From AI to facial recognition: how China is setting the rules in new tech

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This text is a part of a collection on the New Chilly Struggle

Zhao Houlin is head of the UN’s telecoms company, an impartial worldwide arbiter that units among the guidelines shaping the trendy expertise business. However that doesn’t cease him from letting his patriotism burst into the open.

A former authorities official in China, Mr Zhao has repeatedly lionised the Belt and Highway Initiative, the pet challenge of Chinese language president Xi Jinping to put money into abroad infrastructure. He has additionally defended Huawei, the controversial Chinese language telecoms champion, towards US accusations that its gear can be utilized for espionage.

“These preoccupations with Huawei gear, so far there isn’t a proof up to now,” Mr Zhao, who’s secretary-general of the Worldwide Telecommunication Union, instructed reporters in Geneva final yr. “I might encourage Huawei to be given equal alternatives to bid for enterprise.”

However it’s in his unabashed help for Chinese language expertise requirements that Mr Zhao’s loyalty to Beijing is most hanging. Though he was sworn into his ITU function with a pledge to behave “with the curiosity of the union solely in view” whereas avoiding affect from anyone nation, he commonly celebrates China’s rising presence within the telecoms and web industries.

“These days within the dialogue of related ITU requirements, China’s technical energy is already within the first echelon and the worldwide neighborhood expects China to play a higher function within the UN system,” Mr Zhao was quoted by the Individuals’s Each day, an official Chinese language newspaper, as saying final week. In different statements carried by the Chinese language media he has praised the function of the nation’s telecoms corporations in setting new business requirements.

Mark Warner of the US Senate intelligence committee says Beijing is intending to regulate digital infrastructure and, because it does so, to impose rules which can be antithetical to US values © Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty
Zhao Houlin, head of the independent UN telecoms agency, regularly celebrates China’s growing presence in the telecoms and internet industries
Zhao Houlin, head of the impartial UN telecoms company, commonly celebrates China’s rising presence within the telecoms and web industries © Denis Balibouse/Reuters

Mr Zhao declined to touch upon his statements. His advocacy of China’s pursuits, nevertheless, throws mild on the intensifying geopolitical battleground of technological requirements, a a lot missed but essential facet of a brand new battle for international affect between China and the US.

Such requirements might sound obscure, however they’re an important ingredient of recent expertise. If the chilly battle was dominated by a race to construct essentially the most nuclear weapons, the competition between the US and China — in addition to the EU — will partly be performed out by way of a battle to regulate the bureaucratic rule-setting that lies behind an important industries of the age.

Gearing up

The business and geopolitical energy of commercial protocols has lengthy been recognised. Werner von Siemens, the 19th-century German industrialist and innovator who gave his identify to the Siemens conglomerate he based, stated: “He who owns the requirements, owns the market.”

Customary-setting has for many years largely been the protect of a small group of industrialised democracies. The whole lot from the width of prepare tracks, to software program, satellites, the frequencies that cell phones use and an entire gamut of guidelines about how digital devices work and course of information have been determined by western-dominated requirements organisations.

New Chilly Struggle

In a collection of articles this week, the FT explores how the US-China rivalry is starting to resemble a brand new chilly battle, with the expertise world splitting into two blocs and nations being requested to decide on sides.

Monday: Trump, Xi and the escalating US-China confrontation

Tuesday: Can provide chains in China be shifted elsewhere?

Thursday: How America turned hawkish on China

However China now has different concepts. “Industrial requirements are an essential space of contestation within the new chilly battle, with each Beijing and Washington gearing as much as form the event and implementation of worldwide requirements,” says Adam Segal, director of the digital and cyber area coverage programme on the Council on International Relations, a New York-based think-tank.

He and different consultants say an intensifying US-China battle to dominate requirements, particularly in rising applied sciences, might begin to divide the world into totally different industrial blocs. In the identical method that rail passengers who journey from western Europe to some former Soviet bloc nations should to at the present time change trains to accommodate totally different observe widths, strategic competitors between the US and China raises the spectre of a fragmentation of requirements that creates a brand new technological divide.

Mr Segal says it’s potential, for instance, that 5G cell telecoms — a bedrock expertise that permits the “web of issues” — could also be divided into two competing stacks to replicate US and Chinese language affect. Some measure of division can be potential in semiconductors, synthetic intelligence and different areas the place US-China rivalry is intense, he provides.

A software engineer works on a facial recognition program in Beijing. The technology used in 'smart cities', which automate multiple municipal functions, represent a big prize for China’s standards drive
A software program engineer works on a facial recognition program in Beijing. The expertise utilized in ‘good cities’, which automate a number of municipal capabilities, symbolize an enormous prize for China’s requirements drive © Thomas Peter/Reuters

“In some sectors, there will probably be two stacks which can be comparatively incompatible,” says Mr Segal. “However in others, there’s more likely to be some demand that they co-operate. It’s potential that giant markets that make it clear they don’t need to select between China and the US might be able to stress Chinese language and US tech companies to make sure some extent of compatibility.”

In Washington, the battle for affect over expertise requirements is seen in some quarters as essential to defending democracy from the affect of China, which Madeleine Albright, a former secretary of state, describes as “the world’s main pioneer of what we name techno-authoritarianism”.

Mark Warner, Democratic vice-chair of the US Senate intelligence committee, sees the menace from China in equally unambiguous phrases. Beijing is intending to regulate the following technology of digital infrastructure, he says, and, because it does so, to impose rules which can be antithetical to US values of transparency, variety of opinion, interoperability and respect for human rights.

“Over the past 10 to 15 years, [the US] management function has eroded and our leverage to ascertain requirements and protocols reflecting our values has diminished,” Mr Warner instructed a webinar in September. “In consequence others, however principally China, have stepped into the void to advance requirements and values that benefit the Chinese language Communist celebration.”

“Communist celebration leaders are growing a mannequin of technological governance that . . . would make Orwell blush,” Mr Warner added, referring to George Orwell, the British author of the dystopian novel 1984.

Such points are exercising others in Washington too. Two congressmen, David Schweikert and Ami Bera, launched bipartisan laws known as the Making certain American Management Over Worldwide Requirements Act in June to fee a examine on China’s affect within the setting of worldwide expertise requirements.

Graphic showing the number of ‘smart city’ and ‘safe city’ project deals involving Chinese companies since 2013 (by region)

Navy and civil functions

From a US perspective, China’s problem derives from three major areas. First, it’s growing world-beating expertise in a number of rising areas, equivalent to 5G telecoms and AI. Second, because it exports this expertise — usually to greater than 100 nations that take part within the Belt and Highway Initiative — it’s nurturing adherence to a distinctly Chinese language set of requirements and protocols. Third, Beijing is boosting its affect within the UN and different standards-setting our bodies to reinforce the pursuits of its personal corporations.

Yang Guang, a Beijing-based senior analyst at Technique Analytics, a consultancy, says China has lengthy been occupied with elevating the profile of its expertise requirements. “It’s simply that foreigners didn’t listen earlier than,” he says, naming as examples TD-SCMA and WAPI, two telecoms requirements that largely didn’t catch on greater than a decade in the past.

The Chinese language authorities is working in direction of a requirements masterplan — China Requirements 2035 — which Beijing was anticipated to publish earlier than the top of this yr. The technique is anticipated to set out standardisation objectives for essential next-generation applied sciences. It is usually resulting from emphasise the crucial to strengthen China’s function in requirements organisations, analysts say.

“The technique will even deal with requirements to facilitate civil-military fusion — an idea that has gained appreciable traction in China and has triggered a stir in strategic communities abroad, notably in Washington,” wrote analysis fellow John Seaman in a report this yr for the French Institute of Worldwide Relations and the Coverage Middle for the New South.

Navy-civil fusion is a plan to make use of the most effective of civilian analysis and improvement to bolster the technological capacities of the Individuals’s Liberation Military. The drive is led by Mr Xi himself, who heads the Fee for Navy-Civil Fusion Improvement. It’s believed to focus on civilian advances in “twin use” areas equivalent to quantum computing, massive information, semiconductors, 5G and AI, however concrete initiatives are shrouded in secrecy.

“China’s biggest potential lies in areas the place requirements have but to be collectively developed and outlined,” Mr Seaman says. “It may possibly roll out applied sciences utilizing Chinese language requirements in overseas markets, creating ‘info on the bottom’.”

Digital silk highway

Essential to the purpose of popularising Chinese language requirements abroad is the Belt and Highway Initiative, which Mr Zhao described in a weblog on the ITU’s web site as holding “a lot promise”.

The BRI is mostly seen as an enormous Chinese language programme to construct roads, railways, ports, airports and different types of infrastructure in principally growing nations. However this portrayal overlooks a key level. The BRI can be a way of diffusing Chinese language applied sciences — and the requirements they function on — throughout the growing world by setting up what Beijing calls a “digital silk highway”.

Zhao Houlin of the UN’s telecoms agency has defended Huawei against US accusations that its equipment can be used for espionage, saying 'up to now there is no proof'
A Huawei brand in Belgrade, Serbia. Zhao Houlin of the UN’s telecoms company has defended the corporate towards US accusations that its gear can be utilized for espionage © Marko Djurica/Reuters

“The Chinese language authorities has been actively selling its web and cyber governance playbook in lots of growing nations, most not too long ago by leveraging 5G connectivity and good metropolis initiatives alongside the digital silk highway,” says Rebecca Arcesati, an analyst at Merics, a Berlin-based think-tank.

“Sensible cities” are a spotlight of this requirements diffusion effort as a result of they incorporate so many rising applied sciences. The facial recognition techniques, massive information evaluation, 5G telecoms and AI cameras that go into creating good cities are all applied sciences for which requirements stay up for grabs. Thus good cities, which automate a number of municipal capabilities, symbolize an enormous prize for China’s requirements drive.

“China is setting requirements from the bottom-up by way of widespread export and overseas adoption of its expertise,” says Jonathan Hillman, an analyst at CSIS, a Washington-based think-tank. “A rustic equivalent to Serbia won’t sit down and resolve they need to undertake Chinese language requirements, however after sufficient purchases and offers, they may find yourself with Chinese language requirements. There’s the chance of lock-in, some extent after which switching turns into too expensive.”

Serbia is only one of many nations that has signed as much as a Chinese language-installed good metropolis bundle full with surveillance cameras equipped by Hikvision, an organization blacklisted by the US due to suspected human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Certainly, the good metropolis bundle is proving immensely fashionable for governments that want to automate providers equivalent to site visitors administration, sewage techniques and public security whereas retaining a detailed eye on what its individuals are as much as.

In line with analysis by RWR Advisory, a Washington-based consultancy, Chinese language corporations have performed 116 offers to put in good metropolis and “secure metropolis” packages world wide since 2013, with 70 of those happening in nations that additionally take part within the Belt and Highway Initiative. The primary distinction between “good” and “secure” metropolis gear is that the latter is meant primarily to surveil and monitor the inhabitants, whereas the previous is primarily geared toward automating municipal capabilities whereas additionally incorporating surveillance capabilities.

Cities in western and southern Europe collectively signed as much as a complete of 25 such “good” and “secure” initiatives, based on RWR Advisory. Cities in south-east Asia and the Center East have been additionally key recipients, taking 16 and 15 respectively.

Andrew Davenport, chief working officer at RWR Advisory, says good cities open the door to a collection of dangers. “Sensible cities basically improve the draw back danger significantly of cyber intrusions or abuses, each by way of information safety and cyber safety,” he says. “The cyber danger that’s related to entities which can be topic to Chinese language legal guidelines and governance buildings is amplified on this setting.”

People pass facial recognition cameras at Peking University. China's growing influence in global IT standards-setting bodies is facing a US backlash, while the EU is likely to be squeezed by competing superpower ambitions
Individuals cross facial recognition cameras at Peking College. China’s rising affect in international IT standards-setting our bodies is dealing with a US backlash, whereas the EU is more likely to be squeezed by competing superpower ambitions © Thomas Peter/Reuters
Chinese school children learn about artificial intelligence technology in Haian City. Some measure of global division is possible in semiconductors, AI and other areas where US-China rivalry is intense
Chinese language faculty youngsters study synthetic intelligence expertise in Haian Metropolis. Some measure of worldwide division is feasible in semiconductors, AI and different areas the place US-China rivalry is intense © Costfoto/Barcroft Media/Getty

Alongside with these export strikes designed to inculcate its expertise requirements, China can be lively in signing political agreements to the identical finish.

The 2019 China Standardisation Improvement annual report, an official doc, makes clear that selling Chinese language expertise requirements is a BRI precedence. As of 2019, some 85 standardisation co-operation agreements with 49 nations and areas had been signed, although scant literature exists on the depth and particular contents of such agreements.

Institutional push

Not content material with forging bilateral agreements alongside the Belt and Highway, China can be attempting to steer multilateral requirements businesses to recognise its rising clout.

As not too long ago as 2007, China was a minnow within the Worldwide Group for Standardization, one of many world’s main standards-setting our bodies, with 164 member nations. Again then, it had sparse illustration on the all-important technical committees and subcommittees that do a lot to resolve which requirements to undertake.

However in 2008, Beijing managed to win a spot because the sixth everlasting member of the ISO’s council and in 2013 it grew to become a everlasting member of its technical administration board, alongside the US, Japan, the UK, Germany and France. In 2015, the organisation bought its first Chinese language president when Zhang Xiaogang, a former metal business government, was chosen for a three-year time period.

© Andrew Harnik/Pool/Reuters

It has been the same story on the 88-member Worldwide Electrotechnical Fee, an organisation that publishes requirements on all digital gadgets. China’s affect on the IEC has grown steadily, culminating within the appointment in January of Shu Yinbiao — who can be chairman of the State Grid Company of China — as president of the IEC. Mr Zhao completes the image as head of the ITU, which he is because of lead till 2023.

The elevated illustration has had a marked impact on China’s standards-setting clout. As of March 2019, for example, China had proposed 11 requirements for the web of issues throughout the ISO/IEC framework, of which 5 had been adopted and printed and 6 have been nonetheless pending evaluation, Mr Seaman stated.

State Grid Company of China has additionally pulled off a coup. The IEC has agreed to tackle co-ordinating requirements for an idea known as International Power Interconnection, which basically goals to create large grids of energy cables that run between nations and continents. If the concept will get off the bottom it might immediately profit State Grid, which is the worldwide chief in making ultra-high voltage transmission strains.

The build-up of such institutional firepower in these standards-setting our bodies is a certain signal that China is ready to wield far more affect over international technological requirements. However equally as certain is that the backlash from Washington is constructing. Europe, for its half, is more likely to be squeezed by competing superpower ambitions.

“The non-transparent and authoritarian method wherein China goes about information safety administration at residence undermines belief in its requirements and platforms overseas,” says Merics analyst Ms Arcesati. “Alternatively, the present US technique is basically equating information safety with a complete and unilateral decoupling from Chinese language expertise within the digital area.

“This places Europe is a particularly troublesome place,” she provides.

The worst-case state of affairs, as described by Mr Seaman, is of a rising technological divide. If worldwide collaboration on requirements grinds to a halt, it might create opposing expertise blocs that don’t speak to one another. “Consider it virtually like attempting to attach with somebody on [Tencent’s] WeChat by utilizing Fb, however on an industrial scale.”

Mr Davenport sees the same danger. “If the US does interact extra proactively in attempting to confront Chinese language affect over standard-setting our bodies . . . it may lead China to discover creating parallel options. This might finally end in a extra bifurcated area on industrial requirements.”

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