As Digital Earth gains momentum, China is setting the pace

By Davina Jackson * – The Conversation

Al Gore’s 1992 forecast of a Digital Earth — where satellites beam data to reveal all the planet’s environmental dynamics – has gained momentum with the publication of the Manual of Digital Earth last month. The major anthology is sponsored by the Chinese Academy of Sciences. It’s a mark of the importance China attaches to what is now a United Nations-led project named the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS).

GEOSS seems like medical science’s worldwide collaborations to map the human genome and the human brain – but at a much bigger magnitude. Scientists want to data-visualise the whole Earth. The project’s scope ranges from deep subterranean core samples, volcanic tremors, ocean surface temperatures, flooding and solar storms to urban populations, migrations and sprawls.

A recent Australian contribution to the Digital Earth vision is the online mapping of bushfires. This includes the Digital Earth Australia Hotspots map run by Geoscience Australia and the New South Wales Rural Fire Service’s Fire Map.

GEOSS began operating in 2005 (the same year as Google Earth) and is accelerating with the most tumultuous technology revolution in the history of cartography. It goes way beyond the satellite mapping we see on TV weather reports. And it relies on the grid of globally networked computers to access and crunch massive lakes and banks of geotagged data stored in high-security bunkers.

China’s digital ‘religion’

China’s support for the Digital Earth and GEOSS movement has become entwined with its foreign policy. Chinese authors wrote many papers in the 26-chapter manual. And the Chinese Academy of Sciences operates the secretariat and journal of the International Society for Digital Earth (ISDE).

Recent ISDE conferences have included invitation-only workshops on how to evolve China’s Digital Belt and Road program. It’s the high-tech aspect of China’s Belt and Road Initiative to expand its historical Silk Road trading links. China’s map of desired international paths and connections now includes non-Silk Road destinations, including the Malaysian peninsula, Ukraine, Germany, England, Portugal and Morocco.

A Geneva-based Australian pioneer of supercomputing and environmental simulations, Bob Bishop, welcomed the Manual of Digital Earth. He suggested to me it “somewhat proves” that:

the religion of China in the 21st century is ‘science’ and their particular denomination is ‘digital’. China made Buddhism universal by documenting a previously oral philosophy coming from India. It seems China could make Digital Earth universal by documenting fragmented ideas coming from the US and the rest of the world.

The manual explains, in more than 250,000 illustrated words, what has been done, and what needs to be done, to develop different parts of Gore’s vast ambition. Science now has all the basic capabilities to deliver a GEOSS/Digital Earth. These include:

grid computing

ubiquitous sensors to monitor environmental variables

machine learning and robotics to automate processes

good expertise with remote sensing data and imagery

broadband networks to enable citizen scientists to add and access information

international protocols and standards for writing, using and storing metadata and for exchanging data across different hardware and software systems.

Challenges remain

More questionable is whether there is enough processing speed and data-storage capacity to deliver the vision yet. Bishop has suggested we probably will need to look beyond still-nascent quantum computing to far-ahead neuromorphic engineering (imitating the human nervous system at a very large scale) to evolve an effective sim-planet system. That’s because, as Gore predicted, vast amounts of environmental data will need to be processed in real time.

The intergovernmental Group on Earth Observations (GEO) secretariat in the World Meteorological Organisation tower on the UN campus in Geneva is co-ordinating GEOSS. Leading space, meteorological, geoscience, surveying and UN technical agencies are among its more than 200 member organisations.

The Manual of Digital Earth is the world’s first comprehensive book of scholarly papers about Digital Earth/GEOSS theories, technologies, advances and applications. (It builds on a 2013 GEO-sponsored report edited by ISDE members.)

The book summarises recent advances and the current status of many relevant technologies. It highlights the challenge of how to smoothly transition scales during continuous zooming. It also discusses applications (including climate change, disaster mitigation and the UN Sustainable Development Goals); regional and national development (in Europe, Russia, China and Australia); and education and ethics.

Who’s who in Digital Earth studies?

More than 100 experts from 18 countries contributed to the anthology. It was edited by three leaders of the International Society for Digital Earth: Huadong Guo of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, who is a professor at its Institute of Remote Sensing and Digital Earth (RADI); Michael F. Goodchild, emeritus professor of geography at the University of California Santa Barbara; and Alessandro Annoni, head of the Digital Economy Unit at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre in Ispra, Italy.

Annoni is the ISDE’s president, Guo is the honorary president and Goodchild is an ISDE founder and a lead author of its most influential papers – including a next-generation Digital Earth vision statement in 2012.

The ISDE secretariat is based at the RADI in Beijing, although its presidents and senior members work in various countries. It’s closely involved with the GEOSS in Europe and with the UN’s Global Geospatial Information Management group in New York.

A 2019 European Union report, China: Challenges and Prospects from an Industrial and Innovation Powerhouse, examined China’s escalating industrial capabilities and international ambitions. Annoni and other senior European policy leaders were authors. The report said Europe and the United States needed to boost their industrial, research and innovation performances to compete with China in key high-tech sectors.


*Honorary Academic, School of Architecture, University of Kent . Davina Jackson is an honorary life member of the International Society for Digital Earth and co-edited the Digital City chapter of the DE Manual. She edited the GEO-sponsored report D_City: Digital Earth | Virtual Nations | Data Cities (2012-14).



China Dossier 

The superpower split

Don’t be fooled by the trade deal between America and China

The planet’s biggest break-up is underway

Jan 2nd 2020

On January 15th, after three years of a bitter trade war, America and China are due to sign a “phase one” deal that trims tariffs and obliges China to buy more from American farmers. Don’t be fooled. This modest accord cannot disguise how the world’s most important relationship is at its most perilous juncture since before Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong re-established links five decades ago. The threat to the West from China’s high-tech authoritarianism has become all too clear. Everything from its pioneering artificial-intelligence firms to its gulags in Xinjiang spread alarm across the world.

Just as visible is America’s incoherent response, which veers between demanding that the Chinese government buy Iowan soyabeans and insisting it must abandon its state-led economic model. The two sides used to think they could both thrive; today each has vision of success in which the other lot falls behind. A partial dismantling of their bonds is under way. In the 2020s the world will discover just how far this decoupling will go, how much it will cost and whether, as it confronts China, America will be tempted to compromise its own values.

The roots of the superpower split go back 20 years. When China joined the World Trade Organisation in 2001 reformers at home and friends abroad dreamed that it would liberalise its economy and, perhaps, its politics too, smoothing its integration into an American-led world order.

That vision has died. The West has faced a financial crisis and turned inward. China’s behaviour has improved in some ways: its giant trade surplus has fallen back to 3% of gdp. But it has an even bleaker form of dictatorship under President Xi Jinping and has taken to viewing America with distrust and scorn (see article). As with every emerging great power, China’s hankering to exert its influence is growing along with its stature. It wants to be a rule-setter in global commerce, with sway over information flows, commercial standards and finance. It has built bases in the South China Sea, is meddling with the 45m-strong Chinese diaspora and bullying its critics abroad.

President Donald Trump has responded with a policy of confrontation that has won bipartisan support in America. Yet the China hawks thronging Washington agencies and corporate boardrooms share no consensus over whether America’s goal should be the mercantilist pursuit of a lower bilateral trade deficit, the shareholder-driven search for profits in American-owned subsidiaries in China or a geopolitical campaign to thwart China’s expansion. Meanwhile, Mr Xi oscillates between grim calls for national self-reliance one day and paeans to globalisation the next, while the European Union is unsure if it is an estranged American ally, a Chinese partner or an awakening liberal superpower in its own right.

Muddled thinking brings muddled results. Huawei, a Chinese tech giant, faces such a disjointed campaign of American pressure that its sales rose by 18% in 2019 to a record $122bn. The eu has restricted Chinese investment even as Italy has joined China’s belt-and-road trade scheme. China spent 2019 promising to open its big, primitive capital markets to Wall Street even as it undermined the rule of law in Hong Kong, its global financial hub. The phase-one trade deal fits this pattern. It mixes mercantilist and capitalist goals, leaves most tariffs intact and puts aside deeper disagreements for later. Mr Trump’s tactical aim is to help the economy in an election year; China is happy to buy time.

Geopolitical incoherence is neither safe nor stable. True, it has not yet inflicted a big economic cost—since 2017 bilateral trade and direct investment flows between the superpowers have dropped by 9% and 60% respectively, but the world economy still grew by about 3% in 2019. Some businesses, such as Starbucks’s 4,125 cafés in China, need never be affected. But confrontation is constantly spreading into new arenas. America’s campuses are convulsed by a red scare about Chinese spying and intimidation (see Briefing). Rows blaze over athletes kowtowing to China, naval docking rights and alleged censorship on TikTok, a Chinese app used by teenagers worldwide. In the background is the risk of a confrontation between the superpowers over Taiwan, which holds elections in January (see article).

Each side is planning for a disengagement that limits the other superpower’s day-to-day influence, reduces its long-term threat and mitigates the risk of economic sabotage. This involves an exceptionally complex set of calculations, because the two superpowers are so intertwined. In technology, most electronic devices in America are assembled in China, and, reciprocally, Chinese tech firms rely on foreign suppliers for over 55% of their high-end inputs into robotics, 65% of those into cloud computing and 90% of those into semiconductors. It would take 10-15 years for China to become self-sufficient in computer chips and for America to shift suppliers (see Technology Quarterly). Likewise in high finance, which could serve as a vehicle for sanctions. The yuan accounts for just 2% of international payments and Chinese banks hold over $1trn in dollar assets. Again, shifting trade partners to the yuan and winding down the banks’ dollar exposure will take at least a decade, probably longer. And when it comes to research, China still trains its best talent and finds its best ideas in America’s world-beating universities—at the moment there are 370,000 mainland students on campuses in the United States.

Were the superpower rivalry to spiral out of control, the costs would be vast. To build a duplicate tech hardware supply-chain would take $2trn or so, 6% of the superpowers’ combined gdp. Climate change, a great challenge which could provide a common purpose, would be even harder to cope with. Also at stake is the system of alliances that is a pillar of America’s strength. Some 65 countries and territories rely on China as their largest supplier of imports and, asked to choose between the superpowers, not all of them would opt for Uncle Sam—especially if it continues to pursue today’s policy of America First. Most precious of all are the principles that really made America great: global rules, open markets, free speech, respect for allies and due process. In the 2000s people used to ask how much China might become like America. In the 2020s the bigger question is whether a full superpower split might make America more like China. ?


400-pound rivals
China views Donald Trump’s America with growing distrust and scorn

And cynics in Beijing hope for his re-election


Zoologists use a mild-sounding term—“displacements”—for moments when a strong, young mountain gorilla confronts the dominant male in his group. Behind the jargon lies a brutal reality: a drawn-out, bloody conflict looms. China’s leaders similarly use prim, technical-sounding terms to describe their confrontation with America. In closed-door briefings and chats with Western bigwigs, they chide the country led by President Donald Trump for responding to China’s rise with “strategic anxiety” (ie, fear). They insist that China’s only crime is to have grown so rapidly.

However, behind that chilly, self-serving analysis lurks a series of angrier, more primal calculations about relative heft. These began before Mr Trump came to office, and will continue even if an initial trade truce is made formal (Mr Trump says he will sign one on January 15th). They will endure long after November, when American voters next choose a president. China has spent decades growing stronger and richer. It already senses that only one country—America—can defy Chinese ambitions with any confidence. Its leaders have a bleak worldview in which might makes right, and it is a fairy tale to pretend that universal rules bind all powers equally. Increasingly, they can imagine a day when even America ducks a direct challenge, and the global balance of power shifts for ever.

Getting hairy

China does not seek a fight now. Like a powerful juvenile warily sizing up a silverback gorilla—his age and status marked by the silvery fur on his back, and his mighty muscles and teeth—China knows that America can inflict terrible damage, as it wields still-unrivalled economic, financial and military might. But officials and scholars in Beijing no longer bother to conceal their impatience and scorn for an America they view—with a perilous mix of hubris and paranoia—as old, tired and clumsy.

When addressing foreigners, China’s leaders talk piously of their commitment to free trade, market opening and globalisation. Their domestic actions betray a different agenda: namely, to make Chinese companies dominant in high-value manufacturing sectors, and to hasten the day when they no longer depend on America for vital technologies. Long before Mr Trump was elected, China pursued such policies as “indigenous innovation” and “civil-military fusion”. Since Mr Trump’s tariff war with China began in 2018, President Xi Jinping and his underlings have accelerated efforts to make China self-sufficient in high-value sectors, creating supply chains that are “autonomous, controllable, safe and effective”, in Mr Xi’s words.

For decades Chinese officials have seen bilateral relations swinging, pendulum-like, between periods of hostility (notably during American elections, when candidates promise to shield workers from unfair Chinese competition) and a profit-driven willingness to engage. Now Chinese and American insiders talk of a downward spiral. Both countries have become quick to assume the other has malign motives. Where relations were once balanced between co-operation and competition, and China’s rise seemed on balance to benefit both countries, Chinese officials accuse Mr Trump and his team of seeking co-operation only when it serves a coercive, short-sighted “America First” agenda. They do not see this changing soon—far from it. They view relations with sour fatalism, and America as a sore loser.

Chinese experts talk wistfully of the scores of dialogues and mechanisms that used to underpin co-operation with America’s government before Mr Trump scrapped most of them. But, when pressed, they struggle to explain what a useful agenda for future talks might be. Instead, they prefer to count the ways in which America is to blame for today’s tensions. In China’s telling, American companies became accustomed to making fat profits in China, but see Chinese rivals catching them up and potentially setting global standards for future technologies. Now American businesses are crying cheat, and demanding that trade rules designed for the rich world be used to keep China down.

Populist election victories in the West are ascribed to domestic failures in the countries concerned. Chinese officials say that America failed to educate workers, allowed inequalities to yawn and never built social safety-nets to help victims of globalisation—and is now scapegoating China for those ills.

In public, Chinese officials call Mr Trump’s tariffs self-defeating and stress their country’s economic resilience. In private, they are both less confident and less focused on tariffs than they pretend. They are less bullish because economic sentiment in China was fragile before the trade war. Worse, the tariff feud has planted seeds of uncertainty about the country in the heads of every chief executive pondering where to place a new factory.

Chinese officials are less focused on tariffs than they maintain in public because they believe Mr Trump will lose his leverage over time, as he frets about the impact on American farm states and other places where he needs votes. Chinese officials fear other forms of competition more than any tariff fight. In Beijing leaders do worry about the consequences of a technology war with America or of an all-out struggle for global influence.

It is not just a figure of speech when officials in Beijing divide foreign grandees into “friends of China”, and “anti-China forces”. China’s rulers take an intensely personalised view of foreign relations. Communist Party bosses have learned over decades that individual foreign envoys, ceos and political leaders can be turned into reliable advocates for China with the right blend of high-level access and reasoned appeals, financial incentives and flattery.

But Chinese officials feel sadly short of influential friends in the corridors of American power. Within the Trump administration, only the treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, is seen as representing the old, familiar American approach of putting profit first when engaging with China. There are firms that rely heavily on China as a supply base and market, from Apple to General Motors, which sells more cars in China than in America. But the profit motive itself is under suspicion in the new, populist Washington, where even Republican members of Congress urge businessmen to weigh America’s national interests in dealings with China, and not just their shareholders’ dividends.

China can live with “Trump first”

After much study, leaders in Beijing have decided that Mr Trump is neither a friend of China nor a traditional anti-China hawk, in the sense of someone who disapproves of the party’s policies on grounds of principle. In essence, Mr Trump is seen as a friend of Mr Trump—a man whose self-interest is his only reliable guiding instinct. Famous scholars at elite universities in China who have studied America for years tut-tut about how that makes Mr Trump unpredictable and liable to break any promise he makes to Mr Xi. More cynical figures, including some close to the national security bureaucracy, unblushingly root for Mr Trump to win re-election in 2020, so that he can continue to upset allies and cast into doubt decades-long American security guarantees in Asia. Their great fear is that Mr Trump may be captured by sincerely hawkish aides. That includes economic nationalists with trade portfolios, like Robert Lighthizer and Peter Navarro. But unique animus is aimed at the “two Mikes”: the vice-president, Mike Pence, and the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo. In Beijing both are called anti-communist, evangelical Christian zealots, with ambitions to succeed Mr Trump in 2024.

China is sure it is in a worldwide influence war, in which its propaganda about Xinjiang, Hong Kong or Huawei is pitted against an “anti-China” story. Mr Pence and Mr Pompeo are semi-openly reviled as crazy, ignorant warriors in that conflict. They are accused of slandering China over its iron-fisted rule in the western region of Xinjiang, and of egging on pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, whom China calls terrorists and separatists. Mr Pence and Mr Pompeo are also condemned for leading a diplomatic charge to warn smaller countries to beware of Chinese loans and technology (the results have been mixed). Chinese officials have not missed the factor that links all successful efforts at American arm-twisting. Countries have proved most tractable when America has real co-operation to offer or to withhold, whether that involves Poland and its yearning for a permanent garrison of American troops to act as a tripwire against Russian aggression, or Brexit Britain dreaming of a free-trade deal with Mr Trump. Where American envoys merely nag countries to shun China’s investments without offering concrete alternatives, they have fared less well. As one Chinese insider crows, America under Mr Trump looks “self-isolating”.

Chinese officials who favour Mr Trump’s re-election hope that he will feel free in his second term to disavow hawks around him and pursue transactional policies. They fret that a Democratic president may place more weight on human, labour and environmental rights.

All this fulminating does not mean that China seeks to match the hawks in Washington and drag their two countries into a new cold war, in which the world is divided into rival camps. China believes that most other nations do not want to choose between it and America, at least for now. China is playing for time, as it builds its strength and tries to construct alternatives to such potent tools of American power as the dollar-denominated financial system. China’s interest in developing its own blockchain technology and international payment systems is in part a sign of its fear of American sanctions that would expel Chinese banks from American markets.

Some Chinese voices say their country has not lost interest in an offer China made to Mr Trump’s predecessors, involving a “new model of great-power relations”: code for carving the world into spheres of geopolitical influence, and an end to American carping about China’s ways. Others stress China’s right to help write the rules of globalisation. That would be reasonable, were it not that China’s aim is to make the world safe for techno-authoritarian state capitalism. Chinese officials want to avoid confronting America for now. But few silverbacks gracefully retire. Increasingly, America is seen as an obstacle to China’s rise. That means trouble looms. ?

This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline “China views Donald Trump’s America with growing distrust and


Chinese students
The new red scare on American campuses

Both their host government and their home government increasingly view Chinese students with suspicion


Early last autumn Alex and Victor, two students from mainland China, sat in the back row of a packed auditorium at Columbia Law School, in New York. They were there for a talk by Joshua Wong, thrice-jailed young hero of the Hong Kong democracy movement, which the two students support. They applauded enthusiastically; they also wore blue face masks.

The masks were in part symbols of solidarity with Mr Wong’s fellow protesters half a world away. But they were also a way of hiding their identities from face-recognition systems in China that might be scanning pictures of the audience, and from Chinese students in the hall less in tune with Mr Wong’s message—such as the ones who sang the national anthem of the People’s Republic in response to the talk. Their names are not, in fact, Alex and Victor; they asked The Economist to give them pseudonyms and not to say where in China they came from. As they talked, other Chinese students quietly observed them, national flags in hand.

There are 19.8m university students in America, of whom just over a million come from other countries. A bit less than a fifth of these foreigners come from India, and 6% from the European Union. Fully a third are Chinese—a much larger fraction than from anywhere else, and more students than China sends to all the other countries in the world put together. At Columbia, half of the nearly 12,000 international students are from China. This is all very good for the students’ future prospects and the universities’ coffers. But it worries the American government, the Chinese Communist Party (ccp) and some champions of academic freedom.

The American government thinks some Chinese students and researchers are responsible for a great deal of intellectual-property theft. The ccp fears that people like Alex and Victor are contracting dangerous levels of democratic idealism. And China’s efforts to curtail the room such dissidence has to flourish in worries people who care about free expression on American campuses and beyond.

A special relationship

The number of mainland Chinese students in America grew by 276% over the past decade (see chart 1) as China’s elite sought to buy excellent educations for their children and American researchers sought talent. In 2018, the most recent year for which figures are available, Chinese graduate students received 13% of all science and engineering doctorates awarded by American universities.

The rate at which researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (mit) co-author papers with colleagues at leading Chinese universities has risen tenfold over the past decade—part of a trend which has seen collaborations between American and Chinese researchers become more numerous than collaborations with any other country (see chart 2). Many Chinese researchers have significant resources as well as sharp minds; some sorts of lab work are easier and cheaper in China than in America. It is hardly surprising that American researchers—especially the growing number who have former pupils back in China—want to work with them.

Not all of this collaboration is peer-to-peer. Chinese companies fund an increasing amount of research at American universities, including into areas prioritised in the “Made in China 2025” industrial-policy initiative—a policy America’s Department of Justice has referred to as a “roadmap to [intellectual-property] theft”. mit, for example, has research partnerships with SenseTime, a Hong Kong company that provides facial-recognition technology to Chinese police, and iFlytek, a Chinese firm that works on voice recognition and which has paid for research at Princeton and Rutgers.

The administration of President Donald Trump worries about all this. In the past two years, scrutiny of mainland Chinese on American campuses has intensified, and with it scrutiny of other students and researchers who are ethnically Chinese, including Chinese-Americans. Some see this new scrutiny as testing American academia’s reputation for openness, international co-operation and the free exchange of ideas. Christopher Wray, the director of the fbi, believes it provides a valuable counterweight to academic “naivety”.

In 2018 Mr Wray testified to the Senate intelligence committee that China poses a “whole-of-society threat” to America, one which demands a “whole-of-society response”. In Mr Wray’s analysis the fact that American researchers collaborate so much with Chinese researchers is a cause for concern; such scientists and students are among the “non-traditional collectors” of an intelligence operation he has described as “deep and diverse and wide and vexing”.

In 2018 and 2019 agents from the fbi’s 56 national field offices contacted hundreds, perhaps thousands, of students, researchers and professors with ties to China—many of them from China or ethnically Chinese, including Chinese-Americans—to determine whether they might be working on behalf of the Communist Party. The National Institutes of Health (nih), Department of Energy and other providers of federal grants have urged universities to monitor researchers for connections to Chinese institutions or “talent” programmes which seek to attract scientists, often Americans of Chinese ethnicity, who have gained expertise deemed of value in China. China’s “Thousand Talents” programme, which in part offers scientists incentives to set up labs in China, was used to recruit at least 6,000 experts from overseas between 2008 to 2017.

The nih says that it has identified 180 researchers to whom it has provided grants who may not have disclosed payments from, or other affiliations with, Chinese institutions—including some who appear to have established “shadow labs” in China mirroring their nih-funded ones in America. In 2019 two research institutions—md Anderson, a cancer-research centre in Houston, and Emory University in Atlanta—cut ties with five researchers, all of them ethnically Chinese, who had taken money from China. In December federal authorities arrested a Chinese cancer researcher at Logan Airport in Boston after he allegedly tried to smuggle to China vials of biological material taken from a Harvard teaching hospital. (His Harvard-sponsored visa has also been revoked.)

But officials at some universities say that private briefings from the fbi have left them both unconvinced of the scope of the problem and unclear what actions need to be pursued. “What exactly Mr Wray has in mind, where precisely he sees the threat—this is all left frustratingly vague,” says an international-research administrator at an elite university that has been briefed by the fbi (and where the fbi has also interviewed visiting Chinese scholars). “Some of the guidance has been, ‘Be careful about anything to do with biotech.’ Well biotech is huge…I don’t even know which faculty to talk to if you don’t tell me more.”

Risk management

Faced with such scepticism, last summer the National Security Council, the State Department, the Department of Justice (though not the fbi) and experts on Chinese influence operations briefed some 15 university presidents, provosts and other senior administrators in a two-day session at St Michaels, Maryland. One of those giving the briefings noted that the idea of technology developed on their campuses aiding China’s repression of Uighurs in the western province of Xinjiang seemed particularly salient to the administrators: such links could damage their institutions’ reputations. This is not a purely theoretical issue. In October SenseTime and iFlytek, the artificial-intelligence firms with research partnerships at mit, were blacklisted by the American government for allegedly abetting the abuses in Xinjiang.

As well as investigating Chinese students and researchers already in America, the administration has also looked at ways to make it harder for them to arrive and easier for them to be expelled. In 2018 some of Mr Trump’s aides argued for severe restrictions on student visas for Chinese nationals. Instead the administration curtailed five-year visas for foreign graduate students in certain fields of science and technology such as aviation and robotics; these students now get renewable one-year visas. The Department of Homeland Security has also made it easier to declare that foreign students are overstaying their visas. Educators report anecdotally that invited Chinese scholars are finding it much harder to get visas, including short-term visas for academic conferences that in the past were routinely issued.

Concerns about what Chinese students get up to are not unique to the executive branch. Marco Rubio, a Republican senator from Florida, and Mark Warner, a Democratic senator from Virginia, have been among the most prominent figures on Capitol Hill warning not just of Chinese intelligence operations at American universities, but also of those universities’ worrying dependence on Chinese money via tuition fees and research partnerships. Pressure from senators and congressmen is one of the reasons why, since 2018, at least 15 universities have closed the Confucius Institutes, paid for by China, that offer Chinese language instruction and arrange cultural events. A new federal restriction that bars universities with Confucius Institutes from Defence Department funding for Chinese-language study has also been a factor.

Some university administrators, scientists and civil libertarians worry that the administration’s conception of the “China threat” is so broad and vague that anyone with the slightest connection to China can become a target for questioning by the fbi—a new Red Scare. Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia, published an op-ed in the Washington Post titled “No, I won’t start spying on my foreign-born students”. Rafael Reif, the president of mit, wrote in an open letter that students and staff of Chinese ethnicity “tell me that, in their dealings with government agencies, they now feel unfairly scrutinised, stigmatised and on edge.” Several groups of Chinese and Chinese-American scientists published a letter in Science, America’s leading scientific journal, expressing fears of “scapegoating, stereotyping and racial profiling”.

Communist Party figures have been happy to see the Trump administration’s spy-hunt portrayed as a xenophobic exercise. In December Hua Chunying, a foreign ministry spokeswoman, praised the “courage” of Fareed Zakaria, an American commentator who belittled the administration’s concerns in an article headlined “The New China Scare”.

Bubbling up

The Trump administration, for its part, has tried to have things both ways. While happy to be seen as tough by those to whom toughness appeals, in public officials say that Chinese students and scholars are as welcome as ever. White House officials claim only to be concerned about a tiny fraction of people on student visas who may be operating as spies. Though Mr Trump is reported to have said, at a dinner with American corporate bosses, that “almost every student that comes over to this country [from China] is a spy”, he said at the g-20 summit last June that “we want to have Chinese students come” and that they are “tremendous assets” who should be treated “just like anybody else”.

Fears of China’s espionage are not new. Since 2011 more than 90% of all American prosecutions for economic espionage have been linked to China. But that does not mean their increased prominence can be simply chalked down to a hawkish change under Mr Trump. China has changed, too. Both its ambitions and its authoritarianism have become more marked, especially since President Xi Jinping abolished the term limit on his presidency in 2018. The internment of more than 1m Uighurs in detention centres, a severe crackdown on lawyers and activists and a hardline response to protests in Hong Kong have fatally undermined the old argument that Western engagement with China would see it liberalise. In the past it was possible to argue that Chinese students in the West would return home with new ideas about freedom of expression and individual dignity and political agendas to match. Now it is clear that, in some cases at least, their presence is an overseas redoubt for the ccp’s ideas about conformity and loyalty.

Some China-watchers point to Australia as a worrying exemplar. Australian officials have warned for years of China’s influence operations in the country, including at universities. In July students from mainland China threw punches at other students demonstrating in solidarity with the Hong Kong protesters at the University of Queensland. The consul-general in Brisbane, Xu Jie—who is, unusually for a senior Chinese diplomat, an adjunct lecturer at the university—praised them for their “patriotic behaviour”.

Talks by Chinese dissidents are a particularly touchy subject. In 2015 Teng Biao, who is now an adjunct lecturer at Hunter College in New York, was a visiting scholar at Harvard Law School. In a report on Chinese influence at American universities produced by the Wilson Centre, a think-tank, in 2018, Mr Teng described how he planned to invite Chen Guangcheng, a blind lawyer who in 2012 made a daring solo escape from house arrest to the American Embassy in Beijing, to give a talk there. An “influential person” at the university persuaded him that hosting Mr Chen would “reflect poorly on Harvard”: the university’s then-president, Drew Faust, was in Beijing meeting Mr Xi.

Mr Teng is still unwilling to identify the “powerful professor” who warned him off. He thinks it could further damage his prospects in the job market, where his position as a dissident is already a black mark: “The pressure from the Chinese government is real and is strong.” The Wilson Centre report also documented instances of what appeared to be blatant efforts by China to influence free expression, including freezing Chinese participation in lucrative programmes for such offences as inviting the Dalai Lama to speak on campus.

Beijing’s wishes in such matters are often communicated through the Chinese Students and Scholars Associations (cssas), that are to be found on more than 150 American campuses. In 2019 the cssa at Purdue University in Indiana asked administrators to cancel a talk by Mr Chen. When the talk went ahead (with police protection) the organisation circulated an announcement that such speaking events provoke “fierce controversy and dissatisfaction among Chinese students.”

Other manifestations of Chinese influence are more subtle. Columbia shows off a bust of Vaclav Havel, the dissident playwright who, after the fall of communism, became president of the Czech Republic; he was a guest of the university for some weeks in 2006. But they will not find a bust of Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese writer who won the Nobel peace prize for his human rights activism, despite the fact that he too had been a guest at the university, back in 1989. (A request to place such a bust, made on behalf of his widow, was rejected.)

In the curricula and cultural activities of Confucius Institutes language students will find no more mention of human-rights activists like Liu than they will of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 or the repression in Xinjiang.

Students from China often refrain from discussing sensitive subjects in front of other Chinese students. A professor at one Ivy League university says that after some students asked to submit written work touching on human rights under a pseudonym he now offers that option to all. Alex and Victor avoid sensitive topics when with their peers and keep their distance from Columbia’s cssa. “In China too I heard so many stories about students reporting on their professors because their professors mentioned Tiananmen in class,” Victor says. “These fellow students would do this in mainland China and they would do the same abroad.”

Worlds within worlds

The number of Chinese students in America is not yet dropping in response to any of this. The fact that it has ceased growing may have something to do with the tensions, or with worries about visas. But some of those worries are not specific to China; numbers of students from elsewhere are down, too. And other factors are at play. Foreign-exchange controls have tightened; China’s economy has slowed. More Chinese families now sending children abroad may opt for cheaper destinations. Though America is still preferred, enthusiasm for it is waning while enthusiasm for Britain waxes.

But the boom is over—and so are the hopes that it might in and of itself bring new amity. Both the greater number of Chinese students and the greater power of information technology mean that it is ever easier for them to remain isolated on campus, mixing little with their American peers. They use WeChat, a social-media app, both to stay in touch with friends and family back home and as their sole source of news, much of which reflects their government’s view of their host country. In 2018 a Purdue University survey of a large midwestern university found that 42% of Chinese students had a less favourable perception of America than they had when they arrived; just 16% said their impression had improved. Their study abroad has not exactly built a bridge between the two countries. The intense scrutiny they face from both Beijing and Washington threatens to widen the divide. ?

From 1843 magazine: What Chinese students found when they moved to America’s Midwest

This article appeared in the Briefing section of the print edition under the headline “The new red scare on American campuses”


The future
Technological progress in China could still lead to fireworks

Is a showdown likely with America?

Technology QuarterlyJan 2nd 2020 edition

Jan 2nd 2020

China’s technological rise, brought about by an authoritarian state actively guiding a market-oriented industrial base with access to global supply lines, is unlike anything in history. That does not necessarily make it unstoppable, or world-beating. But the possibility that it will provide a definitive edge in technologies vital to 21st-century success makes the West anxious.

America, in particular, is unsettled by the prospect of Chinese technological capabilities that might erode its geopolitical dominance. Behind their legitimate concerns that China has stolen ip and that some of its companies cheat, American politicians worry that China’s approach to technological development can produce results which America’s mostly market-led model cannot.

It is true that China has shown that a determined state can do much to accelerate the appropriation, diffusion, development and large-scale implementation of new technology and technology from elsewhere. It is also true that the processes by which it does so can be damaging—the state can misallocate resources, follow foolish fashions, refuse to accept that it is barking up the wrong tree. Patronage lends itself to corruption. China shows all these failings and more.

At the same time, alignment between the state and the companies that develop and build technologies is important not just because it allocates, or misallocates, funding. The state may call on technology to answer questions that the market, left to itself, would not. In China the alignment between government policy and corporate technology development can be seen in the shift towards electric vehicles, largely to cut air pollution. Government-led invention has a strong history in America, too. The network which became the internet was developed to test new approaches to military communication. But it has fallen from fashion.

Some suggest that the world could divide into techno-camps, with the current system in which most technology spreads globally unpicked—“decoupled”—into competing systems, one controlled by America, another by China. This would be very hard to bring about. Published research, patents, people, contracts, supply chains and technical standards all link Chinese technology to that which underpins all the other advanced economies—and vice versa. The location of the mind fomenting the next world-changing invention is impossible to predict. China can capture supply chains and rule its markets with an iron first. But it cannot capture all the world’s ideas.

Indeed, contributing at the highest level requires the country to change. A smallish cadre of researchers with some independence will often be more effective than an army of boffins required to optimise their output to hit political targets, as can be the case in China. This does not mean that freedom of political thought is necessary for high levels of technological achievement. Rather it suggests that when you use your time to hit mandated goals you will skip real invention in favour of political box-ticking.

One reason not to fear imminent decoupling is that, even at its most successful, China’s model of technological development can proceed only so fast. When a technology is complex and expensive, progress is slow, as is shown in the manufacture of semiconductors. Even assuming you know how to build and run a cutting-edge chip factory, it takes tens of billions of dollars to do so. It also requires close co-operation with an array of high-tech suppliers who are already tightly bound to the existing market leaders.

Since China will not be capturing a large slice of the semiconductor manufacturing pie any time soon, and because semiconductors are vital to future economic growth, the world’s existing locus of chip production gains heightened strategic importance. That the locus is Taiwan—over which China claims sovereignty, and where America has enough influence to urge restrictions on exports—further complicates the situation. Both American and Chinese firms rely on Taiwan for chip supplies, adding to its potential as a cause of conflict. If the tension between America and China keeps ratcheting up, the island nation could well come under pressure from both sides to curtail its supplies to the other. Any meddling risks upsetting the existing delicate balance and leading in a dangerous direction.

That would have been unthinkable a decade ago. At that time China’s technological progress was mostly unopposed by other powerful countries, which profited from it. But the age of perceived mutual benefit is over. It is hard for the world’s powerful countries, particularly America, to tolerate a China with a global outlook, access to advanced technology and real geopolitical heft. America has reportedly already started pressing the Taiwanese to restrict chip exports to Huawei, the Chinese tech giant, though the Taiwanese government denies it.

America should be careful about such interventions. A clumsy attempt to kneecap Huawei has shown that the Trump administration has little grasp of the dynamics of the technology ecosystem in which it is intervening. Its understanding of other aspects of Chinese technological development is probably even hazier. The threat posed by a technologically enabled Chinese Communist Party is real. In responding to it, America must be sure not to become its own worst enemy.?

Technology in ChinaA new revolution

·         With the state’s help, Chinese technology is booming

·         China’s nuclear industry and high-speed trains are world class

·         China has never mastered internal-combustion engines

·         Chinese inventiveness shows the weakness of the law

·         China’s success at AI has relied on good data

·         China is slowly moving up the microprocessing value chain

·         Technological progress in China could still lead to fireworks

This article appeared in the Technology Quarterly section of the print edition under the headline “Technological progress in China could still lead to fireworks”

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++ Tech Quarterly

With the state’s help, Chinese technology is booming

But it will not be a smooth road to global dominance, says Hal Hodson

Technology QuarterlyJan 2nd 2020 edition

For most of human history, China was the world’s most advanced technological power. The blast furnace originated there, and thus so, too, did cast iron. Other breakthroughs included porcelain and paper. Its gunpowder propelled the first military rockets farther than javelin or arrow could fly; its compasses magically revealed magnetic north when the stars were hidden.

Only in the Middle Ages did Europe began to match Chinese ingenuity and capacity in these fields, doing so largely through imitation. Only with the growth of European mechanical industries and overseas empires in the 18th century did the Westerners become its rivals. In the centuries that followed, hampered by its own stifling education system, China was defeated in the opium wars, then suffered terrible civil unrest and a disastrous revolution that reduced the country to a technological bystander and “Made in China” to a byword for gimcrackery.

Now China is back, trailing clouds of smartphones, high-speed trains, stealthy aircraft, bitcoin mines and other appurtenances of high-tech flair. The parts of the world that overtook it are worried. In 2015 its leaders announced a ten-year, $300bn plan, “Made in China 2025”, designed to make its semiconductor, electric-vehicle and artificial-intelligence industries (and many others) as good as any in the world, if not better. This declaration that China was no longer content with being a factory for American high-tech products created a new tension between the world’s two largest economies. As the plan approaches its halfway point, this conflict seem to be worsening.

America accuses China of stealing and spying its way up the technology supply chain and hobbling American technology by keeping it out of the Chinese market. Its defence department worries about running military operations through networks stuffed with Chinese components. Senators are troubled by how China is using technology to oppress its own people. The American policy establishment fears that the trend for connecting previously unconnected objects like trains and cars to computer networks will offer the Chinese government increased geopolitical leverage at the very least—and at worst, direct control of parts of other countries’ infrastructure. China’s perspective is more straightforward: America is unfairly using its existing power to curtail China’s rightful technological return.

Much thinking about these issues focuses on what technological capabilities China has and what it lacks, where it is ahead of America and where it is lagging behind. But that piecemeal account offers little help in understanding China’s ability to foster new technologies or to dominate the supply chains and standards that underpin them. The vital question is not what technologies China has access to now, but how it built that access and how its capacity for fostering new technologies is evolving.

That is the focus of this report. Obviously, how the correlation of forces between the two powers ends up is important. But to understand that you also need to come to grips with Chinese technology on its own terms. Details of the processes behind the country’s technological development are vital to assessing the long-term challenge posed by a technologically ascendant China. They can get lost in a higher-level geopolitical discussion that is hyperbolic and polarised.

The process of gaining that understanding starts with looking at older technologies, such as high-speed trains and nuclear-power plants. The work of indigenising these technologies is almost complete, and the Chinese firms and state-owned enterprises behind them are poised to export to the world. As such, they represent a model of successful state-led development that has used the state’s repressive power over its citizenry and the sway it holds over the economy to deploy technology on a massive scale.

It’s my party

No government controls more of an economy worth controlling than China’s does. Some 51,000 state-owned firms employ about 20m people and are collectively worth $29trn, according to analysis in 2017 by the oecd, a club of mainly rich countries. Many private Chinese firms claim that they receive no state support, and in strictly monetary terms that is often true, but free land from provincial governments and a side hustle in property management is the norm. The Communist Party’s ability to ensure the successful deployment of a technology is not restricted to funding. The state hedges risk, squashes nimbyism and pays for infrastructure.

But two other factors are taking over from raw state power as the motor of Chinese technological development. One is the place its companies occupy in many of the most important supply chains in the world, giving them easy access to all sorts of technological know-how. As workshop to the world, China—and particularly the Pearl River Delta region that includes the booming cities of Shenzhen and Guangzhou—makes components for almost everything, understands how to assemble them, and is set up to bring together the right ones as quickly as possible. This geoepistemological advantage explains why the only successful smartphone companies founded since 2010 have been those set up around Shenzhen. (They are all non-state firms.) Their success has spread to new markets based on similar components. The consumer-drone market is dominated by China because drones are basically phones with rotors.

Secondly, the size and particularities of the Chinese market have become spurs to innovation in their own right. WeChat and Alipay, which use qr codes to make payments with phones, emerged and took hold in China because payment cards were not yet established; as a result Chinese cities are becoming cashless. The Communist Party’s need for social control has stimulated an entire industry of machine-learning technologies catering to the security services. The West does not like the applications to which China’s ai companies—mostly, also, non-state firms—turn their algorithms, but there is no denying the scale of their ambition (though their success has some under-appreciated foundations).

Not every peculiarity of the Chinese system is a benefit. State support is frequently doled out to firms or industries based on non-commercial factors. Ignorance and corruption mess things up; so does a thirst for prestige. In the crucial battleground of semiconductors, Beijing’s investment policy is largely based on chasing after the highest-value sections of the supply chain by pumping money into Chinese versions of the foreign companies now commanding those heights. Truly innovative and effective semiconductor businesses sometimes suffer merely because they are less coveted by party officials.

Examining Chinese tech development reveals things not just about China, it illuminates global trends. Some are obvious. A government able to shape and ignore public opinion can do things that governments forced to listen to the people—including vocal minorities—cannot. If China’s technocrats want nuclear power and genetically modified organisms, they will get them.

Some trends are subtler. China’s failure to catch up in technologies like internal-combustion engines, civil aviation and, to date, semiconductors shows how hard it is to make humanity’s most complex mechanisms. The organisations which manage to do so depend on arcane insights and baroque procedures carefully nurtured by corporate hierarchies over decades. That even an economy as mighty as China’s can scarcely catch up should give pause for reflection about the possibilities for innovation elsewhere.

The potential for new technologies to enhance and project Chinese power, and the threat that poses to a global order led by America, hangs over China’s technological development. But these are not its sole inspiration. China is grappling with an ageing population, environmental degradation and a slowing economy. The strengths and weaknesses of its attempts to solve these problems technologically will have lessons for other countries in similar straits, and for those which see China not just as a competitor but as an ever more sophisticated market.

For countries which wish to co-exist with China, its weaknesses reveal good places to invest in developing one’s own capabilities. For those who wish to reduce or curtail Chinese technological power, knowing its strengths and vulnerabilities is vital. 


DataChina’s success at AI has relied on good data

But cheap labour has also played an important part

Jan 2nd 2020

CHINA IS THE land of face recognition. Cameras able to extract face prints from passers-by are common in the streets of large cities like Guangzhou and Shenzhen. Boxy vending machines at airports offer to let you pay for a cup of orange juice, robot-squeezed for perfect freshness, by scanning your face. From December 1st all people applying for an account with one of China’s telecoms companies such as China Mobile must have their face scanned. Previous regulations required proof of identity, but the possession of users’ face prints will let firms verify identities in real-time via smartphone cameras.

Considering the oppressive purposes to which this technology is being put—most notably in the Muslim-majority areas of north-west China—it would not be appropriate to call China’s rapid adoption of it anything more than a technical success. The underappreciated fact that companies leaping ahead in the field are more reliant on cleverly deployed cheap labour for their progress than on any technological edge, suggests another reason for caution before declaring a Chinese victory in the tech wars. But understanding how China has got face recognition to flourish is nonetheless instructive. Two of the world’s most valuable startups, Megvii and SenseTime, worth $4bn and $7.5bn respectively, are Chinese AI companies specialising in the field. Their application of it alone would make it one of the most widely deployed forms of artificial intelligence in the world.

Like most companies deploying intelligent software, Megvii and SenseTime rely on a technique called machine learning. They do not ask their human coders to program computers with rules that distinguish between one face and another. Instead the coders provide the computer with masses of data about faces, usually photographs, and write software which trawls through those photos looking for patterns which can be used reliably to tell one unique face from another. The patterns picked up by that learning software make better rules for recognising faces than anything a human coder could describe explicitly. Humans are good at recognising faces but, with the right software, computers can learn to be much better. Face-recognition software is much easier and cheaper to deploy than human recognisers. It just needs software, powerful computers and data—the new trinity of AI.

It is in the third of those categories, people will warn you, that China’s great advantage lies. It has loads of data. But its advantage is subtler than that. Data alone are not much use for building AI software. They must first be labelled. This means that the data set must be endowed with the contextual information that computers need in order to learn statistical associations between components of that data set and their meaning to human beings.

To learn to differentiate between cats and dogs, a computer is first shown pictures in which each animal is correctly labelled. To learn to distinguish between one person’s face and another, a computer must first be shown what a face is, using labelled data, and then how to tell the difference between cheekbones and brows, again via human labelling. Only with enough labelled instructions will it be able to start recognising faces without human help.

Underpinning companies like Megvii and SenseTime is a sprawling digital infrastructure through which data are collected, cleaned and labelled before being processed into the machine-learning software that makes face recognition tick. Just as Apple adds its brand to phones mostly assembled by cheap Chinese labour, so too the Chinese AI companies design and brand