competition is closely linked to technological advancement. Second, values are a key component of geopolitical competition. The former refers to the accumulation of power; the latter is about the framework within which power is accumulated and exercised. This piece is about the latter.

In its competition with Beijing, Washington’s broad ethical or value proposition is based on three arguments. These can be classified as political, business and social arguments. The political argument is about the nature of the Party-state, i.e., an institution that approaches science and innovation with the sole aim of enhancing its power and perpetuating itself. Scientific advancement, in this conceptualisation, is not about the enlightened pursuit of truth or solutions with the aim of enhancing humanity’s lot and expanding freedom. It is a tool serving the state’s ends. Therefore, the rules are nebulous and ethical considerations secondary — all subservient to the state’s quest for power. The choice of Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua as the names for the long-tailed macaques cloned in 2018 is an apt example of this nationalistic approach. Zhong Hua means the Chinese nation or people.

The two long-tailed macaques born at Shanghai in January 2018 were among the first primates to be cloned. | Photo: Institute of Neuroscience of Chinese Academy of Sciences
The two long-tailed macaques born at Shanghai in January 2018 were among the first primates to be cloned. | Photo: Institute of Neuroscience of Chinese Academy of Sciences

The business argument is less philosophical and more about day-to-day operations. This revolves around complaints of industrial espionage, copyright violations, forced technology transfers, the violability of contracts, research and scientific misconduct, develop-first-regulate-later mentality, the desire to achieve ‘world’s first’ status, etc. It extends that such practices are a product of the political argument. In other words, the Party-state structure incentivises and facilitates such actions via top-level plans that outline targets for research, breakthroughs, market size, and production capacity.

The social argument entails how the state views the people, i.e., as factors of production serving the larger Party-state machinery. The outcome of this is the prioritisation of the collective over the individual, weak laws to protect individual privacy, and the use of technology to ensure discipline and conformity. The one-China policy, harvesting of prisoners’ organs, and surveillance and profiling in Xinjiang are all examples of policies that have emerged from this viewpoint.

At the intersection of these three arguments lies the core proposition: while the Chinese Party-state model might lead to technological advancements, research breakthroughs, and improvement in services, the costs it imposes on individual freedom and dignity along with the potential costs for human society as a whole are far too high.

This depiction of China as the Wild East of scientific advancement bears a grain of truth to the extent that power derived from scientific advancement does indeed have greater currency for the Communist Party than ethical considerations.

This depiction of China as the Wild East of scientific advancement bears a grain of truth to the extent that power derived from scientific advancement does indeed have greater currency for the Communist Party than ethical considerations. However, a binary or adversarial approach not only ignores a number of key factors but can also prove counterproductive from the long-term perspective of setting universally acceptable ethical standards for new technologies.

First, China is a leading scientific power in multiple sectors — space, biotechnology, telecommunications, computing. What’s more, its innovation capacity continues to improve. This is largely driven by increased spending on research, sustained state support, the cultivation of an ecosystem of innovation, and effective commercialisation of research. Consequently, expecting states, corporations and research institutions to not pursue opportunities with Chinese partners is naive.

Second, policymakers mostly play catch-up when it comes to scientific advancement and technological breakthroughs — and this is true for the West as it is for the East. The Holy Grail of regulation, in this context, is to build mechanisms of oversight while ensuring that the policy framework remains conducive to scientific and technological progress. This is a difficult balance to strike. What’s more, it comes with the caveat that policymakers cannot regulate for unanticipated outcomes. Speaking at the sidelines of the National People’s Congress’ annual session this week, Wang Zhigang, China’s Minister of Science and Technology, conceded that the law was struggling to keep pace with the rapid development of technologies.

Wang Zhigang, China’s Minister of Science and Technology. | Photo: Ministry of Science and Technology, China
Wang Zhigang, China’s Minister of Science and Technology. | Photo: Ministry of Science and Technology, China

Third, the narrative of China being the Wild East tends to overlook the discussion within the country with regard to ethical considerations associated with the development of certain new technologies. For sure, this in large part is a product of the opacity of the Chinese system. Yet there is enough evidence to suggest that an important conversation on ethics is underway within China. For instance, there is growing criticism with regard to the Sky River (TianHe) project to create artificial rain. Likewise, He Jiankui’s experimentation with CRISPR, which led to the birth of the world’s first gene-edited human babies, was condemned by the country’s scientific community. In response, in February, China’s National Health Commission proposed a tighter approval process for such research along with penalties such as a lifetime ban on research work, revoking of business licences, and possible criminal charges. Likewise, in the context of AI technologies, the Chinese Association for Artificial Intelligence has set up a committee to prepare draft ethics guidelines. These are likely to cover issues such as data privacy, AI in healthcare, and autonomous vehicles.

Finally, while the Communist Party’s approach towards scientific advancement may be driven by a desire to enhance national prestige, the impacts of advancements in fields like biotechnology and artificial intelligence are unlikely to be limited to national boundaries. Therefore, engagement and conditional collaboration are likely to yield better outcomes than adversarial posturing with the aim of isolation. The Party’s desire for prestige, in part, hinges on validation by the international community and collaboration with foreign partners. The quick revision of rules amid the criticism that followed the CRISPR babies controversy is an example of this.

Another matter of concern for the Party is the impact that technological advancement can have on social stability. which could undermine its control. One can view Vice Premier Liu He’s pitch for “inclusive understanding” to deal with “double-sword technologies” at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference in Shanghai last year in this context. Using these as leverage points to collaborate could be far more effective in shaping future ethical norms than threatening isolation.

Manoj Kewalramani, Associate Fellow-China Studies at The Takshashila Institution, writes a monthly column, Sino Circuit, on China and the factors powering its tech prowess


               

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