China and the West can build a better world, together

People are seen at a booth of Alibaba Group at an exhibition during the China Internet Conference in Beijing on July 13, 2021 [File: Tingshu Wang/Reuters]

In The Feeling of Power, a story by celebrated American science fiction author Isaac Asimov, humanity has forgotten how to conduct even the simplest mathematical equations. In a distant future, complex machines conduct all operations, as men and women watch bewildered.

Suddenly a man rediscovers pencil and paper arithmetic, empowering him to perform simple multiplications without relying on machine aid. Stunned by his new powers, he shares the discovery with Earth’s government. The military establishment quickly seizes on the new powers to build a more effective, human-run space fleet to replace artificial intelligence and defeat Earth’s enemy, planet Deneb.

Today we are still far from such levels of technological dependency. And yet, an increasing share of our lives is determined by algorithms, workers are threatened by automation and bossed around by apps, and armies worldwide are engaged in an artificial intelligence arms race.

In the face of growing public anxiety about this state of affairs, governments around the world are trying to take action – to rediscover pencil and paper arithmetic. The United States Congress regularly grills Facebook in its hearings, while the European Commission has an ongoing antitrust litigation against Google. Not much, however, has come from any of this.

By contrast, China, the most technologically driven country, has taken more decisive action. Recent measures implemented by the Chinese government seem to point towards the possibility of regaining a political, and hence human, control over the direction of technological and economic change. This has momentous implications for the world and opens a path beyond military competition between China and the West.

Chinese philosopher Zhao Tingyang recently echoed many Western commentators in decrying the pervading power of multinational corporations and Big Tech, which, in his latest book, he calls “the new authoritarian powers”: corporate nations gradually transforming governments into their agents. The Chinese government wishes to be nobody’s agent and it is actively trying to reclaim the primacy of politics against such new powers.

The government is now employing various avenues – including anti-monopoly investigations, new laws and direct communications with top executives – to rein tech giants in. This regretfully includes the type of harassment impossible in Western democracies, such as having Jack Ma, CEO of Alibaba, “disappear” from view for several months.

On a more legally sound basis, the Personal Information Protection Law (PIPL), passed in August, stipulates that companies must abide by the minimum amount of necessary data-gathering, hence reducing the likelihood of personal information abuse.

Behind the regulatory activism around tech giants is a wider political and economic plan. President Xi Jinping wants to find a way to harness big data and the success of large-scale corporations and new billionaires to fuel more broad-based economic growth.

A clear example comes from actions on online tutoring, a sector that, the government claims, has been “hijacked by capital”. Beijing said it would strictly regulate the after-school tutoring sector as part of stepped-up efforts to improve public education, cut the cost of having children and help raise China’s birth rate. It went so far as to ban private tutoring companies from making profits, causing a collapse in the market value of private education firms.

The state-run, populist Global Times recently justified the government’s actions as “preventing wealthy families with a higher socioeconomic status from having priority access to education resources”. Contrast this with the US, where little action has been taken to counter “market forces [that] have made American higher education radically unequal”, as Harvard University-affiliated Harvard Magazine describes it.

The actions of the Chinese government should be understood, more generally, as a move aimed at increasing people’s incomes, and hence purchase power, at the expense of corporate profits, addressing the growing divide between capital and labour.

Take the delivery economy, where gig workers across the world are “uncertain, scared, and barely scraping by”. The Chinese government forced online platforms to ensure delivery staff earn at least the local minimum income, which caused delivery giant Meituan to lose $40bn in market value. That is less money in the bank accounts of investors, and more money in the pockets of gig workers.

Similar considerations apply to a new drive to reduce wealth concentration. In August, the Communist Party emphasised the need to “reasonably regulate excessively high incomes” and prioritise “common prosperity”. Companies, anticipating new regulatory action, have responded by announcing a range of social, educational and charity programmes.

Pinduoduo, the e-commerce platform for group-buying deals, will invest $1.5bn into a not-for-profit cause for agricultural technology innovation and improving the livelihood of rural farmers. Alibaba will send technology officers to the countryside and train 200,000 digital technologists in underdeveloped areas. Tencent pledged $7bn to support the “common prosperity” campaign.

Just as in the case of the challenges of Big Tech, wealth inequality and low labour standards are issues that plague Western countries as much as China. And yet, action in advanced democracies appears muted. Not only does inequality continue to be on the rise, but the COVID-19 pandemic has left millions jobless, while large fortunes have skyrocketed in what the Financial Times dubbed a “billionaire boom”. This is disaster capitalism at its best.

“Tax the rich”, wrote firebrand US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the dress she wore to the Met Gala. But the truth is that Western democracies appear peculiarly unable to overhaul an increasingly unjust economic system. Left unchecked, this spells disaster for the legitimacy of liberal democracy.

Could China help the West address its economic and democratic decline? This is more than a provocation: the timidity of the Western response to power, data and wealth concentration has much to do with the extremism that today plagues Western democracies. As a growing share of the electorate finds the system is not working for them, the push towards populist electoral proposals – or towards abstention – inevitably grows.

Indeed, the most successful, large-scale reforms of democratic capitalism took hold precisely in response to similar authoritarian competition: that with the Soviet Union. The transformation of laissez-faire capitalism and the introduction of state intervention and welfare protection by US President Franklin D Roosevelt’s famous “New Deal” was directly inspired by the application of state planning in Soviet Russia. The post-war European welfare state, which guaranteed three decades of economic expansion and growing equality, was, likewise, a direct response to the threat of an impoverished population “going Soviet” in the absence of economic opportunities for all.

The West seems bent on responding to China’s rise by attempting to contain it and build a system of alliances against it. The recently announced AUKUS agreement between the US, the United Kingdom and Australia, and the resulting arms race in the Pacific, is just the latest milestone in a path all too reminiscent of the opposing alliances that led Europe towards World War I. To many observers a clash of systems appears inevitable – this is Thucydides’ trap, signalling the inevitability of a military confrontation between a declining and a rising power.

But we need precisely the opposite of an arms race and a cold war. The West can respond by learning from China and opening up a conversation on reforming a dysfunctional global system. Taking back a political direction over economic and technological development does not require going down China’s authoritarian road. Democracies, in their ideal form, serve precisely to transform the will of the people into just policy and place that will above the economic interests of the richest few. Do we need China’s “common prosperity” campaign to remind us of that?

The future of humanity will depend in no small measure on the conversations that are taking place in China today. And yet all this remains resolutely at the corner of our public debates in the West. Rather than shunning China, there is much potential in people-to-people exchange, and also organisational development and coordinated actions.

When borders reopen as the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, we do not need a self-imposed bamboo curtain separating the West from China. We need to double down on fostering political, cultural and artistic exchange and on opening up institutional and political forums where concrete issues – such as wealth inequality, technological sovereignty, as well as of course climate transition – may be discussed at all levels of government and civil society.

In The Wandering Earth, the acclaimed Chinese science fiction author, Liu Cixin, tells the story of a collective effort by humanity to move planet Earth away from a dying solar system and into another galaxy. Differently from Western capitalist-dystopian narrations of a privileged few escaping a planet in crisis, this is a story of a humanity driven by collective interest in addressing a common challenge. As we face very immediate and entirely non-fictional planetary challenges today, the time is ripe to open up a powerful transnational cultural conversation on our common future. Cooperation between China and the West is at the heart of this mission.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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