The adoption of China’s 14th Five-Year Plan in March 2021 further solidified the dominant role of innovation, emerging technology, and advanced manufacturing in Beijing’s development strategy, as well as highlighted the government’s intention to accelerate the building of a digital economy, society, and government. The plan details China’s desire to use data and digital technology to upgrade traditional industries, develop smart cities, and create a “future of shared destiny” in cyberspace. These elements represent pieces of Beijing’s broader digital and innovation strategy that seeks to leapfrog China to become a global technology leader and position the country as a dominant player in shaping and controlling the world’s digital future. Chinese leaders see accomplishing this as a key means to continuing China’s rise and achieving the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”
The strategies used to carry out China’s digital ambitions and grow its digital influence are multifaceted and carry significant global repercussions. This Asia Policy roundtable seeks to identify these objectives and shed light on their consequences. The following essays analyze the policies China is using to achieve these goals; examine the consequences for the United States, like-minded powers, and others caught in the middle; and offer policy recommendations for both national governments and international rule-setting bodies to mitigate the challenges associated with China’s digital rise.
In the roundtable’s opening essay Emily de La Bruyère outlines China’s digital grand strategy, emphasizing both the vastness of its scope and its centrality in China’s long-term strategic objectives. Through the analysis of speeches by Chinese president Xi Jinping, official policy documents, and Chinese-language journal articles, La Bruyère emphasizes the significance of China’s digital rise, concluding that the government “sees the IT revolution as an opportunity to claim leadership over the world order.” To capitalize on this opportunity, Beijing is pursuing a “network great power” (wangluo qiangguo) strategy that extends beyond the virtual domain to achieve real-world impact.
The network great-power strategy integrates with China’s industrial and manufacturing plans through the informatization of industrialization to link production, distribution, circulation, and consumption in a new development pattern that makes greater use of the digital domain and ongoing IT revolution. It also seeks to balance between protecting China’s domestic network and taking advantage of access to global networks. After decades of benefiting from asymmetrical integration with the global system—by maintaining relatively closed markets at home while capitalizing on the openness of markets abroad—China is now pursuing a similar strategy in the digital world. Becoming a network great power resides at the core of this strategy, providing “a roadmap for China’s rule-setting ambitions in the digital domain” and seeking to catapult China to the forefront of the IT-empowered world.
In the following essay, Elsa Kania zeros in for a closer look at some of the actions the Chinese government is taking to achieve the strategy laid out by La Bruyère. Kania details the increases in expenditures on R&D, basic research, and megaprojects targeting strategic technologies such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing that have demonstrated the magnitude of state-led efforts to advance China’s innovation ambitions. In particular, she notes the role of national science and technology in helping China develop vaccines and other tools to recover quickly from the Covid-19 pandemic. China’s emphasis on R&D in science and technology has been matched by the incorporation of rhetoric such as “self-reliance” and “autonomous innovation” at the highest levels and in official policy statements, further centering the new development model on domestic innovation and capturing the gains from emerging technology. China’s ability to play a leading role in shaping the future of the environment for innovation is critical to achieving its desired national rejuvenation. But Kania also addresses the tensions that China faces between retaining control and autonomy and becoming a global, trusted leader in science and technology fields.
In response to the country’s growing digital, technological, and innovative capacities, Kania cautions against using overly broad bans on scientific engagement. She instead recommends considering targeted restrictions on narrow categories of technologies combined, most importantly, with increased domestic investment in basic research. The United States will need to create favorable conditions at home for innovation to retain leadership in this area.
In the third essay Jeffrey Ding shifts from China’s domestic pursuit of innovation to examine the country’s efforts to influence global digital and technology standards in international bodies. Increasing numbers of submissions to standards-setting organizations and a growing number of Chinese nationals holding leadership positions in these organizations have given rise to concerns that Beijing is exerting too much control over the standards-setting process. Ding highlights the importance of recognizing this challenge, but he also cautions against overhyping this trend, noting that greater Chinese participation in the global standards-setting process can bring benefits as well as risks. He argues that the United States should increase its own engagement with these bodies, and that the organizations should take measures such as strengthening anonymous voting procedures to prevent excessive Chinese influence.
The roundtable concludes with a view of the emerging triadic digital power struggle between the United States, China, and global tech companies. Koichiro Komiyama and Motohiro Tsuchiya examine the power dynamics unfolding in the digital domain, arguing that the biggest tech companies are now competing with national governments for dominance in cyberspace. As the United States’ desire for a free, open, and democratic cyberspace collides with China’s push for cyber sovereignty, major tech companies are pursuing their own goal of increased digital globalization. The authors argue that only two of these visions can be achieved at the same time, and that this situation has given rise to a power struggle between the three entities. Their essay closes with an analysis of how middle powers, international organizations, and other outside entities factor into this situation. These groups, despite perhaps having their own visions of or ambitions for cyberspace, find themselves forced to align with one of the three major-power poles, often compromising their own goals in the process.
These essays articulate many of the challenges and risks of China’s growing digital influence and underscore the need to develop more effective policy responses to preserve liberal values and safeguard U.S. and like-minded countries’ interests in an increasingly digitalized world. The digital grand strategy and associated actions China is taking to propel itself to the forefront of the digital innovation frontier—as laid out in these essays—should encourage policymakers to re-evaluate their strategies for addressing the corresponding challenges. As these trends continue to reshape the world and redefine global power, navigating China’s digital rise will be a critical issue for those who do not share China’s vision of the future.
Doug Strub is a Project Manager with the Center for Innovation, Trade, and Strategy at the National Bureau of Asian Research (United States).
 “(Lianghui shouquan fabu) Guihua gangyao cao’an: Jiakuai shuzihua fazhan jianshe shuzì Zhongguo” [(Two Sessions Authorized Release) Draft Planning Outline: Accelerate Digital Development and Build Digital China], Xinhua, March 5, 2021, http://www.xinhuanet.com/politics/2021lh/2021-03/05/c_1127172969.htm.
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Asia Policy is a peer-reviewed scholarly journal presenting policy-relevant academic research on the Asia-Pacific that draws clear and concise conclusions useful to today’s policymakers. Asia Policy is published quarterly in January, April, July, and October and accepts submissions on a rolling basis. Learn more