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By Steve Kelman

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The uncomfortable truth about tech in China

U.S.-China conversation.  Shutterstock image.

I am in China right now for two weeks to teach classes on public management at the Schwarzman College, just set up this year on the campus of China’s elite Tsinghua University to establish a sort of Rhodes Scholarship for China. Having just started to get to know my 30 students, I am amazed at their intelligence and commitment.

Just as I was leaving for China, I saw an article in the New York Times called China’s Intelligent Weaponry Gets Smarter. Despite the somewhat general title, it was actually about Chinese progress in artificial intelligence applications that have a military use.

Americans have tended to understate Chinese advances in AI, the article said. Some senior AI people from the U.S. tech industry have gone to work for Chinese companies, such as the Andrew Ng, the new chief scientist at Baidu, from Microsoft. But it would be unfair to say China simply has bought up talent from the U.S. -- Ng was quoted in the article as saying that the United States may be too self-confident to understand the speed of the rise of Chinese competition.

“There are many occasions of something being simultaneously invented in China and elsewhere, or being invented first in China and then later making it overseas,” he said. “But the U.S. media reports only on the U.S. version. This leads to a misperception of those ideas having been first invented in the U.S.” 

An example of Chinese progress that has gone largely unreported in the US is Iflytek, an AI company that has focused on speech recognition and understanding natural language, winning international competitions in speech synthesis and in translation between Chinese- and English-language texts. Last October, the article states, a White House report on artificial intelligence included several footnotes suggesting that China is now publishing more research than scholars in the US.

The Times article was about military technology, but the observations about Chinese progress apply to civilian tech as well. And it is not just in the area of military-use technology that we may have been fooling ourselves.

Here at the Schwarzman College, all the Americans I have spoken with say the homegrown Chinese Internet messaging app WeChat – in Chinese, wei xin or “short message” – is superior to its American competitors. WeChat it combines in one place not only superior messaging technology (you can not only use voice recognition software to transcribe your message but also actually speak directly into the app and have your voice transmitted to your recipient), but also a number of integrated capabilities for digital payments. (The New York Times had a video recently explaining the impressive features of WeChat.)

These developments require Westerners to think again about our views of problems the Chinese political and social system might create for progress in tech.

Only recently, the general view in the U.S. was that the less-free Chinese system created a poor environment for tech innovation. Put somewhat simply, the argument was that in a society without our kind of freedom of speech or unrestricted access to communication such as the Internet, people would miss out on information and ideas that come from a free system and feel more psychologically constrained from venturing off the beaten path with innovative ideas. The Chinese would be limited, in this view, to knock-offs of U.S. technologies.

U.S. media accounts have often emphasized Chinese mirror-image copies of apps such as Google (Baidu) and Twitter (Sina Weibo). This used to be an important part of President Bill Clinton’s argument to the Chinese of why they needed to open up their society politically: If you want to be able to compete with the U.S., you can’t block websites.

I am not the only one who found this argument very convincing.

Yet if anything, Chinese restrictions on the Internet have gotten worse since this argument was initially made. In 2009 China blocked Facebook, apparently worried it could be used to spread political messages, especially ones publicizing demonstrations. In 2012 the New York Times was blocked after publishing a story on the personal wealth of the family of the prime minister. In 2016 this happened to both Time and the Economist after cover stories critical of Xi Jinping were published. The government has also cracked down on use of virtual private networks that Chinese, especially young people, have used to “climb the wall” (i.e. find sites outside the “Great Firewall of China”). And recently, there were media complaints that at the top elite universities such as Tsinghua the anti-VPN policy was not being enforced strictly enough.

Clearly, though, Chinese progress has taken place despite these restrictions.

We owe it to ourselves to revisit our assumptions. While I don’t have a definite answer, I have a few thoughts.

One is that we should not naively assume that all good (or bad) things go together. Maybe freedom of political and cultural expression is not as important as we have thought for advances, say, in information technology. But it still might be more important for development of less technical or scientific ideas such as public policy proposals or cultural expressions. And we may need to be willing to say forcefully that these freedoms are good in themselves for human flourishing, separate from any instrumental benefits for GDP growth.

We also don’t have the counterfactual -- maybe a drive to catch up, or the strong achievement values in Chinese culture, are driving tech advances in China despite the constraints on freedom, but Chinese tech advances might be even more impressive without the millstone of lack of freedom.

Tech developments in China, then, give us grounds for pause and for re-visiting earlier, easier assumptions about U.S. superiority. But, suitably chastened, we should not despair.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Feb 09, 2017 at 7:29 PM

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Reader comments

Fri, Feb 17, 2017 Al

Well, we could use some competition. Too many Americans have taken their eye off the ball to focus on ginned up fake social issues. Do you think the surplus of males (due to the one-child policy) is having any effect on China yet? Is that surplus affecting the rate of innovation they are enjoying?

Mon, Feb 13, 2017

Without internet distractions (i.e. cat videos on FaceBook) the Chinese can focus on more important technical issues which makes them more productive. The mind is only limited by the time it has to invent. It doesn't need to copy from someone else's ideas. Sometimes knowledge of another person's ideas will stunt our own creativity.

Mon, Feb 13, 2017 Kevin B. McCarthy Queens, NY

Steve, I'm a high school teacher and find your article on AI in China quite interesting. In your opinion, for any country but especially a place like China that has 1.4 billion people, would creating AI technology that could put more people out-of-work (or merely require many less) be something that the Chinese govt might be concerned about? Advancing technologies, especially AI, can be wonderful for the owners of corps but not always for the workers.

Thu, Feb 9, 2017 Jeff Myers Washington

Steve, I wonder if the Chinese companies you mention are politically favored/protected? In which case, did they perhaps beat out even more innovative alternatives? Political connections could overcome weak patent enforcement in China, problems with inefficient capital allocation, and even stifle demand for competing products (i.e., by refusing to let them advertise, regulating them excessively, etc.)

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