China and the West Can Build a Better World Together | Opinions
In The Feeling of Power, a story by famous American science fiction author Isaac Asimov, humanity forgot how to conduct even the simplest mathematical equations. In the distant future, complex machines perform all the operations, while men and women stare in awe.
Suddenly, a man rediscovers arithmetic in pencil and paper, allowing him to perform simple multiplications without resorting to the aid of the machine. Stunned by his new powers, he shares the discovery with the Earth government. The military establishment is quickly seizing the new powers to build a more efficient, human-managed space fleet to replace artificial intelligence and defeat Earth’s enemy, the planet Deneb.
Today, we are still far from such levels of technological dependence. And yet an increasing part of our lives is determined by algorithms, workers are threatened by automation and driven by applications, and armies around the world are engaged in an artificial intelligence arms race.
In the face of growing public concern over this state of affairs, governments around the world are trying to take action – to rediscover pencil-and-paper arithmetic. The United States Congress regularly roasts Facebook in its hearings, while the European Commission has an ongoing antitrust dispute against Google. However, not much has come of it.
In contrast, China, the most technologically advanced country, has taken more decisive action. The recent measures put in place by the Chinese government seem to indicate the possibility of regaining political, and therefore human, control over the direction of technological and economic change. This has major implications for the world and paves a way beyond the military competition between China and the West.
Chinese philosopher Zhao Tingyang has recently echoed many Western commentators by denouncing the omnipresent power of multinational corporations and Big Techs, which he calls, in his latest book, “the new authoritarian powers”: corporate nations gradually transforming governments into their agents. The Chinese government does not want to be anyone’s agent and is actively trying to reclaim the primacy of politics in the face of these new powers.
The government is now using various avenues – including anti-monopoly investigations, new laws and direct communications with senior leaders – to curb the tech giants. This unfortunately includes the kind of harassment impossible in Western democracies like Jack Ma, CEO of Alibaba. , “Disappear” from sight for several months.
On a stronger legal basis, the Personal Information Protection Act (PIPL), passed in August, stipulates that businesses must comply with the minimum amount of data collection necessary, thereby reducing the risk of information misuse. personal.
Behind the regulatory activism around tech giants lies a broader political and economic plane. President Xi Jinping wants to find a way to harness big data and the success of big companies and new billionaires to fuel broader economic growth.
A clear example comes from actions on online tutoring, a sector which the government says has been “hijacked by capital”. Beijing said it will strictly regulate the after-school tutoring industry as part of increased efforts to improve public education, lower the cost of having children and help raise China’s birth rate. He went so far as to ban private tutoring companies from making a profit, causing the market value of private education companies to collapse.
The populist state newspaper Global Times recently justified the government’s actions as “preventing wealthy families with higher socioeconomic status from having priority access to educational resources.” Compare this with the United States, where little action has been taken to counteract “market forces.” [that] have made American higher education radically unequal, ”as Harvard magazine, affiliated with Harvard University, describes it.
The actions of the Chinese government should be understood, more generally, as a measure aimed at increasing people’s incomes, and therefore purchasing power, to the detriment of corporate profits, by addressing the growing gap between capital and job.
Take the delivery economy, where concert workers around the world are “uncertain, scared and barely scratched.” The Chinese government has forced online platforms to ensure delivery staff earn at least the local minimum income, which has cost delivery giant Meituan $ 40 billion in market value. It’s less money in investor bank accounts, and more money in the pockets of workers together.
Similar considerations apply to a new dynamic aimed at reducing the concentration of wealth. In August, the Communist Party stressed the need to “reasonably regulate excessively high incomes” and prioritize “common prosperity”. Companies, anticipating new regulatory measures, responded by announcing a series of social, educational and charitable programs.
Pinduoduo, the e-commerce platform for group purchasing, will invest $ 1.5 billion in a non-profit cause for agricultural technological innovation and improving the livelihoods of rural farmers. Alibaba will send tech workers to the countryside and train 200,000 digital technologists in underdeveloped areas. Tencent has pledged $ 7 billion to support the “common prosperity” campaign.
Much like the big tech challenges, wealth inequality and low labor standards are issues that plague Western countries as much as China. And yet, action in advanced democracies seems muted. Not only does inequality continue to rise, but the COVID-19 pandemic has left millions of people unemployed, while great fortunes have skyrocketed in what the Financial Times has called a “billionaire boom.” This is disaster capitalism at its best.
“Tax the rich,” wrote US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the dress she wore to the Met Gala. But the truth is that Western democracies seem particularly incapable of reforming an increasingly unjust economic system. If nothing is done, it is a disaster for the legitimacy of liberal democracy.
Could China help the West cope with its economic and democratic decline? It’s more than a provocation: The timidity of the Western response to the concentration of power, data and wealth has a lot to do with the extremism that is rampant in Western democracies today. As a growing share of the electorate finds that the system is not working for them, the push towards populist election proposals – or abstention – inevitably increases.
Indeed, the most successful large-scale reforms of democratic capitalism took root precisely in response to a similar authoritarian competition: that with the Soviet Union. The transformation of laissez-faire capitalism and the introduction of state intervention and welfare by US President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous “New Deal” were directly inspired by the application of planning to State in Soviet Russia. The post-war European welfare state, which guaranteed three decades of economic expansion and growing equality, was also a direct response to the threat of an impoverished population “becoming Soviet” in the absence of opportunities. economical for all.
The West seems determined to respond to China’s rise by trying to contain it and build a system of alliances against it. The recently announced AUKUS deal between the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, and the resulting arms race in the Pacific, is just the latest milestone in a path too reminiscent of alliances opposites that led Europe to the First World War. To many observers a clash of systems seems inevitable – this is Thucydides’ trap, signaling the inevitability of a military clash between a declining power and a rising power.
But we need the exact opposite of an arms race and a cold war. The West can respond by learning from China and opening a conversation about reforming a dysfunctional global system. Taking back political leadership over economic and technological development does not require going down China’s authoritarian path. Democracies, in their ideal form, serve precisely to transform the will of the people into a just policy and a place above the economic interests of the richest. Do we need China’s “common prosperity” campaign to remind us of this?
The future of humanity will largely depend on the conversations taking place in China today. And yet all this remains resolutely at the corner of our public debates in the West. Rather than fleeing from China, there is a lot of potential in people-to-people exchanges, as well as in organizational development and coordinated actions.
When the borders reopen as the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, we don’t need a self-imposed bamboo curtain separating the West from China. We must redouble our efforts to foster political, cultural and artistic exchanges and open institutional and political forums where concrete issues – such as wealth inequality, technological sovereignty, as well as of course climate transition – can be discussed. at all levels of government and civil society.
In The Wandering Earth, famous Chinese science fiction author Liu Cixin tells the story of a collective human effort to move planet Earth away from a dying solar system to another galaxy. Unlike the Western capitalist-dystopian accounts of a privileged few fleeing a planet in crisis, this is the story of a humanity driven by a collective interest in meeting a common challenge. As we face very immediate and entirely non-fictitious planetary challenges today, the time has come to open a powerful transnational cultural conversation about our common future. Cooperation between China and the West is at the heart of this mission.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.