The politicisation of technology is not new. However, China’s ambitions in promoting homegrown companies at the expense of foreign competitors is bringing a slew of new concerns.
The challenge associated with foreign companies attempting to compete with state-backed Chinese tech firms has been a recurring theme more recently. This is having an impact on geopolitics in new ways, with the emergence of “tech cold wars,” “digital gunboat diplomacy,” or more colloquially perhaps, “TikTok diplomacy.” Technology is increasingly being used as a political and diplomatic tool, as nations that have typically led the tech industry are becoming wary of the possibility of its misuse in the hands of China. The politicisation of technology is not new. However, China’s ambitions in promoting homegrown companies at the expense of foreign competitors is bringing a slew of new concerns.
Technonationalism, (defined as the explicit use of technology as the subject of a nationalist strategy) boils down competition between modern states to technological rivalry. The concept dictates that a nation’s tech capabilities directly impact national security, economic success and social stability. To better understand the increasing impact of technology on geopolitics, it may be useful to look into Chinese technonationalism.
China systematically prioritised and nationalised its tech industry from an early stage, making it a focal point of economic reform. This eventually provided China with the ability to realign the structure of the global tech industry in its favour. China found a way to use their technological advancements as leverage, to forge ahead in the global order.
The CPC decided that self-reliance was fundamental to the rejuvenation of the Chinese civilisation, after the humiliation they faced in the 19th century in the hands of advanced powers. ‘Technonationalism with Chinese characteristics’ is driven by the desire to develop indigenous technology, over concerns of dependency on foreign technology. This resulted in the formulation of comprehensive, long-term industrial policy to develop internationally competitive domestic firms. Beijing’s efforts to assert itself technologically increased monumentally, as a product of high-priority national R&D programmes and increased investment in education and research institutes.
One of the most recent examples of indigenisation of tech is the highly advertised “Made in China 2025” plan introduced in 2015. Described as a “high-tech revolution” and “industrial masterplan,” it aims to turn China into a manufacturing superpower, especially in tech. China moved swiftly to erase mentioning the name of the eye-catching industrial policy from official rhetoric, upon international scrutiny. Yet, the policy remains crucial to Chinese innovation-building. Equally important yet not as eye-catching, policies like the National Outline for Medium and Long-term S&T Development Programme, and the Five-year S&T Development Plan are all central to its economic model.
In its pursuit of technological independence or “indigenous innovation,” China has focused on the acquisition of technology. This has brought political attention to grievances put forth by international competitors.
Chinese companies Huawei and ZTE were deemed “national security threats” by the US government in 2012, as concerns over the heavily subsidised companies’ ties with the Chinese government emerged. As the threat of cyber espionage increased, so did concerns over Chinese critical infrastructure systems, the possibility of malintent, and non-compliance of Chinese firms towards revealing the extent of relations with their government. The incongruity of Chinese state-centred capitalism with Western free-enterprise capitalism has exacerbated alarm over the opaque nature of Chinese state policy, political objectives and geopolitical pursuits in technology.
Technology has significantly contributed to US trade deficit with China, bringing it directly into the spotlight of the trade war. Some non-tariff escalations include bans on high-tech exports to China, and inclusion of more than a hundred Chinese companies to the USTR Entity List. Some concerns cited against these firms have been: forced technology transfer in exchange for market access, IPR theft and espionage More recently, 24 Chinese companies were added to the Entity List allegedly due to the “risk of supporting procurement of items for military end-use in China.” The outright ban placed on Huawei and its affiliates by the Trump administration, coupled with efforts to dissuade nations from opting for Huawei 5G technology has unprecedentedly brought tech to the forefront of global politics.
Tensions between the US and China have extensively spilled into the realm of tech for multiple reasons. China’s continued dominance in tech development and manufacturing could upset the global trade order and heavily compromise US leadership in tech. Accused of creating a “China-centric” international order by leveraging its technological prowess and engaging in espionage, distrust of Chinese tech ambitions has spread worldwide. The diametrically opposed interests of the two countries in question could result in redrawn alliances, with the world being divided into pro-China or US blocs. While Southeast Asian countries may find it difficult to resist China’s gravitational pull, the US may offer financial assistance to developing nations to de-incentivise them from opting for Chinese telecom equipment. The Huawei 5G debacle was the first demonstration of US efforts to turn countries against China on a global scale. There is no end in sight for these campaigns targeting Chinese tech.
Shifting the focus from Huawei, ByteDance-owned viral Chinese video service TikTok has now come into the spotlight. ByteDance was founded in 2012, and creates mobile apps that compete with other Chinese tech giants like Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent. Known for its leading shortform video, news and content apps, it has come under increased scrutiny for security concerns over its wildly popular app — TikTok. ByteDance was initially accused of censoring content pertaining to re-education camps in Xinjiang, both on TikTok and its domestic equivalent Douyin. TikTok has over 600 million users worldwide, which increased concerns over the use of technology to service authoritarian needs. Controversy over TikTok’s alleged “shadow ban”of certain political issues was followed by user privacy concerns, when ByteDance was accused of providing personal information to the Chinese government and of propagating disinformation. Global privacy and content concerns towards TikTok has yet again resulted in the politicisation of a Chinese tech powerhouse, presenting itself in the form of ‘TikTok diplomacy.’
In August 2020, President Trump signed executive orders against TikTok, and widely used Chinese messaging app WeChat. Accused of being a “mouthpiece” of the CPC, “committed to promoting the CPC’s agenda,” these apps have been deemed as a threat to national security by the Trump administration. The orders also prevented any companies under US jurisdiction from doing business with owners of the two apps.
Even before the US, India banned TikTok and 117 other Chinese-owned applications during tensions along the border with China. Citing sovereignty and national security concerns, this ban was considered a “digital strike” against Chinese aggression along the border. While the losses incurred by these apps remains unclear, this action was viewed as an attempt towards invoking self-reliance in the Indian digital space. India has benefited from private investments from Chinese firms over the years, including from ByteDance. The app ban will affect the robust tech relationship India and China have cultivated and impact domestic employment opportunities. Regardless, Chinese domination in the app market has brought raging concerns on data security, spurring countries to place their domestic tech and security interests first.
China responded by accusing the US of “political suppression” after the attempted TikTok ban. Using the US’s own argument against them, China claimed that the US was utilising state power to oppress non-American businesses, participating in “hegemonic practices” and “political manipulation.” Broadly speaking, concerns with regard to the misuse of private user data are valid throughout the tech domain. TikTok does not appear to collect more data than Facebook. However, larger strategic and political concerns tend to play a heightened role when it comes to the possibility of misuse at the hands of Chinese leadership. This brings a new type of tech diplomacy to centre stage. ByteDance, caught in the middle of a storm between Beijing and Washington, has been heavily criticised in China for attempting to negotiate TikTok’s US operations. Risking backlash on neglecting their roots, Chinese companies will henceforth look to proceed with caution and diplomacy in navigating this storm.
At present, President Trump’s chaotic attempts to ban TikTok and WeChat remain unsuccessful, with preliminary injunctions having been approved to prevent the apps from being completely banned in the US. However, this does not mark the end of politicisation of technology, which will continue to proceed hand-in-hand with China’s rise. The CPC and Chinese state media have continued to defend the interests of Chinese companies by safeguarding their legal rights and interests. This includes the recent introduction of its own “unreliable entity list” and strengthened export control laws.
Chinese global technonationalistic advances are a direct product of its systematic prioritisation of the development of indigenous technology and national strategies towards developing a powerful tech industry. In response to Chinese abilities to affect global tech standards (previously set by the West), the West may be forced to rise to the occasion and compete. It may be in the West’s interest to establish a rules-based international order for tech. This would involve formulating a coherent strategy against Beijing and decoupling from China economically and technologically. Both of these are long drawn-out processes presenting a plethora of challenges. What remains clear is that technology is turning into as polarising a domain as the current political climate. With one increasingly spilling into the other, we can be certain that geopolitics is set to be altered perpetually.
Mahika Sri Krishna is Research Intern at ORF.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.