By now, most people have heard of One Belt, One Road (“OBOR”) – the Chinese government’s program to build up the infrastructure in developing countries across Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa. OBOR has largely been seen as a brick-and-mortar type of operation – building railroads, ports, pipelines. But in 2017, President Xi Jinping announced a new initiative within the government’s OBOR – promotion of a digital silk road.
And on Monday night, the China Institute hosted a discussion of that ambitious new program featuring Winston Ma, Managing Director and Chief Investment Officer of China Silkroad Investment Corporation, and moderated by Clay Shirky, a professor at New York University Arthur L. Carter Center of Journalism. But, while the event was advertised as to be a lively, thought-provoking one that would confront pressing issues such as whether China’s digital silk road will lead to China’s domination of global internet standards and whether China’s technology will actually help emerging economies, Ma and Shirky’s conversation ended up being shallow and, as one audience member stated, blindly “techno-optimistic.”
For sure, the event did highlight some of developments that the rest of the world should wake up and take notice of. Going from building physical infrastructure in the developing world to cyber infrastructure unmaksks the Chinese government’s grand ambition to open those markets to its companies and become a global superpower. And in some ways, as a country that developed simultaneously with the internet, China is uniquely situated to do that. As Shirky pointed out, China was more of a blank slate to develop, and continuously modernize, its internet infrastructure. The United States on the other hand, is saddled with the infrastructure of earlier telecommunications. Ma noted that this structural freedom enabled 800 million people to access the internet largely through mobile devices. In fact, China has by-passed the use of credit cards – moving from a cash-based economy to a mobile payment one. Cash is often not an accepted form of currency, even by street vendors. Instead, the only way to pay in many places is with the swipe of your phone. What happens to those 600 million people without phones – and thus access to this economy – was not addressed.
But Ma further noted that it is this type of technology – and way of thinking – that China is also seeking to export to emerging economies. The Taobao Villages – where farmers in rural areas can open an online “shop” and sell their produce or local crafts – is a model that could be replicated in other emerging economies. But is this good for the farmers in these other countries – to be dependent on exporting their craft goods to richer individuals? Is it even good for the Chinese farmers? Instead of demanding that their government do more for them – such as provide quality education, health care, and social benefits that are on par with east coast cities – they must settle for peddling their goods in a virtual mall. Unfortunately, these questions were not answered.
Instead, both Shirky and Ma were unshaken in their commitment to the good that the internet and mobile devices can bring to all societies. Even when an audience member asked a pointed question about the use of this technology in surveilling and unlawfully detaining a million Muslims Uighurs in Xinjiang province, Ma evaded answering the question, instead re-focusing on antitrust issues. Shirky fared no better; he neither pressed Ma on the question nor rescued Ma from it by addressing it himself.
Ma was right to note that the global, technology infrastructure is the future and largely that future is still unwritten. That is why – as Shirky noted – it is dangerous for the United States to be backing out of so many global treaties and alliances when, as Ma stated, the world is on the cusp of writing “new norms for a new game.” Not only will the United States’ retreat from the global stage mean that U.S. businesses will be at a disadvantage for decades to come, but China will be the one writing those norms. And given how easily Ma ignored the question on surveillance and mass detention in Xinjiang and how quickly Shirky acquiesced, the question is, is this a good thing?