In late November, Daniel Zhang, the chairman and CEO of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, gave a speech at the Chinese government-sponsored World Internet Conference. The event was taking place in Wuzhen, a historic town in eastern Zhejiang province, but Zhang’s intended audience was hundreds of miles away, in Beijing. Just weeks earlier, Chinese regulators had nixed the blockbuster initial public offering of Ant Group, Alibaba’s financial arm, reportedly at the behest of China’s leader, Xi Jinping. Xi and other top officials took umbrage at earlier comments by Jack Ma, Alibaba’s co-founder, who had publicly criticized regulators for stifling innovation.
Seeking to mend fences, Zhang’s carefully scripted address praised government policies for growing the digital economy while highlighting Alibaba’s role in helping China become a “cyber superpower.” This was not the first instance of a prominent tech executive paying lip service to Xi’s long-term goal of technological supremacy. And given the party’s current emphasis on solidifying control over the private sector, it won’t be the last.
Xi first announced his goal of transforming China into a cyber superpower in a speech in 2014, two years after taking the reins of the Communist Party. Since then, he has cemented his digital manifesto’s status as a national strategy and elevated its importance at numerous political gatherings. Technology-focused events like China Cybersecurity Week and the annual Digital China Summit routinely feature Xi’s signature initiative, which was recently turned into a book published by the party. More importantly, the Communist Party’s Central Committee, a top decision-making body composed of around 370 senior officials, reaffirmed the goal of becoming a cyber superpower as a key priority at a meeting in late October.
Given the importance China’s leaders place on being a “cyber superpower,” it is worth examining what they really mean. In short, it is a strategic call to action to secure global preeminence, stability and self-reliance in cyberspace and the technology that undergirds it. Cyber superpower status is defined, albeit loosely, by its core objectives, such as developing indigenous technologies and erecting an impregnable cyber defense.
It is worth noting that some of China’s technology policies embody practical concerns, such as personal data protection, but others reflect the party’s never-ending quest for greater social and information control. Moreover, Chinese state and nonstate actors have pilfered untold amounts of data from foreign entities, including U.S. companies and government agencies. These cyberespionage campaigns are intended to further China’s economic growth, as well as its technological, military and intelligence capacities. Last September, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted a group of state-affiliated Chinese hackers for allegedly compromising the networks of more than 100 companies and organizations spanning the globe.
Xi’s bid to achieve cyber superpower status is the digital pillar of the party’s grand strategy: “the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” or what Xi often calls “the Chinese dream.” The strategy is supported by “two centenary goals” marking important anniversaries in Chinese history. By the second of these landmarks, in 2049, China is to be a modern, socialist great power—a goal that Xi views as going hand-in-hand with technological preeminence. He is also fond of referring to a “community with a shared future in cyberspace”—a spin-off of his central foreign policy vision, “community with a shared future for mankind,” which is meant to repurpose the current international order to create a Sino-centric system in which liberal norms take a backseat to oppressive state power.
Based on past Chinese policies, statements, actions and leaders’ remarks, there are 10 objectives that Beijing is focusing on as it vies for cyber superpower status. They include the cultivation of a large home-grown tech talent pool, the fostering of globally influential high-tech Chinese firms, and greater international adoption of Beijing’s model of “cyber sovereignty” as a blueprint for tight control over the internet. Other targets include secure information infrastructure, enhanced online state censorship and digital surveillance, a robust yet regulated digital economy, sophisticated offensive cyber capabilities and a staunch cyber defense.
While Xi’s aspirations to become a cyber superpower mirror other grandiose Chinese goals, his digital dream clearly holds outsized importance.
While there is no conceptual hierarchy, the ownership of emerging and foundational “core technologies,” which support IT and communications systems, looms large in the party’s psyche. In a 2016 speech that detailed the party’s strategic thinking behind cyber superpower status, Xi referred to core technologies as being both vital and the country’s “biggest hidden danger,” since they are “controlled by others.” In other words, China’s Achilles’ heel is a lack of homegrown technologies in areas like semiconductors, a soft spot seized on by the Trump administration when it imposed export restrictions on Chinese technology firms.
The party calculates that the remedy is to pursue indigenous innovation by limiting dependence on foreign science and technology, including through coercive means. “Core technology is a national treasure—the most essential technologies must rely on indigenous innovation and self-reliance,” Xi said in 2016. Xi still advocates choreographed cooperation with other countries to advance the Chinese tech sector, though on Beijing’s terms. He has called for technologies that are “safe and controllable,” can be jointly developed through “co-innovation,” or are suitable for “absorption and re-innovation.” This rhetoric harks back to a 2006 science and technology plan that defined indigenous innovation as a tool to elevate China’s technological standing by strategically tweaking imported technologies.
China’s bureaucracy has responded to such high-level calls for breakthroughs in indigenous technologies by focusing on growing local talent. In 2016, Chinese government agencies issued a joint policy to promote cybersecurity studies in higher education, prodding universities to establish cybersecurity-focused majors and departments. As of 2019, more than 40 universities had created cybersecurity departments. New institutions devoted to the study of big data and artificial intelligence are springing up across the country, too.
Wuhan University, in central China, represents one of Beijing’s highest hopes for nurturing world-class cybersecurity talent. In September, the prestigious university welcomed hundreds of students to a new satellite academy located within a cybersecurity industrial park on the outskirts of Wuhan. The innovation hub combines academia with industry and enterprise. One-third of China’s top 50 cybersecurity companies have become tenants, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency.
China also hopes to produce core technologies through the digital transformation of the economy. Government action plans, such as the newly released Industrial Internet Innovation Development Action Plan, describe measures to boost technological innovation through digital upgrades of traditional industries and infrastructure. Made in China 2025, a 10-year strategy to dominate advanced manufacturing and emerging technologies, is likewise still operational despite being dialed back on a rhetorical level.
Beijing endeavors to create a “digital china,” one that leads the world in the technologies of the future. Quantum computing, 5G, semiconductors, blockchain, big data, artificial intelligence, cloud computing and robotics are all frontier technologies seemingly within reach. Chinese researchers achieved quantum supremacy last fall, which is defined as the ability of a quantum computer to solve an equation too complex and impractical for a conventional machine. And according to recent government statistics, over 600,000 5G base stations were constructed in 2020. That said, China’s internet penetration rate still lags behind neighbors like South Korea and Japan.
While Xi’s aspirations to become a cyber superpower mirror other grandiose Chinese goals, his digital dream clearly holds outsized importance. In the words of a 2018 editorial in The People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party, “Whoever commands the internet, seizes the initiative of the times.”
Previous fumbled opportunities to capitalize on historic socioeconomic changes still reverberate in the halls of Zhongnanhai, the Beijing headquarters of China’s top political bodies and government institutions. The Industrial Revolution in particular serves as an acute warning to today’s Chinese leaders that bureaucratic failure is often a prelude to severe decline. During the 1800s, the Qing dynasty’s intransigence and inability to close the technological gap between China and the West abetted the fall of China’s last imperial dynasty and the beginning of a long period of unwanted foreign influence and invasions. Today, Xi invokes the “century of humiliation” as a national reminder to capitalize on the opportunity-filled landscape presented by the internet age—and that means becoming a cyber superpower.
Don Giolzetti is an analyst and writer based in Washington, D.C. His writing on East Asian affairs has appeared in a range of media outlets, including Foreign Policy and CNN.
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