Monday, January 30, 2023

What is China's Tech Policy?

Greetings from the Australian Centre on China in the World,at The Australian National University, where Rogier Creemers from  Leiden University i speaking on China’s Techno-Developmental State: Achieving the Future. He began by noting there were few China tech policy watchers, despite there being plenty of Chinese government documents available to work from. Also Dr Creemers suggested China is a "future oriented authoritarian state", in contrast to Russia's "eternal present". 

Working out what the thinking is in the Chinese government is of vital interest to Australia. It is also of immediate interest to me, as yesterday new reports indicated China has banned their citizens studying online. But exactly what had the Chinese government decided, and why?

In 2003 I attended a conference in Beijing to provide advice on building the website for the 2008 Olympics. As a former Australian government technocrat, and academic, I felt very comfortable talking to Chinese technocrats and academics. The US representative, in contrast, seemed to expect everyone to be in Chinese tunics, waving little red books.

Dr Creemers argued that Chinese tech policy is shaped by being a late adopter. China had to have its Internet first hosted by a Western university, and accept its libertarian underpinnings. This is perhaps a little overstated. When we needed to set up the Australian Defence Department's web site, I turned to a university. Admittedly this was the Australian Defence Force Academy, but the Government bureaucracy could not cope with what to do, I bypassed it. Similarly, the laissez-faire ethos of the Internet is something which the Australian Government could not comprehend. In a Senate Internet inquiry we had to explain why there could not simply be a government agency which approved every document before it went online. In contrast, when I visited the People's Daily, they had a sophisticated view of how to guide discussion online. 

Dr Creemers suggest that the rise of the smartphone took the Chinese government by surprise, but an office was established to regulate this, and coordinate digital policy. 

As Dr Creemers explains it, the Chinese government had some surprises and made adjustments to policy. This reminded me of Juan Du's "The Shenzhen Experiment: The Story of China’s Instant City", which challenged the idea that the city's success was due to a single central policy decision. One insight was that China wants not to just master a technology, but apply it profitably. This is an approach the Australian Government could perhaps learn from. Successive Australian Governments have attempted to set up defence industries. However, these have failed, due to a lack of competitiveness. 

Dr Creemers argues that China is trying to design a new economic model which provides economic prosperity, but is not the same as western liberal capitalism. 

At question time I asked Dr Creemers: "Given how important China is to Australia, what should the Australian government be doing, apart from generously funding a tech policy unit at ANU? ;-) ". He explained he had just arrived, but would tell European governments to work out what they see as a long term acceptable relationship with China, rather than short term knee jerk reactions.

Philippa Jones, from China Policy asked about China's interest in the Digital Economy Partnership Agreement (DEPA). Dr Creemers suggested China was heavy handed in expressing interest in this, and there would need to be involvement from the USA, for balance. He made the interesting point that DEPA is a rare example of an agreement to regulate trade of something which was not regulated, rather than removing trade barriers.