Collaborate or isolate the Wild East? It’s not a binary choice

There are two interesting strands of thought that one can derive from the recent frictions between the US and China. First, geopolitical competition is closely linked to technological advancement. Second, values are a key component of geopolitical competition. The former refers to the accumulation of power; the latter is about the framework within which power is accumulated and exercised. This piece is about the latter. In its competition with Beijing, Washington’s broad ethical or value proposition is based on three arguments. These can be classified as political, business and social arguments. The political argument is about the nature of the Party-state, i.e., an institution that approaches science and innovation with the sole aim of enhancing its power and perpetuating itself. Scientific advancement, in this conceptualisation, is not about the enlightened pursuit of truth or solutions with the aim of enhancing humanity’s lot and expanding freedom. It is a tool serving the state’s ends. Therefore, the rules are nebulous and ethical considerations secondary — all subservient to the state’s quest for power. The choice of Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua as the names for the long-tailed macaques cloned in 2018 is an apt example of this nationalistic approach. Zhong Hua means the Chinese nation or people.

The business argument is less philosophical and more about day-to-day operations. This revolves around complaints of industrial espionage, copyright violations, forced technology transfers, the violability of contracts, research and scientific misconduct, develop-first-regulate-later mentality, the desire to achieve ‘world’s first’ status, etc. It extends that such practices are a product of the political argument. In other words, the Party-state structure incentivises and facilitates such actions via top-level plans that outline targets for research, breakthroughs, market size, and production capacity. The social argument entails how the state views the people, i.e., as factors of production serving the larger Party-state machinery. The outcome of this is the prioritisation of the collective over the individual, weak laws to protect individual privacy, and the use of technology to ensure discipline and conformity. The one-China policy, harvesting of prisoners’ organs, and surveillance and profiling in Xinjiang are all examples of policies that have emerged from this viewpoint. At the intersection of these three arguments lies the core proposition: while the Chinese Party-state model might lead to technological advancements, research breakthroughs, and improvement in services, the costs it imposes on individual freedom and dignity along with the potential costs for human society as a whole are far too high.

This depiction of China as the Wild East of scientific advancement bears a grain of truth to the extent that power derived from scientific advancement does indeed have greater currency for the Communist Party than ethical considerations. However, a binary or adversarial approach not only ignores a number of key factors but can also prove counterproductive from the long-term perspective of setting universally acceptable ethical standards for new technologies…[Read More…]