How US-China Rivalry Distracts from Tech Harms
Paris Marx is joined by Yangyang Cheng to discuss the growing divide between the United States and China, and how nationalistic narratives distract us from a better understanding of tech in both countries.
Yangyang Cheng is a particle physicist and research scholar at Yale Law School. She’s written for the New York Times, The Guardian, The Nation, WIRED, and many others. You can follow Yangyang on Twitter at @yangyang_cheng.
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Paris Marx: Yangyang, welcome to Tech Won’t Save Us.
Yangyang Cheng: Thank you so much for having me.
PM: I’m very excited to chat, You had this recent piece in Wired, I guess was a couple of weeks ago, now, that I read. And once I read it, I was like: Okay, I need to have you on the podcast to dig into this. Obviously, the relationship between the US and China is very important now, not just on a broader geopolitical level, but especially when we’re talking about tech and the competition between US and Chinese technology companies. And the various narratives that we have around how those companies work, and their goals and their aims, and all these sorts of things. I thought that your piece gave us a really great perspective, not just on how you have experienced that as an academic who moved from China to the United States, but also what that means on the broader geopolitical level and who this impacts. I wanted to start by talking a bit about your experience, and then we can move into those broader critiques and observations that you have. So you wrote about what it was like to come to the United States as an academic from China, and how that has changed since you first made that journey. So can you talk to us a bit about how the openness of academics from China has changed in the United States and what your experience was like?
YC: Thanks so much for this question. I guess I’ll probably answer it, since it has a personal angle to it. So, I was born and raised in a medium sized city in central eastern China, and I finished my undergraduate in China as a physics major. I came to the US to pursue my PhD in physics in the fall of 2009 and I was trained as a particle physicist, and I worked on the Large Hadron Collider for over a decade. I think these markers are kind of important in terms of contextualizing my own personal experience in US academia, because I worked within a large international collaboration, or multiple large international collaborations throughout my physics career, that went extent because the Large Hadron Collider is located, like physically located, in Europe at the European Center for Nuclear Research, and as part of an international collaboration. There is more openness. And there is, even on a technical level, some of the governing agreements under of the funding agencies are under international agreements.
So it has shielded some of the more intense scrutiny in my own academic career, compared with some of my other colleagues who work on smaller scale US based experiments, or especially working on things that are considered more applied, or that touches on some of the more sensitive — I will put scare quotes around them — say “quantum,” or “AI,” or whatnot. But even in a discipline that upholds a certain cosmopolitan idea, or aspires to a cosmopolitan ideal, there is still impacts of geopolitics. I would also say, I don’t want to exceptionalize US-China relations, in terms of its impact on international collaborations in science. For example, after Trump’s Muslim ban, there was a very direct impact on a lot of my colleagues who come from Muslim-majority countries. And so I think that these are some of the important things to keep in mind that US-China relations, and its impact on scientific collaboration, often takes up a lot of oxygen in the conversation. But sometimes that warps the overall context that this is, on one hand, from a historical perspective, a vertical standpoint, not necessarily new. On the other hand, there is a horizontal perspective that the world is not just US and China there are other layers to this tension as well.
PM: That makes a lot of sense. We have seen that over time as the focus of US politics changes, different people can get wrapped up in whatever those initiatives are. That are going after different people from different parts of the world who, are perceived to be, potentially, working for someone else, or whatever. When you talk about the difference between the local and the domestic and the consideration of who is foreign in those perspectives. Or in those laws or in those initiatives, because one of the things that you talk about is how the United States had what was called the China Initiative that was specifically looking at Chinese academics within the US system, and prosecuting them for just absolutely ridiculous things that made no sense. Can you give us a bit of an insight into that and how that works?
YC: Sure, I think if I would put a little add-on to the earlier question, which ties to your current one about the China initiative specifically. Is that in terms of understanding US-China relations, and attention that impact science and technology development. One thing is also if we recognize countries and their peoples with their full agency, then it’s not just the US side unilaterally making decisions, or taking steps that damages the bilateral relationship. There are certainly Chinese entities — including governments levels, institutional levels — where even individuals who have made mistakes or who have done certain things, including cutting off research, access and certain things that contributes to the cycle. And with that in mind coming to the China Initiative: so, the China Initiative by itself started under the Trump administration, and was formally announced by then Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
However, it has a much longer history in terms of the scrutiny on US-China scientific collaborations or on especially ethnic Chinese scientists working at US institutions. The underlying context to this is more on the Chinese side. For my parents’ generation, they would probably be the first generation who came of age in Mao’s China. But if they were academics in the 80s, they were the first generation who may be able to go to the United States for work or study in this earlier opening of bilateral scientific exchange between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. And, of course, on the Chinese government side, when they allowed Chinese students and scientists to go to the United States to work or study, it wasn’t altruistic and it wasn’t saying that they respecting their freedom of choice.
It was very much hoping that it would be a way to train a younger generation of Chinese scientists, engineers, and tech workers who may be able to come back to China or in some way contribute to the scientific development and educational development in China in direct or indirect ways. However, scientists are also people. And so for decades after that China was still quite poor, and the resources and conditions for scientific research and higher education are limited. And so Chinese scientists overwhelmingly, when they had an opportunity to go abroad, chose to stay abroad and to continue their work. This is all very, very understandable. So I started university in 2005. When I was an undergraduate in China, it was also during the beginning or the middle of the China’s economic boom, that the government launched its flagship talent recruitment program, that’s almost become a slur in US policy circles now, the Thousands Talents Plan.
But it was really just a high-level talent recruitment program to attract overseas scientists. The program itself is not exclusive to Chinese nationals or ethnic Chinese people, though the language often appeals very directly to sentiments of national belonging. The website has been taken offline, but the homepage of the Thousands Talents Plan, before it has these lies in Chinese saying: the Motherland needs you, the Motherland welcomes you, and Motherland is waiting for you to come back, and things to that effect. So it was really appealing to sentiments of national belonging. And these are all welcomed on the US side, because the Chinese government was providing different levels of funding for US space scientists, majority or ethnic Chinese, but then to go to China to take on different types of research collaborations, were visiting professorships, or were different levels of employment or just honorary titles.
What had happened is through this process, and some of that is tied with the nature of Chinese bureaucracy, that there are indeed abuses or neglect in these contracts, that there may be what on the US side will be seen as conflicts of interest in terms of time commitment, or financial incentives. And some of that was not necessarily properly reported to funding agencies in the US for US based scientists in their own employment agreements. And then there are also probably more serious issues of academic misconduct, in terms of scientists who participated in a wide host of Chinese talent programs — thousands, hundreds, most well-known, or guests, probably, know at this point the most notorius ones — on who may have violated confidentiality during peer review process, or things like that. So there are indeed individual misconducts in terms of compromising the integrity of the scientific process.
Then there are very individual cases. There may be an intellectual property infringement, and the United States has been aware of this at some point. But I think the extra scrutiny being placed on it is not proportional to the type of misconduct because, as we say, this is like a lot of these are academic misconduct, and can be resolved through academic means if there are indeed misconduct. It’s like say students cheat, and then they can face academic discipline for cheating, but it doesn’t mean that students should be sent to jail for it. So how the US government has responded to it is very much has less to do with the specific types of academic misconduct, and it’s really doesn’t have much to do with upholding academic integrity.
But it has become this mischaracterized rhetoric saying these talent recruitment programs or collaborations are conduits for “intellectual property theft,” even though in the majority or overwhelming majority of these researches, there is no proprietary information involved. It’s just open research. Then the US government’s response to it is, overwhelmingly, at least at the start, was through prosecutorial means through the Justice Department. So that’s a really, really long backstory to what led to the the official launch of the China Initiative in the fall of 2018, as announced by then Attorney General Jeff Sessions. And what was really interesting is because the FBI is not the agency to investigate issues of academic misconduct on a very basic level, a lot of times with missed high profile investigations is investigators — this is not to disparage their work — but they do not necessarily understand the science involved, and to not really know whether this is proprietary information, or this is just very basic research that is open and public by construct.
What is also really interesting is, even though the China Initiative received a lot of publicity — both in the media and also from the Justice Department itself — the Justice Department never really gave a clear definition of what the China Initiative is, or what cases fall under its purview. The best investigation on what China’s Initiative was, probably came from MIT Technology Review by a group of journalists there who built a database by looking at the case files and the press releases saying, which are the ones that mentioned the China initiative. But the takeaway is, the China Initiative — even though by the Justice Department’s own rhetoric is not meant to racially profile, or target any specific nationality or ethnicity — about close to 90% of the people who were investigated by or or faced charges from the China Initiative are ethnic Chinese. So, there is indeed a very targeted outcome.
There are also a few high profile cases, including where there may be overly enthusiastic FBI agents who just used Google to search for Chinese scientists or the labs that hire a lot of Chinese people. So I think this comes to another layer which was when it became a Justice Department initiative, or when it became something that is driven by the by the criminal justice system, then the incentives becomes very different. It becomes way just to catch a spy or to be able to have that that case count. It becomes very much removed from what the initial goal was. The Justice Department actually recognized its mistakes to some extent. And here, I would give credit to a lot of them are first generation Chinese immigrants, scientists. And so the Chinese American community, the Asian American community, and other civil rights groups, and academic communities and professional organizations on have made a lot of effort in terms of public advocacy and policy lobbying to push back on this.
So, the Justice Department announced a formal end, ending the China Initiative in name, a year and a half ago in February of 2022. However, what is important in terms of that ending, is ending in name where the Justice Department acknowledged that it made tactical mistakes, that “the China initiative was not the right approach,” and to face the host of “threats” from nation state actors, in particular China, needs “a broader approach.” So a lot of the investigations that are opened under the China Initiative are actually still going on. This is really long-winded answer, so I’ll just add one more thing. The China Initiative, by itself, was launched by the Justice Department, and is under the Justice Department. But there will also be a much wider range of investigations done by funding agencies themselves. That do not necessarily send people to jail, but can very easily cripple careers, in particular. I know that the NIH has launched a wide range of investigations that have impacted a lot of careers on overwhelmingly, or disproportionately impacting ethnic Chinese scientists in the US.
PM: Interesting, I appreciate you laying out that history for us and explaining how it has worked and how, even though the China Initiative proper has formally ended, a lot of these processes are still ongoing. I want to pivot a little bit away from the focus on academia and what it means for academics in particular, and move it into the greater geopolitical question of what is going on here. Obviously, we see a growing divide between the United States and China over the past number of years, after these countries were very kind of close to one another for a long time. The US was very invested in getting a lot of production moved over to China, taking advantage of Chinese workforce and all those sorts of things. As you mentioned, still had collaborations with China on science in these other areas. But over the past few years that has really started to shift where the US has taken a very different perspective toward China, a very different policy approach to China. I’m sure China has has also shifted a bit as well. How would you describe the reasons behind that shift and what is the impact of it?
YC: I’m really glad that you mentioned there are also related issues in terms of US China relations of trade or manufacturing and such. And it was really interesting, because when I came to — well, my current research focuses on the development of science technology in US-China relations — but I came to this as a trained particle physicist, and I saw this as a science and technology story. But the more I learned about this, I realized it’s not so much about science and technology, per se, but this really a story about labor and capital. So if we go back to the earlier history, of course, earlier in terms of the history of the People’s Republic of China, the earlier era of the long isolation of the Mao years between China and the West. And then when China was opening up, I mentioned there were incentives from the Chinese government side, hoping that, by allowing young Chinese scientists and students to go abroad to study is a way to help build up China’s own science and technology and educational sectors.
On the other hand, on the United States side, it’s not entirely just an altruistically “helping China,” either. These are highly trained individuals from China coming through a very, very competitive process. So in a way, they are effectively human capital, being recruited into the US. And this is placed into a broader trend of post World War II, “high tech immigration” to the United States from developing countries. And then these individuals themselves, of course, they can aspire to to better research, environments, and a higher standard of living. So, to an extent all three parties, the Chinese government, the US government, and these Chinese scientists themselves have something to gain from this exchange. And this has been the case for a few decades, until about 10 or 15 years ago.
But what has changed is this relationship to extent the high tech immigration to the US is a process that follows the logic and the hierarchy of imperial extraction. It protects the United States, at the center. Or at the top of the hierarchy, it extracts value, whether it’s in the form of manufactured goods, or in the form of human capital, or high tech labor, or other forms of value to its center. However, as China develops its economy and rises up in the hierarchy of global capitalism to contest us hegemony, that shifting of relations is — in my opinion, and I’m not alone in thinking this — is really the underlying tensions here. The flow of value, or the net flow value, is no longer a one dimensional. And this is how a lot of these issues with intellectual property infringement, or disagreements, have become more exposed, because on one hand, I acknowledge and it’s true that a lot of Chinese entities have had a very poor track record in terms of adhering to intellectual property protection.
On the other hand, all property, including intellectual property, are constructed concepts, and what is owned or not is constructed. Something can only be stolen, if it’s owned in the first place, and who owns it and who has access to shares of these are things that are determined by relations of power. And so to an extent Chinese entities, the government or society, or entities, have been cheating. That’s what the US government has been accusing. But it has been cheating in a game that is rigged heavily in favor of the US. And before this wasn’t that much of a problem. Even for US companies, they would rather accept intellectual property infringement as a necessary bargain in access to the Chinese market. And it was really, when this economic, “balance,” or a calculus is starting to shift, and no longer so overwhelmingly favor the US, that a lot of these sentiments have began to change.
PM: That’s so fascinating to hear you describe that, because it is a critique that you hear often of the larger economic model from the left. How you have these countries, like the United States, that are in the center or the core of the economy, and they tell talk about developing the global south or these other countries around the world. But actually what happens is they extract a lot of that value to keep themselves at the top of this global, economic hierarchy. I feel like an aspect of this that was not in the tech conversation for a long time was how the rollout of the internet, and its global expansion was also a product of and help to benefit US power. Because all of a sudden, you had these US companies that were able to expand globally, and dominate these markets around the world. For a while that was treated as like: Oh, this is spreading democracy and prosperity to the world. Not to that it was ensuring that the US had a lot of control over what was happening in these markets, and US companies were gaining because of that.
But now I feel like in the past, I don’t know, 10 years or so, that perspective has started to seep back in. Especially as those companies face more competition from companies in China — and to a lesser degree, other parts of the world — that are now able to more effectively compete with them. And now that is part of what seems to be forcing the United States to change its perspectives on China and its approach to China. Because, as you say, instead of being able to just extract value back to the United States and for US companies, Chinese companies are now becoming much more competitive with the US companies themselves. And some of that value is flowing to China now instead, and the United States seems to want to stop that or limit the ability of China and Chinese companies to do that. Do you think that is a good way to see what’s happening there?
YC: I would also contextualize a bit. I do not want to excuse the Chinese government’s behavior. The Chinese government, of course, is an integral part of global capitalism for the past four decades. The Chinese government does hold overwhelming control over the flows of capital and its development. And it does have a whole set of policies that overwhelmingly favor domestic industries and businesses. And because of China’s size, difference dimensions of size, that it holds a lot of leverage. So, a lot of US companies or Western companies in general, do have to contend and accept conditions in China that they would not accept elsewhere in other developing countries.
To an extent, there has been a certain aspiration on the part of a lot of US companies that they were hoping they could just wait it out, [until] China becomes more integrated into a global capitalism, including the World Trade Organization, or other forms of global governance for global capital. That they will eventually be able to bargain for more favorable conditions. So some of this is partly China’s economic rise. But partly, it’s also some of US companies have been, not just losing patience, but realizing that what they were hoping for is something that the Chinese government would never agree to, or accede to. And so that is also a major contributing factor to the worsening relationships between the two countries, including between the two capitalist markets.
PM: That makes a lot of sense, of course. One of the things I found interesting, and one of the pieces that you wrote was how, certainly China is infringing on intellectual property, is taking these initiatives to try to get more academics to come back to China that have maybe gone abroad before. But that also lines up with things that the United States was doing when it was growing as a larger power, taking academics from the European Union and from other parts of Europe. Helping former Nazis come over to become scientists in the United States, because it recognized the importance of getting that human capital, as you described before. And so the US now seems to have a problem with it, because it’s in the top position, but when it wasn’t, it was acting not so dissimilar lately, it seems.
YC: Exactly. When I mentioned earlier that when we say, China is cheating, but it’s cheating in a game rigged heavily in favor of the US, in terms of intellectual property protection. And if you look at the legal history — in terms of how different countries with different social contracts and legal traditions respond to issues of intellectual property — the most important connecting factor is its stage of economic development. And so as you mentioned earlier, when the United States was, by itself, a developing country, a young republic, newly independent from Great Britain, including Alexander Hamilton, was writing these proposals to extract, or gain high level, skilled workers and machinery from Great Britain and from Europe, often in violation of their countries’, or the European empire’s emigration and export control regulations.
Then later on, even up until the the early 20th century, United States grabbed a lot when the center of scientific development is still in Western Europe. The United States obtained a large number of chemical patents from Germany as claims of late World War I reparations or whatnot. And, of course, what is very well known after World War II, with the best known as Operation Paperclip. But it’s actually part of a much larger set of programs to extract technology and highly trained personnel from Nazi Germany to the United States, in what was then deemed strategically important sectors. These are behaviors that United States has been engaged in. And what is interesting about China is, of course, up until very recently, where the Chinese government still claims China is a developing country, but it’s very unevenly developed. But just a few years ago, when Xi Jinping made this famous speech about tightening intellectual property regulations in China, with this note, that China has transitioned from a major importer to a major exporter of intellectual property. So at this stage of economic development for China it’s also stepping up its intellectual property regulations.
But then, of course, that is to favor its own national interests. I know that we talked about academia earlier, and that our focus is not necessarily just on academia. But one important thing with regards to why issues of intellectual property theft, including the China Initiative when it started. Had an explicit focus on academia, as the Justice Department was saying that the traditional openness of academia made it more vulnerable to intellectual property theft or nefarious behavior from Chinese entities. But one important underlying note is the privatization and commercialization of academic research in the United States over the past four decades since The Vital Act of 1980. So to an extent, when universities behave more like companies, then US government agencies, including law enforcement, are also more likely to treat them like companies in terms of litigating these protections over “trade secrets” or proprietary information.
PM: I think that’s such a good point. I was going to ask you about it if you didn’t bring it up. So I’m very happy you did, I think it’s important context to understand, because we can sit here in the present, and we can say: Wow, it’s so terrible, that other places are taking intellectual property or whatever. Without recognizing that a lot of this work used to be considered just public knowledge, it was in the public domain when it was created by universities. Which is still where a lot of US research development, and especially basic research occurs. But then there’s this process to privatize that, to patent it, so that then it can be kind of turned off into companies. And we know, especially in the past number of decades, how universities have been a key part in the startup in tech ecosystem where you have these students who are creating these things at the universities. Then they patent them, and then they turn off their startup, out of academic work that they were doing. Google, of course, famously was founded that way. So you see this very distinct shift that begins to happen, and that is particularly promoted by certain universities before it’s adopted as a wider standard.
YC: Exactly. On one hand, on the university level, this commercialization of research also has a direct impact on what kind of questions are being pursued or being prioritized. So, it has a much more profound impact than just very specific on individual patterns or ownership by itself. On the other hand, when we were talking about the recent history of shifts in intellectual property protection, another important point is 1996, which was when the Economic Espionage Act was signed into law by Bill Clinton. And this was when intellectual property or trade secret theft became a federal crime. So we see even now like, say, the University of California, Berkeley, had this protracted lawsuit with the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT over access and use of CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology. So this sounds pretty wild — this is a public university, and another institution of higher learning with a lot of the research funding are from the public, why would they sue each other over a piece of technology that is intended for medicine for the public good? And so that exposes some of the fundamental fallacy in terms of: Okay, there is interest, but whose interest and who is really benefiting?
On the other hand, what is interesting about this is also intellectual property theft or trade secret infringement, do not necessarily have to be a crime. Still, in general, before the Economic Espionage Act, and even after a lot of these cases are being litigated in civil suits where the companies or the universities or just individuals themselves would bear the legal costs and take the resources to argue for their own profits or rights or whatnot. However, in particular, when it has a geopolitical context between the US and China, and we see a lot of these cases, become criminalized. It’s in effect, like the federal government, its public resources being used to pursue certain ends that may only be a private companies benefit. Capitalism is by construct deterritorializing how social capital can flow.
Several years ago, the US government launched this multi-year investigation over a Chinese born corn thief in Iowa, because he was stealing proprietary information of this gene edited corn seed from Monsanto. He was indeed guilty, that he did steal the corn seeds on behalf of his Chinese employer. And there was spy planes over a cornfield in Iowa, at a FISA warrants, and all these things. But in the end, this guy was found guilty and sentenced to prison, and because he’s not a US citizen, so he’s subject to deportation and everything. But on the other hand, Monsanto was later acquired by the German company, Bayer, and so the US government devoted so much federal resources to pursue an end to something that one can argue may not be American at all. And even if the company remains “American,” who is actually benefiting from this action, I think these are some of the more fundamental questions that needs to be asked. When a lot of the current discourse seems to be constrained to just procedural compliance, or the specific technicalities of the legality itself.
PM: It makes me think about how sovereign wealth funds in Saudi Arabia, and places like that, invest so much in aspects of Western economies. Then we criticize other states, and we don’t like them to be involved, but they’re these other actors, that just because we consider them Western allies, then it’s okay for them to be involved. Even though, on a political level, they’re very similar criticisms leveled at them around human rights and whatnot, regardless of what is actually going on there. But I wanted to pivot a little bit. I wanted to make one note that I forgot to make earlier, and that is just to say that we were talking about Operation Paperclip and the US taking scientists from Nazi Germany. But I think it’s important to note that it wasn’t just the United States doing that, the Soviet Union was as well, other Western powers were.
YC: Yes, Britain and France, etc.
PM: Exactly, just to be very clear that it’s not just the United States doing these things, any of the major powers are trying to increase the skill or technological knowledge that they have, especially when they’re in those moments of more clear multi-polar competition, as it was at that point, and as we seem to be moving into at this moment. But in one of your pieces you also talked about how nationalism moving into science also has effects on the type of things that science pursues. These ideas that countries or states own particular people, own particular expertise, own particular technologies, as we’re talking about with intellectual property, also has impacts on the type of work that is done, how science is perceived. Can you talk to us a bit about the impacts of that and the potential drawbacks, when this nationalist rhetoric is so pervasive within the scientific community?
YC: Absolutely. It was really interesting, since earlier, you mentioned how the US government treats the same behavior from other countries differently depending on its own geopolitical objectives, and whether that country is considered an ally or an adversary, is very explicitly part of the risk assessment metric by some of US funding agencies or government entities in terms of governing a scientific collaboration. So, this is like the evolution of the China Initiative, rather than giving this prosecutorial approach to streamline some disclosure requirements. And transparency is a good thing, but some of these requirements also have a very explicit geopolitical aim in that, in terms of cooperation within ally versus cooperation with an adversary have different risk scores. But then that is subjecting academic research to the whims of geopolitics.
So what I have found — I guess, it was probably the most worrying to me — is not necessarily how much collaboration takes place between these two countries, per se. I think sometimes when a conversation is so focused on: Oh, is this good for science? Or is this good for collaboration? There is an underlying assumption that science is, by default, good or desirable and collaboration is by default, good and desirable. I do not think that is the case. The Chinese government, of course, has been using a lot of technologies for human rights abuses for state surveillance, and for US entities to collaborate on these, they are also complicit. But what is important is that ethical or moral objection is based on the use of that technology, it’s not based on the users. I’ve seen a lot of the discourse has become is: Oh, China is doing this. So that is bad, because China is bad. If we as, in the United States, or the West, do the same thing that is not only good, but often framed as necessary, because China is doing similar things.
That just becomes just incredibly, intellectually lazy, and logically inconsistent. And at the end of the day, it’s morally indefensible. Then I think some of that also, tied to what I talked about in my latest piece — as you mentioned at the beginning; thank you so much for reading it and sharing it — is the ethnicization of the idea of espionage, that has its roots in the centuries old Orientalism. And that comes back to, what I was just saying, about how conversations about science and technology, fragments, or fractures at the border of China, a lot of times. When, here in the US context, there is a lot of vibrant discussions and debates, including on your show about the other risks and harms of emerging technologies. And there seems to be, at least a lot of people are pretty clear eyed about this. But somehow China becomes this exceptionalized space. That is either: Well, the Chinese government is authoritarian, Xi Jinping is a dictator. So, whatever is going to happen is going to happen in China. Or it’s like whether China already has this technology, or is already able to build this panopticon, or China is still primitive and needs to steal these technologies for its own ends and such.
I think it is really harmful for not just understanding what China is, but in understanding the actual nature of the development of science and technology, that a lot of the harms are not a product of, and is not exclusive to, any specific political system or governing ideology. And also the harms and risks of it cannot be contained by political borders. And so if China with its size and its weight, if it’s not exceptionalized, and being seen as this externalized other that can be separated from the rest of the world, but it’s actually recognized for what it is that is integral part of the world. Including of global capitalism, and the overall development of science and technology, then actually — people even if they only care about what is happening the US — can gain a much better understanding of how these technologies are actually being developed. What are the harms and benefits? And what are the different layers of complexities with regards to the development of science technology?
PM: This is such a key point and one that I want to drill down on a little bit more. One of the things that you wrote in your pieces that you just stated there that I found really interesting is how China can both be presented as technologically backward, but then at the same time be presented as technologically advanced, and we need to stop it’s continued rise and ability to challenge the United States and Western tech capabilities. But I think that one of the issues that we face is that when we have these reallypropagandized narratives about China and Chinese technology, as you say, it doesn’t allow us to actually be able to understand what is actually happening in China and the actual capabilities that are at work there. And also to understand what is happening in the United States, and what US tech companies and their collaboration with the US government is actually producing. Because, instead, we get these narratives that are shaped by US national security interests and economic interests that are: China is bad, and China is trying to take us down, anything that they do with technology is something that we should be scared of. Whereas if the United States does something, as you were saying, then it’s good, and it’s okay. We shouldn’t be very worried about it.
That, to me, is a serious problem. Obviously, I’m not an American, I’m a Canadian, but I think even Americans should be concerned about that. Because it opens the door to just being able to dismiss any Chinese technology is bad. And any American technology is good, which works very well for the large American tech companies. Whereas you explain that the problems with Chinese technology are not communism, or not necessarily the CCP, but because they are developed under this capitalist framework that many other technologies are developed under too in the United States and other parts of the world. And that requires certain business models and certain ways of developing technology that has consequences for American people, for Chinese people, and for people in other parts of the world as well. Would you mind expanding on that a little bit more?
YC: Oh, thank you so much. And just to follow up a quick point in terms of the self-conflicting Orientalist imagination about China and technology. One of the examples — it’s sad, but it’s also amusing — is with regards to where COVID came from. And there are two arguments. One is just like: Oh, Chinese people are barbarians who eat bat soup, so that’s where COVID came from. Or Chinese people are like Dr. Fu Manchu and built COVID as a bio-weapon in their secret lab. But then these are two arguments that are both in some way comforting because it becomes much easier to accept it is because of a distinct, different type of people, and their misdeeds, rather than accepting the reality that we as human beings, as a species, is one species among many on this planet and have our vulnerabilities.
So, coming back to this part, there’s a bad segue in terms of vulnerabilities, but a lot of the US discourse about technologies coming from China, whether it’s Chinese ownership or built in China or various things. And the vulnerabilities are — I will put it this way — there are different types of vulnerabilities with regards to technology, let’s say, whether it’s equipment from Huawei or an app like Tiktok. The first I would say is technical, that is if this hardware has a technical vulnerability, or the code has certain vulnerabilities that makes it susceptible to hacking or or to abuses, then that’s a technical problem. But that has nothing to do with its ownership or its country of origin. That’s a technical problem that can be assessed with technical means and can be fixed with technical means.
The second type of vulnerability can be regulatory, in terms of what are the rules and laws and regulations governing, say, what types of data can be collected, how they can be transmitted and use. And of course, these regulations do differ by country and their legal traditions and their governing systems. However, it’s not something that is unique to the need for such regulatory protections, it’s not unique to any country. A democracy doesn’t automatically come with the sets of protections for data or for other types of things. And in an authoritarian society does not necessarily mean everything is open to all because it also has a complex bureaucracy with conflicting interests. Regardless, these problems cannot be resolved by only pointing fingers at one country, but it needs transnational standards.
The third type of vulnerability, which is also valid is geopolitical, in terms of if the United States government does believe that China is an “adversary.” And so in terms of say critical infrastructure, and cannot allow any type of foreign ownership, I think that is a valid position to take. But that is a position that has very broad ramifications. One can say, because Huawei has very close ties with the Chinese military, or the Chinese security state, that is a fair statement. So if one say Huawei equipment should not be in some of the most secured rooms in the US government, that’s a fair position to take. But that is a position on one hand is very, very specific. On the other hand, it can also be applied the other way around, because major US tech firms and electronic firms also have very close ties with the US security state. And that can arguments can be laid against itself. So what has happened now, in the US discourse, the argument being made is, in essence, geopolitical. But it is being used as an excuse to evade the earlier two types of broader vulnerabilities in terms of the technical vulnerabilities or the regulatory lack. What has happened is, the only geopolitical response is banning Chinese stuff, becomes the only response that has taken out the discourse space to actually address the technical and the regulatory aspects of it.
PM: I think it’s a really important point to make. Especially when you consider, the United States, and many of its companies have similar vulnerabilities and problems, as the tech companies that you’d be looking at from China. But we’re expected not to be concerned about those things, as you say, links to the US national security state and security apparatuses, because the United States is supposed to be the good democracy country that we’re all supposed to be okay with. Even as we know, that it’s companies have done, a number of things that we have problems with around the world, and have helped to expand, or encourage the expansion of, American power as they have spread into other countries. I agree with you, I think that it does make sense if the United States wants to say: We don’t want more Huawei in critical infrastructure.
But that also brings up the question then, should American technologies be in critical infrastructure in other countries because does that allow them to have increased ability to surveil? Or should we all be on American platforms owned by major American companies, because we know that the United States has connections to those companies and are able to get data from them, even though they would like us to believe differently, or at least that’s what it seems. And so there does seem to be a double standard here. And this is one of the problems I have, because when that double standard occurs, and we only get these geopolitical narratives that are incredibly reductive, then we’re not able to have these kinds of complex conversations about the actual technologies that we rely on right now, because many of these Chinese technologies are more theoretical, or the idea that Chinese tech companies are going to have this power over us is much more theoretical. Whereas we know that American companies already have this power, and the expectation is that we shouldn’t be talking about that or discussing it, or even regulating it.
YC: I totally agree. Also, I’ve criticized a lot of the Chinese government’s policies and behaviors. And of course, I’m a Chinese citizen and this is something that I find very frustrating with the US side is it has a lot of different arguments that they wants to make against China. And there are things that are related to the traditional sense, how an average person might understand about national security or military strength. That is one argument. But the second is when national security has become so broaden into a concept that basically encompasses everything, in particular, it encompasses so called economic security. And so what is being talked about in terms of national security is actually economic competition. And that the US government is very, very concerned about Beijing’s economic rise and such.
Then the third layer is about the human rights abuses. Then again, it’s not to these are very, very valid, and very, very important critiques against the Chinese government’s human rights record. But what has happened in the US government’s discourse, or public discourse about China, is a human right is being used as this banner being waved around when the actual arguments are being made about economic competition, or about the hardened edge of military strength and the traditional sense of national security. And the end result is the human rights issues are actually not getting confronted for its own sake, and the responses, to not really improve the human rights conditions in China. And what can lead to is it actually unharmed civil liberties and other human rights conditions here in the US?
PM: Absolutely. And, we obviously see that, we need to be focused on these human rights abuses wherever they’re happening in the world. But the US government very frequently uses the fact that human rights abuses are happening in countries that are not its allies to position them as being bad. But then we’ll ignore similar human rights abuses in countries that it is allied with, and even downplay the fact that it has its own very serious human rights abuses that are happening within its own country. And that’s not to do a kind of a whataboutism and say: Oh, well, we shouldn’t be concerned about things that China is doing. No, we absolutely should. But that doesn’t mean that we should ignore things that are happening in the United States and Canada as well in places like that, because those are serious problems as well.
I wanted to extend this and ask you about where we see this happening in relation to various developments that have been occurring in the United States in recent years. One of your pieces, you talked about the recent hearing on TikTok what that showed around the US approach to Chinese technology and Chinese technology companies, and also how it’s being positioned as this company that kind of spying on Americans. Meanwhile, in order to alleviate those concerns, it’s creating partnerships with companies like Oracle, that have very clear connections, not just to the US security state, but have even, you know, tried to sell technology to Chinese police and things like that. Can you talk about your opinions on kind of what you observed through that whole process?
YC: I’m not a defender of TikTok. It is a social media platform. It is a part of this part of surveillance capitalism. And it has a lot of problems from a data security to content moderation to different things. But I think what is interesting is TikTok is a company with a lot of problems, but how these problems are being portrayed or being focused on or neglected, let’s say on Capitol Hill, is very illuminating how members of the US government see their own country and see China. Because as you mentioned, there are these rhetorics being thrown around, on one hand, saying TikTok is the spy in American pockets. I do not deny that TikTok, as a social media platform has a poor but not the poorest, but on par with other major social media platforms in terms of that vacuums up data and has poor regulations around it.
However, the solution, the proposed solution to it is not to say all social media platforms should adhere to certain data regulations. The solution is to say: Oh, if TikTok stores its data and the server is physically based in the US and guarded by the US company, then that’s fine. So the problem really is not how much concern is there over exploitation of data, but who gets to exploit it? And then another round of arguments about TikTok, which doesn’t have anything to do with data protection, per se, but it’s about content moderation. It’s being lumped together with regards to the spy argument, in terms of: TikTok is digital fentanyl that is purposefully trying to poison Americans minds or mislead American teenagers. I remember there is this argument being said by a member of the US Congress who said something like: Oh, TikTok is digital fentanyl. Well, the Chinese government has a Spanish version of TikTok, that is Douyin, that is on the Chinese market, that just teaches Chinese kids math or not. But actually, there’s a lot of trash on Douyin as well, because it is also a social media company that wants to attract eyeballs and to extract time into capital.
On the other hand, the reason there are certain content that is available in the US, and not on TikTok, and Douyin is because there is no free expression in China. And these platforms do face very, very stringent content moderation. So the argument is really not consistent. That on one hand, TikTok is bad because it comes from the authoritarian government. On the other hand, TikTok is bad because there is not enough authoritarian control over it as its Chinese counterpart. I think at the end of the day, the real question is: What do we, in general, want? If it’s just to have some arbitrary metric and have the United States that will be “the world’s richest country” by some arbitrary metric, that is one objective. But that is a very narrow objective. And that is not an objective, I would say that serves the public good. And if the objective is generally the health and well being of the public, and then the public is global. Then there is a very different way to see these issues, including how we perceive the border, territorial, or in other senses, and whether or not by enforcing the border actually brings real security or it actually further empowers violence, of the state, that brings more harm.
PM: A very important point. You’re talking a bit there about regulation. And I wanted to ask you a bit about this before we wrap up. Because one thing that I think that we’ve seen in recent years is that there’s been a lot of talk about regulation of tech companies in the United States, but very little of that, I feel like, has actually been able to make it into law and actually be enforced by government. And certainly, there’s been attempts by some agencies, like the Federal Trade Commission to do anti-trust measures. But a lot of those things don’t seem to have gotten very far. There’s obviously not a national Privacy Act or anything like that, as you talk about in the TikTok case. Where instead of saying every company needs to abide by particular data rules, they’re just going after TikTok specifically.
Whereas we know that in China, there has been a lot of movement toward regulation of tech companies. And, obviously, there’s debate as to which of those kinds of initiatives are good or bad, but obviously, China, because of the structure of its government, has been able to move forward on these things in a way that is much easier in the United States. I wonder what you think about the effects of this nationalist rhetoric on the ability of the United States government to regulate technology, and also whether the Chinese government has been able to implement any regulations that potentially other governments around the world should actually be looking seriously at as something that could be helpful toward limiting the power of these companies?
YC: This is a really great question. As far as I know, I’m not the best subject area expert on a very specific aspects of the technology regulations. My own work is more on the history of science side. So I will speak on this specific part more broadly, and then I’ll link it to something else. As far as I know, for example, the Chinese government’s new personal data protection law, a lot of that is actually very, very similar to GDPR in Europe — the Chinese government is also learning from other countries and other legal developments. On the other hand, I think what is probably more important without getting into too much of the weeds with specific regulations — including there are also some new regulations coming out of China with regards to generative AI and whatnot — is who is actually being protected, and who is being empowered in this process.
What a lot of the regulations in China, that the Chinese government has proposed or enacted, are not necessarily for the benefit of the Chinese public or the Chinese people. It is a way for the Chinese state to leverage power against private companies, because when these private companies have amassed so much data, they actually have a lot of power. And they have, to an extent, may have amassed more data on Chinese individuals than the government could with its own bureaucracy and apparatus. So I think one way to look at these Chinese government regulations, on tech companies, is to see them as a way to discipline labor and discipline capital. In this process, it’s not really the Chinese people are being protected, let alone being empowered. It’s really a balance between state power and the power of private capital in the Chinese political context.
Then it comes to the question of: What can the US government learn from these regulations? I think that, again, I don’t want to dismis, overall, I think some of these regulations have benefits. And even some of these are a tug of war between the state and the private capital. Individuals can still leverage that conflicting interest to gain some limited protection on individual and I think that is actually an important feature in the Chinese system for a lot of social and civic activism. So I do want to give credit to that. On the other hand, on the US government side, there are certainly things to be learned from new regulations. Whether it’s coming out of China, coming out of Europe, or other countries. ncluding that some of these discussions are happening in the, “the developing world,” or the global south, actually very illuminating discussions.
But on the other hand, I also do want to caution, because coming to the earlier point about TikTok, or a lot of these. I don’t necessarily want to use the term fear mongering, but a lot of the, let’s say, hyped up rhetoric, about the capabilities of Chinese tech companies or whatnot, are projections. So in a way one might read them as an authoritarian tendency on the part of certain people in power here in United States — whether they are government officials, or whether they are a tech company owners — that they wish they had that kind of power. And so they were projecting that onto this oriental plane, that anything goes. I think that is something to take note of and and to be very aware of, that I do not want the regulatory process in the US to become something that to an extent mirrors China’s, some of these policies, even like on the industrial policy front, kind of do mirror the Chinese government’s policies of like domestic protectionism for domestic industries. I do want to push the emphasis back to how the public, how their interests are being prioritized, how they’re being actually being empowered in this process?
PM: I think that sets us up really well for a final question to end off our conversation, because it makes so many great points that I think lead us into something to really start to close this off. And, and that is we’ve talked a lot about how nationalism is fueling a lot of the narratives that we have around technology and geopolitical competition. How that affects academia, but also how that has broader effects through the economy, and ultimately isn’t focused on what is best for the public. But what is best for particular governments in particular corporate sectors, that have the ear of government and are able to use the power of the state for their interests. And so my final question is really, where do you see all this going? And who ultimately benefits from having this divide, and these nationalist terms framed around the US and China and the tech industries of both countries?
YC: This is a difficult question in the senses that I, myself, am always very reluctant to answer questions that is predicting the future or projecting into the future. It’s not just because the future is unknown, but also because I think what is very important is that the future is is not predetermined. And so there is no set path that these two countries are on that is somehow irreversible. I think I might mention here that we are recording this on August 24th, and so in three days, the first agreement signed between the People’s Republic of China, United States. The US-China Science and Technology Cooperation Agreement — that was signed in 1979 and has been renewed, more or less, every five years with a couple lapses over the past four and a half decades — is set to lapse, and it’s unclear whether it will be renewed again or when.
What is interesting is, as I mentioned earlier, this agreement has lapsed before, most notably in the immediate aftermath of the Tiananmen crackdown, and since then it was renewed again in 1991 with added intellectual property protection agreements. Then it was lapsed for a few months during the Trump administration, and it was renewed again. But then back days to cover the part where it lapsed. And, I guess, when this podcast airs, it would most certainly have expired, but that is not the end of the road, there are certain ways to still mitigate that. And again, this is only just one thing, it is one umbrella agreement. I do not want to get to the technical details of what its exploration actually means. But this is a symbolic thing, and it’s not just a symbolic thing, but it has symbolic value.
What I have found quite alarming is somehow the rhetoric has coalesced around: Oh, this is just another sign or another step of so called US-China decoupling and whatnot. It seems like: Oh, this is regrettable, but this is the trajectory these two superpowers are on. And that is not the case, there is no fundamental laws or forces of the universe that determines that the US-China have to see each other as adversaries and have to lock themselves into this seemingly zero-sum competition. And I think what is actually very important, probably the pandemic is an example too, partly on intellectual property. Who do these intellectual property protections, these trade secrets, actually protect? There is a fundamental rethinking that needs to take place with regards to the distribution and the sharing of the fruits of science technology developments.
On the other hand, there is also a much broader question that the leaders and the people of the two countries need to reflect on is what kind of future they actually want? I think a lot of these questions come back to language, when the conversation is revolving around competition, and it’s just being assumed as in competition is inevitable, and it is natural, and it is desirable. But a competition against who, by what metric, and very importantly, to what end? And a lot of times I myself as a Chinese citizen living in the US, in a lot of these discussions, I encounter the word “we,” but who are the we, and what are the boundaries being imagined around the word we? And how is that boundary being imagined, conceived, and how is that boundary being enforced and is it enforced by force? I think these are some of the questions that are probably going to illuminate the path that we will find ourselves on.
PM: I think it’s really important to be asking those questions. And every time we hear these framings, of what is going on between the US and China, and the potential threats of US technology or Chinese technology that we think about, who is actually benefiting from this, and who is actually being served? And is it in the public interest to think about it in this way? Or is this just in some state interest or commercial interest or national security interest that is ultimately separate from the public interest? I think that’s something that the show always tries to focus on, and that’s part of the reason that we’ve been skeptical of these narratives about the US and China divide and needing to see the US as an unequivocal good, and China is an unequivocal bad, because that simply doesn’t make sense to me.
YC: It also assumes a certain clear cut border, including US technology, or Chinese technology, including US science or Chinese science. And in my physics career, my question was always, while being a Chinese born and raised scientists working at a US institution, for an European based experiment, as part of a large international collaboration. I wouldn’t assign a country label to it, and the very act of assigning a label, assumes a certain border, and I think these are some of the frameworks that needs to be at least challenged.
PM: I completely agree with that. And Yangyang, it was really great to have you on the show to have this discussion. You know, I’ll certainly be reading your work as you continue doing it because I find it really illuminating and helps to break down some of these questions that we should be asking about these big issues. So, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me.
YC: Oh, thank you so much for these really thoughtful questions and I’ll be continuing to listen to Tech Won’t Save Us.