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OP-ED: Digital US loses to analog Afghans, and China changes tech paradigm

  • Published at 09:36 pm August 10th, 2021
USA China
This game could last a while BIGSTOCK

China faces off US curbs on technology and warships on its coast. The Global South reeling from the pandemic depends increasingly on China

The technology war waged upon China is failing. Beijing has re-grouped and placed that sector on a war footing. It is marshalling resources to secure self-reliance in semi-conductors, state-of-the-art 5G, space travel, and smart cities. 

When I rode the Maglev train from Shanghai’s airport in the winter of 2019, I was bowled over by its speed but sceptical about its wider usage. I may have been wrong. They could be serious about using the German technology for 600 km/hour rail travel across the country. Already the largest producer of solar and wind energy systems, Beijing has designated hydrogen as one of its six key future industries, quietly cooperating with the current hydrogen leaders, Japan’s Toyota. In parallel, the once unassailable American tech giant channels its genius into losing digitally-waged wars. 

Bio-tech diplomacy 

President Xi Jinping has announced that 2 billion doses will be supplied to the poorer states of the world. That would be sufficient to inoculate most adults in Africa and West Asia. And, of course, a still-developing China has already given 1.7 billion doses to its own people, while 770 million have to date been sent worldwide. 

The US numbers come in at 110 million supplied so far with a promise by President Biden for a further 500 million. Europe lags behind as usual. We have all noted that the rich West has hoarded vaccines for itself, showing an appalling lack of solidarity with Africa, Asia, and Latin America. These things cannot be brushed away under the carpet. People are being fooled in North America and Western Europe where an anti-China feeling is rising remotely. The battleground lies however in the South. They can see what is going on. 

Big Pharma from Connecticut to Moscow has made stunning strides in vaccine development but production and distribution is increasingly skewed towards East Asia. 

China gets tough on ‘spiritual opium’

The startlingly swift moves by Beijing against its giant tech firms and online education is predictably being couched in terms of the Communist Party seeking total control. To me, it looks more like the rolling back of the primacy of Big Business and unfettered capitalism. 

The state is reminding the private sector that one can make money out of education but not at the cost of worsening inequality. The “market” is not merely the middle and upper classes and education is not just a product. It is the basis of modern societies. All Chinese have to be educated to a high standard.

Similarly, giant fintech companies cannot get a free pass without obligations and safeguards to avoid a financial calamity. Online games have been labelled the new “spiritual opium” of the people and Tencent agrees there must be limits on usage by children. Gaotu, TAL, Didi, Ant, and Ali Baba will have to provide social value, not just platforms for profit extraction. 

There is a thus discernable shift in the paradigm once set in the 1990s. China is signalling a change in the system. These shifts used to emanate from the New World. Now the rules and norms are increasingly originating in the Middle Kingdom, which has the largest number of consumers and clients.

Is Digital America on a losing streak? 

Technology was supposed to win Washington’s wars. In Afghan lands, it may have avoided the ignominy of a Saigon-style retreat, clinging on to helicopters, but we all know the “best miltary in the world” lost. Again. 

Afghanistan and Iraq have bled American treasure, much of it on tech-fixes which don’t work against gunmen hiding in urban alleyways or rocky mountains. Despite all the spying and big data analysis, it seems today’s war planners know as little tackling Islamic fighters as they did with the Vietcong. AI, algorithms, and network-centric war-fighting capabilities have failed as the slide-rule toting strategists of the 1960s. 

The Pentagon craves a “normal” conventional enemy. So, while they run away from China’s southwestern borders in the Hindu Kush, they raise the temperature on the eastern seaboard on the Taiwan Straits sailing warships in waters only 130km wide between island and Chinese mainland. The US has offered $750 million of weapons to Taipei too. Big Defense Corporations get to mine a new seam of profits selling high-tech weapons and the Pentagon squares up for a confrontation. 

They face a patient opponent. Beijing wins if there are no wars before 2035. It prefers to modernize its peacetime economy, adjust towards a low-carbon economy, redress its serious social imbalances, now with tech in tow. The US prefers to use tech to militarily redress the balance. Signs of desperation.        

Farid Erkizia Bakht is a political analyst. @liquid_borders.

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