08 Jan 2018
An Orwellian future is taking shape in China
By Fergus Ryan
When Google stopped operating its China-based search engine in 2010 in protest against censorship, scores of young people placed wreaths at the company headquarters in Beijing as a sign of mourning.
At the time, vibrant debate and commentary on Chinese social media platforms like Sina Weibo held out some promise for the emergence of an online civil society with the power to expose corruption and effect change.
The Chinese Communist Party was caught in a vice — seeing the internet as an avenue for pursuing economic growth, while at the same time fretting about the political disruption it augured.
But, seemingly against all odds, Beijing has managed to strike the balance between harnessing the internet for economic growth and guarding against its threats to security – something former president Bill Clinton once called the equivalent of "nailing Jell-O to a wall".
Since Google pulled its search engine from the market, China's digital economy has grown into a US$3 trillion steamroller, fuelled by 750 million netizens.
Homegrown tech companies, protected from foreign competition by the "great firewall" have grown into behemoths.
Chinese tech giant Tencent has became the first Asian company ever to be valued above US$500 billion. Rival tech giant Alibaba Group is nipping at its heels with a market capitalisation of $US481 billion.
So far, the US tech giants and their Chinese rivals have been in a sort of detente, with neither making significant forays into each other's territory. But that is starting to change. In recent months, Tencent has been on a buying spree, investing in Tesla, Snap and Spotify.
The pressure for foreign tech companies to enter the Chinese market has increased. In a significant milestone, Google unveiled plans in December to return to the middle kingdom by opening an artificial intelligence research centre in Beijing.
China has some clear advantages for the next phase of digital growth: a strong corps of engineers, plenty of money and a huge amount of data, not to mention a lack of concern about privacy for making use of it.
Beijing has made no secret of its goal to become the world leader in AI by 2030. Other emerging fields like quantum computing, robotics, cloud computing, and smart cities are firmly in its sights.
Already, the beginnings of a truly Orwellian future in China are taking shape. Tencent is working with authorities to develop an "early-warning system" for predicting the size of crowds and their movement.
Alibaba founder Jack Ma has said that so-called smart cities powered by his company's computers and artificial-intelligence algorithms will make it possible to predict security threats. "Bad guys won't even be able to walk into the square," he told a Communist Party commission overseeing law enforcement last year.
What's now clear is that the Chinese Communist Party has shown a remarkable ability, not just to control the internet, but to harness it to achieve its desired ends.
Chinese tech companies have little choice but to cooperate with it. Whether foreign tech companies go along for the ride is still an open question.