I wrapped up a lecture on China’s AI age the same day the nation celebrated the Communist Party’s centenary.
Nearly 600 million surveillance cameras scatter China’s streets today – that’s one camera for every 2.4 citizens. People’s cheers at the centenary celebrations are turned into heat maps. Cameras know best where the zest lies.
Today, the world gasps at China’s mobile payment ubiquity but the country has transformed itself yet again from a mobile society to a mobile-less society. Only a face is needed to make digital payments at many of the country’s retail terminals, synchronising biometric recognition with the world of finance.
My chief message to my students was this: the sophistication of China’s facial recognition technology is mesmerising, its omnipresence intimidating. And on its centenary, China is arguably more politically stable than any other time since opening up its economy to the world in 1978, thanks to AI.
Today, Chinese facial recognition companies are guardians of the Chinese Communist Party. Companies like SenseTime, Megvii and Yitu are breaking the human boundaries of intelligence and rational thinking through AI, governing not only human behaviours, but human consciousness. They appear on the US defence blacklist, and MIT’s "World Smartest Companies" list – both honourable designations in the eyes of China's government.
Facial recognition in China can not only root out unlawful behaviours quickly, but also assess sentiment through facial expressions.
Why would anyone enjoy the prospects of having their minds read? One Chinese-American pop star, Gao Xiaosong, brought the idea home in an interview: “Because in the US, there is freedom; and in China, there is hope.”
Hope is permeating China, particularly as the country emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic. Chinese citizens watched the utter failures of democracies in restoring economic and social normalcy worldwide. A little sacrifice of personal privacy is petty compared to the glory of economic prosperity.
In 2021, China’s ambition is unbridled. Its leader, Xi Jinping, announced in March that between 2020 and 2035 China would double its GDP. After China’s economic output had already doubled over the past decade, Mr Xi aims to overwhelm his political predecessors – and the world – by quadrupling China’s GDP over 25 consecutive years under his watch. Quadruple!
The last time China had a vision this grand was when Deng Xiaoping decided in 1980 that China would quadruple its GDP in 20 years, following the historic initiation of the country's reform and opening-up (as it was dubbed in the West). While few Chinese thought it possible, the target was exceeded.
If Mr Xi’s ambition materialises, he will not only eclipse Mao’s stature, but epitomise the wisest rulers throughout Chinese civilisation. The economic achievement will crown China as the world’s largest economy, and consequently, the world’s largest military spender. China will be the world’s largest exporter, importer, creditor and standard builder. China will navigate the world’s oceans and seek to inhabit distant planets.
Hardly any other major country dares to challenge a vision this grand. With no clear vision, competition is an empty cry.
China’s global AI leadership is a quintessential part of this vision. But no matter how magnificent a tech giant's ambitions, it is by the grace of the CPC that they are made.
Chinese woke up this past weekend shocked. Didi, the most-used ride-hailing app in China was taken off of app stores due to regulatory investigations. Over 7.7 billion trips were taken via Didi in 2020. The newly New York Stock Exchange-listed company is now ill-fated.
Alibaba and Ant Group have reached comfortably across the full spectrum of Chinese lives. But recently, even they became too big and too challenging for the state. Alibaba faced a historic $2.8bn antitrust fine. Ant Group’s ongoing restructuring rewinds its massive market presence and FinTech ambitions.
Meanwhile, Tencent established a RMB 50bn ($7.7bn) social innovation fund in April. It announced "tech for good" part of its core development strategy. Some believe the strategy is a “gift” to the state in order to appease the Party.
Chinese technology must advance the interests of the state. It is difficult to imagine any disloyalty. China’s AI, therefore, will continue to solidify the government's stability, the CPC's omnipotence and China’s flywheel of prosperity.
The ultimate technology paradox in China is that a frontier technology must serve Marxist ideology. Chinese AI technologies may well power the rule of humanity. But this AI, in turn, must be ruled by the ruling Party.
When the league of SenseTime and Megvii grow to become global AI superpowers, the CPC will ultimately review their power to challenge it.
Looking forward, it is unrealistic to conceive any public protests against the "AI state", except those who possess the same technological power. If one can design an AI system to serve the CPC, it is plausible to believe that they are fully capable of designing a system to resist it, as and when they need to.
For now, let’s celebrate China’s centennial progress towards economic post-modernity, and acknowledge the CPC's role in it.
Shirley Yu is a political economist and nonresident fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government