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November 2018 marked the fifth anniversary of MERICS. On November 15, MERICS hosted a conference followed by an evening reception at Umspannwerk. 

Is party control challenged by society?

In the first session of the conference titled "China's futures," panelists Vivienne Shue (Emeritus Professor of Contemporary China Studies and Fellow of the British Academy, Oxford), Daniela Stockmann (Hertie School of Governance Berlin) and Kai Strittmatter (Süddeutsche Zeitung) discussed if and to what extent party control is challenged by Chinese society with moderator Kristin Shi-Kupfer, Director of the Research Area on Public Policy and Society at MERICS.

Shue kicked off the discussion with a look at China’s past, arguing that pre-modern concepts of state-society relations are essential for understanding what is happening today. She suggested reframing the panel’s question in a way that doesn’t posit state and society as two binaries in conflict with each other. Using the role of music in Chinese imperial society as an example, she explained that the party is trying to “bridge the divide by saturating society with the tune of the CCP.”

“With increasing repression people will no longer speak the truth”

Taking us back into the 21st century, Stockmann argued that while the party has traditionally tried to balance control of news media with allowing some space for debate, China under Xi Jinping has entered an “extended period of control.” In a public opinion survey conducted by her about 20 percent of netizens reported in 2008 that they discuss politics online. In 2018, only 2 percent claimed to do so. If this trend continues, the CCP will increasingly face the classical dictator’s dilemma: “With increasing repression people will no longer speak the truth. As leaders learn less and less about what people think, they become more paranoid, leading to a vicious cycle.”

A “colorful totalitarian future?”

According to Kai Strittmatter, “the short answer to the question [whether party control is challenged by society] is no. But the answer is also yes because everything Xi does is a reaction to challenges from society.” During his two terms as a China correspondent (1997 – 2005 and 2012 – 2018), he noticed the shift from the optimism and hope of the late 1990s and early 2000s to the anxiety and insecurity he witnessed throughout his second stint in China. He argued that, Xi’s China is all about the internalization of control, or, as the People’s Daily said, building a firewall inside people’s minds.” He expects to see a “colorful totalitarian future” in China.

Is China the world’s tech leader?

In the second session, moderated by MERICS Deputy Director Mikko Huotari, panelists Alicia García-Herrero (Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Bruegel), André Loesekrug-Pietri (Joint European Disruptive Initiative) and Jeffrey Ding (University of Oxford) debated if China is becoming the world’s new tech leader.

Ding already sees China as a global leader in this field. According to him, China is now only second to the United States in economic and technological strength. García-Herrero was a bit more cautious. She said that one would have to look beyond Shanghai and other developed regions to realize that as a nation China is still catching up. She also reminded the audience that the country’s reliance on imported high-tech still constitutes a bottleneck for its development. As García-Herrero puts it: “If AI is electricity, the West still has the cables.”

The panelists agreed that China is moving fast to close these bottlenecks and that is has already achieved huge productivity gains through digitalization. China’s “Made in China 2025” strategy places a strong focus on the self-reliant production of semi-conductors.

“Leapfrogging through experimentation”

In the field of Artificial Intelligence, China is taking a very strategic approach, treating AI as a tool that enables other technologies. Compared with China’s past state-led development programs, its AI strategy is much more flexible and accords a central role to private companies, said Ding. 

“China is leapfrogging through experimentation and going through exponential acceleration,” stressed Loesekrug-Pietri. He complained that whereas China had a vision and ideas, the EU lacked a go-getter mentality. In his opinion, the EU needs to set clear goals for technological and digital development, if it wants to preserve its prosperity and its values. García-Herrero agreed that Western policy approaches are often lacking, for example by stating the overriding importance of digitalization and AI but neglecting plans to provide the required infrastructure.

“EU member states should coordinate instead of clinging to national AI strategies”

Loesekrug-Pietri offered three recommendations: EU member states should coordinate instead of clinging to their national AI strategies; they should foster coalitions beyond the EU, including with international tech companies; and they should strengthen their cooperation with and strategic investment in Eastern Europe.

Cooperation with China could be valuable for Europe if it is based on market economy principles. “If you look at current indigenous innovation, often core tech or code is still from the US or Europe”, said Ding. But every player, even the United States, relied on global supply.

“It is important to distinguish between areas we can profit from and areas of concern,” noted Loesekrug-Pietri. Almost every technology can be used in both the civil and military or security sector. He said that it was important to keep this in mind when regulating access of Chinese players to European markets, especially in the form of FDI, to avoid importing Chinese values through technology.

In Ding’s view, values are not inherent in technologies, but rather in how they are implemented. Based on their understanding of civil rights, different societies might, for example, have vastly different levels of acceptance for error margins in facial recognition technology when used in the criminal justice system. The social consequences of digital and AI development are already visible in China. “In the past, 200 people were staring at security cameras in Xinjiang, now security is monitored through AI,” said Ding. And while, contrary to Western misconceptions, the Social Credit System is not one Orwellian system, the long-term aim is integration.

MERICS’ past and MERICS’ future

MERICS director Frank N. Pieke opened the evening reception hosted at Umspannwerk Berlin with a speech on MERICS goals for the next five years. Click here to download his speech as PDF. You will find the speech by Michael Schwarz, Executive Director, Stiftung Mercator here.

Kerstin Lohse-Friedrich moderated a talk with MERICS’ stakeholders, featuring Ambassador Petra Sigmund, Deputy Director General for East Asia, Southeast Asia and Pacific of the Federal Foreign Office, Friedolin Strack, Head of Department International Markets, Federation of German Industries (BDI), Berlin, Dr. Sabine Stricker-Kellerer, Attorney at Law SSK Asia, Munich and member of the MERICS Advisory Board and Kai Strittmatter, Süddeutsche Zeitung.

Konferenz "China's Futures" am MERICS Frank N. Pieke Programmhefte MERICS-Konferenz "China's Futures" Vivienne Shue, Kristin Shi-Kupfer, Kai Strittmatter, Daniela Stockmann Vivienne Shue Daniela Stockmann Mikko Huotari, Alicia Garcia-Herrero, Jeffrey Ding, André Loesekrug-Pietri Jeffrey Ding Alicia García-Herrero MERICS Jubiläumsfeier - Abendempfang Michael Schwarz Friedolin Strack, Kerstin Lohse-Friedrich, Petra Sigmund, Kai Strittmatter Besucher der MERICS-Jubiläumsfeier Band Besucher der MERICS-Jubiläumsfeier Wunschbaum