CHINA WATCHChina’s Challenge: Why the West Should Fear President Xi’s Quest to “Catch and Surpass It’ with Technology

Published 13 October 2022

Beijing’s bid for technological dominance is a threat to global security and liberty. The Western democracies must not shirk the task of confronting it.

On Tuesday, 11 October 2022, The Times published the following Editorial about China’s challenge to the West, especially China’s quest to attain technological superiority over the West, and then exploit this superiority for both tightening the Communist Party’s control of China and supporting China’s global hegemonic ambitions:

Beijing’s quest for technological supremacy over the West has been succinctly stated by President Xi as “catch up and surpass” — and its breakneck advance has been remarkable. Ken McCallum, the head of MI5, recently told business leaders that China was intent on stealing technology for competitive gain. His warning has been reinforced in a public speech by Sir Jeremy Fleming, director of GCHQ [the British equivalent of the U.S. NSA].

Sir Jeremy said that China’s development of advanced technologies was potentially a “huge threat to us all”. This is far from alarmism. China’s rulers see technology as a means of furthering state power. The free world will be at risk unless it simultaneously keeps pace with technology and prevents China from achieving dominance.

Sir Jeremy warns of China achieving greater ability to fight wars and exercise surveillance. The West is at a “sliding doors moment” when the choice needs to be made to deny Beijing such power. Notably, anti-satellite technology could yield a crucial advantage on the battlefield and commercial developments such as a centralized digital currency might enable the state to track transactions without limit.

Unless China’s advance in these fields is checked, let alone rivalled, then the regime’s available techniques of repression and expansion will multiply. Western governments have awoken to such threats quite late. They have often assumed that China’s top-down model of development is not compatible with the innovations characteristic of a market economy. That is a misreading. It is true that statist policies are wasteful but China’s rulers appear intent on achieving dominance at any price.

Western powers, including Britain, have only recently barred the Chinese tech giant Huawei from developing 5G networks. That was a sensible move. Economics points to the efficiency gains from cross-border flows of technology, trade and investment, but national security is more important. In developing telecommunications and artificial intelligence, companies such as Huawei and ZTE may appear to be independent actors but they undoubtedly serve the interests of the Chinese state.

The intelligence services’ warnings demand to be heeded. Technology need not be a zero-sum game, but in a world order where autocracies are expanding their military and economic reach the democracies should apply a precautionary principle. Foreign direct investment is normally a boon for the economy, but Chinese industrial acquisitions need to be rigorously scrutinized. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy started only a few months ago a national security assessment of the sale of Newport Wafer Fab, which runs Britain’s largest chipmaking facility, to a Dutch company that is now a subsidiary of a Chinese concern. In this and any similar deal, the onus must be on the acquirer to demonstrate that the sale is benign, and if there is any doubt then it must be prevented or reversed.

Britain excels in high-quality scientific research. That does not mean the Truss government and its successors can afford complacency. The task of blunting Chinese access is necessary but will not be sufficient to maintain a technological advantage. Britain needs to invest in government and private research, and in the infrastructure required to maintain leadership. That will require a stress on technological education, and maintaining openness to immigration to attract top scientific talent to academia and industry.

During the Cold War the launch of the first artificial satellite by the Soviet Union in 1957 was a wake-up call to the West to invest in science and overcome an apparent (though in reality chimerical) technological gap. China will prove a much tougher adversary to overcome, and the task must not be shirked.