The Chinese internet is coming for you. Or so we often hear. “China’s internal internet repression is world-famous,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced in 2018, condemning China’s “Orwellian nonsense” and “efforts to export its censorship and political correctness to Americans and the rest of the free world.” “A cold war is being waged across the world’s most advanced industries,” the New York Times declared the same year. Headline writers can rarely resist a martial metaphor. The battle for digital supremacy. The coming tech war. The AI arms race. When China rules the web.
Of course, there’s some truth to these stories. The internet has created menacing new opportunities for the Chinese surveillance state. Some Chinese tech firms have become hugely successful. The Chinese government is investing heavily in AI research. Americans should be thinking about and responding to these changes.
Yet the us versus them, winner takes all rhetoric raises as many questions as it answers. “We” who? And “all” of what, exactly? These claims of a zero-sum “cold war” share a common problem: they start from the American perspective. They may reflect some Chinese realities but they are also, in many ways, projections of American desires and American fears.
As a result, they provide only partial views of Chinese tech. Indeed, much of the American media coverage perpetuates centuries-old stereotypes even as they update them for a new era.
Twenty-first-century Orientalism reduces China—home to one in five humans on the planet—to a dreamscape of digital opium dens, where all-powerful despots demand tribute from foreigners as the price of trade, and new Shangri-las hoard the secrets of AI supremacy. Like all projections, these stories ultimately reveal less about their purported subject than about the people who tell them. How many hot takes on Chinese techno-dystopia have surveyed surveillance technology and unaccountable data collection as if the United States did not also need to grapple with these phenomena?
This issue aims to push back against these prevailing clichés by centering on Chinese perspectives. Rather than Will China Beat Us at AI—whatever any word in that sentence besides “will” means—we set out to ask more fundamental questions. How have digital technologies developed in China since the 1980s? Who are the winners and losers? What are some likely futures? There are still, remarkably, few widely agreed-upon answers.
Leave the New Cold War framework to politicos and CEOs looking to score points in Washington. We set ourselves the task of taking Chinese tech on its own terms. In order to do so, we sought out voices, both within and beyond Chinese borders, who are committed to pushing aside the commonplaces that clutter the headlines. The picture they paint isn’t simple. It’s full of tensions, complexities, and contradictions. Indeed, it suggests that these may be the very source of the dynamism that has driven the most important geopolitical shifts of the twenty-first century.
Once upon a time, the Chinese Communist Party needed to play catch up. The isolation of the country under Mao Zedong had left it far behind. Deng Xiaoping, the preeminent leader who oversaw pro-market reforms after 1978, put technology at the heart of his vision for modernizing China. (Deng called it, in Marxist parlance, “a primary productive force.”)
Throughout the 1980s, as they watched the emergence of new information technologies around the world, Chinese politicians called on the people to race ahead to match the West—stressing the importance of scientists and business leaders in particular. The original Apple Macintosh was released in January 1984; in November of that year, an engineer at the Chinese Academy of Sciences named Liu Chuanzhi founded the company that would become known as Lenovo. Lenovo would grow into one of the world’s biggest makers of personal computers, acquiring IBM’s personal computer business in 2005.
The sense of urgency that Party leadership expressed in the 1980s laid the foundations for the rise of the internet in the 1990s. In 1995, China had 40,000 internet users; by 2000, there were 22.5 million. In 1999, Alibaba was founded, and the Chinese internet’s first blockbuster app—the hugely popular QQ—appeared.
American elites viewed these developments as waystations on the inevitable path of post-Cold War liberalization. Many of them believed that the Chinese Communist Party, by embracing the internet, would inadvertently set in motion a process of political opening. Signing a bill into law that permanently normalized trade relations with China in 2000, Bill Clinton predicted that “in the new century, liberty will spread by cell phone and cable modem.” Liberty would be lucrative too: American tech companies expected to make a fortune by dominating the Chinese market.
Both programs stalled, however: ERROR_ PATH_ NOT_ FOUND. Liberalization by modem didn’t materialize. Instead, the Chinese government developed a sophisticated system for controlling and censoring the country’s digital sphere. And while some American tech companies did make plenty of money in the Chinese market, they hardly dominated it. Instead, many of them ended up like eBay, which was outmatched by Chinese rival Taobao and left grumbling about the challenges of business inside the “Great Firewall.” Or Uber, which sold its remaining China business to competitor Didi Chuxing before abandoning the Chinese market in 2016.
Today, travelers from China to the United States often report feeling as if they have gone backwards in time. Yet what this sensation may really mean is that the developmental metaphor—history as staggered race on a single course—was wrong to begin with. For years, Americans disparaged Chinese tech, like Chinese goods, as knock-offs, shanzhai. But the Chinese internet is not a copy of the American internet. It’s a whole new world.
WeChat is a messaging and social media app. You can send direct messages to another user, or share photos and GIFs with groups of thousands—all of which is subject to state censorship. It’s also an e-commerce app. You can order anything from a new computer to an antique vase to your office, factory, farm, or home, and when it arrives you can pay by scanning a QR code. Your purchase can be as small as a dumpling or as large as your monthly rent. Passengers traveling over two hundred miles per hour on the gaotie, or high-speed train, can use DianPing (the “Chinese Yelp”) to find the best-rated Sichuanese restaurant in an upcoming city, then place an order on Meituan, the food delivery service—all without leaving WeChat. At the train’s next stop, a deliveryman in a yellow shirt will come to their seat bearing Chongqing chicken.
For many users, WeChat is the Chinese internet. By 2018, WeChat had nearly one billion monthly active users. But there isn’t one single story of the Chinese internet—or one “Chinese internet,” even if the phrase can be a useful shorthand.
Today, to the visitor arriving in a major city like Shanghai or Shenzhen, it’s clear that digital technologies are central to everyday life. The urbanized coast is where investment and infrastructure have been densest, and over the past thirty years, they have fostered high rates of technological adaptation and entrepreneurial activity. Yet the cities aren’t the whole story. Indeed, many of the most vibrant areas of online activity today are in less privileged communities that made the leap directly from offline to mobile.
When Ren Qingsheng first started selling homemade costumes on Taobao in 2010, he kept his computer in the family kitchen of his small home in the Shandong countryside. He used his daughter’s pinyin textbook to translate characters into letters he could type on the keyboard. A few years later, his small business grew large enough to hire several workers, and he was sending bulk orders of costumes to buyers from Taiwan to Thailand. By 2017, his revenues exceeded 10 million yuan, or nearly $1.5 million per year. But even this impressive level of success only put him in the top ten of the most successful entrepreneurs in his village.
Rural e-commerce gurus like Ren aren’t the only “winners” of the Chinese internet, of course. It has democratized certain kinds of cultural and economic participation across the country. Consider the rural grannies who produce riotous dance videos that go viral on TikTok: video platforms help bridge the digital divide by reducing the literacy barrier that might formerly have excluded such users.
But the biggest winners are the people at the top of the tech boom. The decisions of government officials crafting industrial policy or venture capitalists pouring millions of renminbi into risky startups have produced a handful of immensely wealth tech titans in an already unequal society. Yet these decisions haven’t pulled apart China’s so-called “socialist market economy,” as the national constitution officially calls it. Rather, they have helped entrench that mixed system.
Prominent tech investors like Eric X. Li have long doubled as defenders of the Communist Party. Alibaba founder Jack Ma’s Party membership came to widespread attention when he was honored by the Chinese government as a “reform pioneer” in 2018. The figures who preside over China’s tech boom aren’t all Party members. But they have all found a way to coexist with the Party-state—even if only uneasily, and perhaps temporarily.
This proximity has strongly shaped how Chinese tech has developed. The app economy is built around real-name registration, proof of residence, and so on—requirements that enable state agencies to keep a close eye on users. The most-downloaded app of early 2019 is an ideology instruction program called “Study Xi, Strong Nation,” which Party members and civil servants are required to use to ensure their engagement with Xi Jinping’s thoughts and teachings. If the Chinese internet has enabled new forms of participation, it has also facilitated the detection and elimination of other forms of participation that the Party deems intolerable.
The Party-state has decimated the nascent feminist movement and undercut the work of criminal defense lawyers, journalists, and HIV/AIDS activists. The big, nationwide movements get the most attention, but crackdowns extend to localities far from Beijing. In January 2019, the Guangdong provincial public security bureau fined a thirty-year-old man 1000 renminbi for downloading and installing a proxy server on his phone.
The site of the most brutal and heartbreaking application of digital surveillance technologies within China’s borders is farthest from the capital, in the western region of Xinjiang. Digitally enhanced monitoring and gulag-style reeducation camps housing as many as one million detainees have devastated Uyghur communities. And there are indications that the technologies and techniques perfected in Xinjiang are designed for export—not only to other parts of China, but also to other countries around the world. In this way, the geography of Chinese technology can move swiftly from the local to the global and back again. These oscillations are one more reason why it is imperative for everyone, not just China experts, to pay attention.
As Chinese-built telecommunications infrastructure breaks ground around the world, as Chinese companies buy American apps like Grindr and offer cloud-computing services from Indonesia to Canada, and as WePay and Alipay become accepted everywhere from duty-free shops in European airports to New York City taxi cabs, it has become more difficult to say where the “Chinese internet” begins and ends. The writers in this issue travel across national borders, socioeconomic divides, and possible futures, pursuing glimpses not only of what the Chinese internet is but where it is—and where it may go from here.
When it comes to China, it feels difficult to make predictions. This may be one reason why so many observers seem keen to revive familiar paradigms, like the New Cold War. Instead of trying to breathe life into old ideas, however, we should be developing new ones.
This requires a bit of creativity. When everyday life takes on the feeling of unreality, seeking out the frontiers of imagination takes on a practical importance. China is one of those frontiers of imagination, and its technological innovations can sometimes feel like real-life speculative fiction.
Fortunately, Chinese writers are taking technological change head on, exploring the urgent problems of inequality, environmental degradation, and social discontent. Contributors to this issue represent some of the leading figures in Chinese science fiction, and their speculations blur the lines between future and fantasy—even as some of them would protest that what they are describing is not essentially Chinese, but universal. Look at South America. Look at South Africa. Not only will you find Chinese power in these places, you will find patterns driven by the dynamics of global capitalism. China may represent an extreme, but the differences are often differences of degree.
Sometimes, the most startling experiences for an American on the Chinese internet occur when you notice the familiarity of certain elements in an estranged form. Take Peppa Pig: you might see this adorable figure from a popular children’s cartoon recast as a badass smoking a cigarette. Or you might stumble on Pepe, icon of the American alt-right—known in Chinese as beishang wa, 悲伤蛙, or “sadness frog”—restored to his original slacker millennial identity, without the overtones of white supremacy that he has acquired in the US over the past few years.
Politicians and pundits in the United States will doubtlessly continue to craft grand narratives about the Chinese internet. Some will be accurate. Others will be full of projection—nightmares filled with monsters that Americans fear they may be creating at home, or the panic attacks of a superpower failing to invest in education and research. We hope this issue is not just an occasion to clarify or dispel myths and to elucidate complex realities, but also to underscore that the questions raised by Chinese tech hit uncomfortably close to home.