Nicholas Kinports


China is Coming, and the West Should be Very Afraid

Global Tech Battles

In order for China to eclipse the West, it has to uplift the lives of billions while keeping industry moving at a breakneck pace.

My current read: They will succeed.

TLDR: While Western Europe and America struggle with societal divides, China is focusing 1.4 billion citizens on the future using incentives, social media, artificial intelligence, and the most sophisticated surveillance network in the world.

Who will be America’s emotional support animal?

Since the election of Donald Trump, Americans find themselves in a daily intellectual and moral crisis. The number of mainstream social justice movements has exploded, each with hundreds of facets.

The exponential multiplication of moral outcry is thanks to our own invention: social media. Reliance on the rapid spread of information creates an environment where she or he who gets the most attention wins. And thanks to that dynamic, the opportunities — and incentives — for attention grabs are boundless. All one has to do is get very good at delivering pithy, in-the-moment content at the right time to create a viral sensation.

Percent of Americans who say they use social media by age group and platform. — 2018 Pew Research Center

Americans now seem to be best at simultaneously creating and reporting on our own angst. We’ve gotten so good at it that angering each other rivals anything else we produce as a percent of domestic mind share.

If there’s any good news, it’s that we are getting very good at sparking emotional response with social networks to further moral imperatives.

The bad news? Seemingly unsolvable polarization around political stance, gender equality, race equality, and election tampering has distracted us from innovation, our historic number one export.

Western Europe tries to be progressive and egalitarian, with mixed results

Along a similar spectrum, the EU has implemented General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). This stringent set of privacy laws is designed to simultaneously protect citizens from intrusive data collection and serve a shot across the bow of Silicon Valley. The message? It’s not OK to make money off of EU citizens personal information without their consent.

At it’s core, GDPR is patently anti-innovation, and it has little to do with what society wants or needs. The argument that data storage leads to invasive behaviors runs counter to the creation of the internet itself.

In the EU and the United States, issues like privacy and political interference have become a desperate land grab where overbearing government goals happen to align with societal outrage over broken expectations (Brexit and Trump to name two).

Interest in privacy and regulation of social media over time. — The Economist

Regulations like GDPR serve no one in the West, and may in fact lead to a lack of transparency in the near future. Google famously announced stringent publisher guidelines mere days before GDPR went into effect. Since then, publishers have felt the burn of reduced monetization in an already constrained environment.

Without a proper source of income, no for profit company can survive. And with less meaningful or sustainable income, journalists have been reduced to pathetic Search Engine Optimization writers and tweet minders, hoping to capture or create societal outrage for clicks.

After all, who in the future will pay for intelligent journalists to work on important stories when we can simply turn on Twitter and satisfy our need to be outraged?

While the West struggles with intellectualism, China moves forward

It’s a long-winded way of bringing me to the point: China is coming up — fast. In my experience the West tends to take a backward view of China. That is to say, we think of China as it was 10–20 years ago, with a dose of added media sensationalism. Crowded, open sewer streets, choking pollution, and children laboring in unsafe factories are poignant images that come to mind.

A typical manufacturing facility in the outskirts of Shenzhen, China. Credit: lonelybrand

An American colleague of mine recently asked if the Chinese struck me as, “Desperate, hungry, and smart?” I told him to scratch out the desperation and he’s starting to get the right idea.

The problems of China from even a few years ago are being solved at a rapid pace. Thanks to a central government with a unified message, everybody goes along with the plan. And as these problems get solved, the Chinese desire for interaction with the West diminishes.

Here are just a few of the “first world” achievements to which China has laid claim in the last several years:

  • Since 2015, China has spent more on clean energy systems including solar, wind, and hydroelectric power than America and the EU combined. — The Economist
  • China now sells more electric vehicles than the rest of the world combined, most of which are bought by it’s own citizens. — Forbes
  • China now exports cooked chicken and duck to the United States, under the same quality standards required by domestic farms. — The Washington Post
  • 73% of Chinese citizens feel they are free to share their opinions on social media with no repercussions, compared to 43% of Americans. — PodSquad

The majority of these achievements are due to a central government bent on making China the top global power in the next thirty years. And that central government is led, mostly, by one man.

Xi Jinping is a polarizing figure. As General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, President of the People’s Republic of China, and Chairman of the Central Military Commission he enjoys unchecked rule. It’s easy for the West to imagine him an evil dictator in the process of creating a new, self-serving dynasty a la Kim Il-sung.

An organic garden in unused factory space in Shenzhen, China. Credit: lonelybrand

But with 1.4 billion people to feed, his job is particularly precarious. Now elected official for life, he must produce an overall increase in citizens’ quality of life to maintain order and economic momentum. To say it another way, Xi Jinping is spinning a lot of plates, and if even one falls, his reign will be short lived.

To keep those plates spinning, he needs to control a very large geography and nearly a fifth of the world’s population.

Hardware and software is increasingly concepted, engineered, and made in China. The city of Shenzhen and the surrounding area is often called China’s Silicon Valley, and it’s even starting to look the part.

Xi Jinping is putting this tech breadbasket to work. Beginning in the next year, a country-wide network of surveillance dubbed the Social Credit System will be activated. The goal? Hack the minds of 1.4 billion people to police themselves and each other around the goals of the Party.

Think of the Social Credit System as a giant Stanford Prison Experiment run by AI.

At it’s core, the Social Scoring system is an algorithm. In the United States we might imagine that nagging Experian or TransUnion score. Each Chinese citizen will receive a score based on many factors.

But unlike the systems we know in the West, the Social Scoring System will compute hundreds, if not thousands, of data points. Everything from where citizens travel to the food they consume and the friends they keep will contribute to their score.

This always-on central government monitoring ties into the financial and transactional records of every company in China. It’s tentacles reach into every state approved social network, email, and mobile device microphone. It also utilizes the most sophisticated CCTV camera system in the world, complete with facial recognition and object identification.

Each citizen can view his or her score in real time, and watch as daily actions impact the result. Paying bills and taxes will be important, but so will getting to work on time and avoiding excess vice.

Downtown Shenzhen, China. Credit: lonelybrand

If the Social Scoring System works, one can imagine the results. An entire population of individuals moving in the same direction, creating a rising tide of wealth as they do so. And while many people in China are wary of the new Social Scoring System, most are looking to the future.

A high score can mean open global travel, access to consumer credit, and permissions previously enjoyed exclusively by Party officials.

A low score can mean social isolation, government restrictions, and career destruction. In theory, if you land in a dark place it’s because you put yourself there. In practice, we all know that algorithms are far from perfect.

Macroeconomic progress requires sacrifice — be it personal, societal, or psychological

The greater the sacrifice, the faster the pace of progress. And in the growing societal divides embroiling the West, nobody seems to be willing to come to the negotiating table.

But even if we can predict a future where the West is obsolete, can we alter our current course? Perhaps this time our fiercely individualistic and innovative society has hamstrung itself. Perhaps social media is best used as a means of control or not at all. And in the West, nobody seems to be at the helm.

More by Nicholas Kinports

Topics of interest

More Related Stories