What Is Xi Worried About on Communist China's 70th Birthday?

What Is Xi Worried About on Communist China's 70th Birthday?

"We have stood up!" were communist leader Mao Zedong's words just days before he proclaimed the foundation of the People's Republic of China (PRC) 70 years ago this morning. Having won an unlikely victory over Western-backed nationalists in a brutal civil war, Mao's message was one of defiance, solidarity, and continued struggle.


Today Chinese president Xi Jinping will oversee a massive celebration of that moment, featuring tens of thousands of performers and troops, hundreds of tanks, planes and other military vehicles and even, it seems, a new nuclear weapon that can reach the US. The PRC's 70th is so politically sensitive that the authorities have choked off the internet in Beijing, ordered homing pigeons to stay in their coops, and replaced the usual TV soap operas with nationalistic historical dramas.

For Xi, it's an occasion to showcase China's tremendous achievement: this is a country that rose from poverty, war, and external subjugation to become the world's second largest economy, a leading force in science and technology, and a strong contender for 21st century superpower status. (He will, of course, omit the hideous suffering inflicted by Mao's Great Leap Forward and the social and political damage inflicted by the Cultural Revolution.)

But Xi, who has amassed more power than any leader since the "Great Helmsman" himself while bolstering the communist party's power over all aspects of life in China, is also keen to echo Mao's 1949 calls for unity and resilience as he braces the nation for potentially turbulent times ahead.

What's he up against?

The economy is sputtering. After bringing close to a billion people out of poverty since 1979, an economy that became the 20th century's "workshop to the world" is now expanding at its slowest pace in thirty years. That's not quite as bad as it sounds –but it's a looming challenge for a system where part of the deal with the population is: little political freedom, lots of growth.

Hong Kong and Taiwan aren't playing ball. The Hong Kong protests, now in their 15th week, are an explicit challenge to Beijing's authority over the territory. And the self-governing island of Taiwan, where pro-independence president Tsai-ing Wen is likely to win another term in January, isn't interested in being "reincorporated" into China, as Xi would like. That jars with Xi's vision of a unified China under firm control of the Communist Party.

A bigger global struggle awaits. The US-China trade war that's been capturing headlines since last year is only the opening salvo in what will be a broader global competition between Beijing and Washington for economic, technological and potentially even military supremacy. That is a struggle that will outlast both US President Donald Trump and Xi, and will help shape the next 70 years of the People's Republic.

A blue graphic using 1's and 0's to form an image of roads leading into a city

Governments, civil society and industry are beginning to understand the value of data to society in much the same way they considered the importance of thoroughfares 200 years ago. Just as these roads ushered in a new era of physical infrastructure that helped society thrive then, today we are beginning to understand the need to invest in modern approaches to our data infrastructure that will enhance economic growth and innovation, support individual empowerment and protect us from harm. Just as our physical infrastructure of roads and highways needs to be used appropriately, maintained and protected, so does our data infrastructure.

To maximize the benefits and minimize the harms of our data use, we need privacy regulations to serve as our global rules of the road that preserve our ability to use and share data across borders, supported by innovative tools and solutions that protect privacy and empower individuals. As we reframe our focus to support data use, let’s examine the regulatory approaches that have been working, and develop new approaches where needed to enable the responsible use and sharing of data. To read more about Microsoft’s approach to protecting data infrastructure, visit Microsoft on the Issues.

Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group, our parent company, has opened this year’s GZERO Summit with a provocative speech on the near future of international politics. Here are the highlights.

Are the United States and China now locked in a new form of Cold War? Their governments behave as if they are.

But Bremmer isn’t buying it. He’s not predicting that Washington and Beijing will become more cooperative with one another, but that both will be too preoccupied with historic challenges at home in coming years to wage a full-time international struggle.

In Washington, the main worry will be for America’s broken political system. US politics is becoming even more tribalized as TV and online media target politically like-minded consumers with hyperpartisan news coverage. Widening wealth inequality fuels the fire by separating white and non-white, urban and rural, and the more educated from the less educated. Deepening public mistrust of political institutions will fuel future fights over the legitimacy of US elections.

Beijing’s burden centers on how to extend decades of economic gains while moving away from a growth model that no longer works, as higher wages in China and more automation in factories elsewhere cut deeply into China’s manufacturing advantages. China is still a middle-income country. To reach the prosperity level of wealthy nations, it needs 6-7 percent growth for another 20 years.

But China must spend less in coming years to keep giant, deeply indebted companies afloat and more to care for the largest population of elderly people in history. And its leaders must accomplish this at a time when China’s people expect ever-rising levels of prosperity from their government.

The domestic distraction of US and Chinese leaders will create new opportunities for European, Japanese, Canadian, Indian and other political and business leaders to contribute toward international problem-solving. But other governments aren’t the only new players stepping into this power vacuum.

Technology companies are fast becoming important geopolitical actors. We’re entering a world in which economic winners and losers, election outcomes, and national security will depend on choices made by both governments and by the world’s big tech firms.

Bremmer calls this a “techno-polar moment.”

The idea is simple but transformative: Just as governments make the laws that determine what can happen in the physical world, tech companies have final authority in a digital world that’s becoming both more expansive and more immersive.

The biggest tech companies will establish sovereignty by defining the digital space and its boundaries, the algorithms that determine what happens within that space, and the “terms and conditions” that decide who gets to operate in this world.

For skeptics, Bremmer poses this question: Who will do more to influence the outcome of next year’s US midterm congressional elections: The president of the United States or the CEO of Meta? According to Bremmer, since the vote will be influenced by both real-world rules changes and the online flow of information, the answer isn’t obvious.

How will tech companies try to expand their power? Some will behave as “globalists” by trying to reach consumers and influence politics everywhere.

Others will act as “national champions” by aligning with individual governments and their goals.

Still, others will behave as “techno-utopians,” companies that expect historical forces and tech innovations to help them replace governments in important ways.

The relative success of these models over the next decade will decide how government and tech companies share power over the longer-term and whether democracy or autocracy will have the upper hand.

What’s to be done? “Think adaptation, not surrender,” says Bremmer. Steps can be taken to limit the sometimes negative influence of tech companies in the political lives of democracies. But just as climate change can be limited but not avoided, so we must understand and adapt to a world in which governments and tech companies compete for influence over our lives.

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How is China able to control their tech giants without suppressing innovation?

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"In the United States you've got fanboys if you do that; in China, they cut you down," Bremmer told CNN anchor Julia Chatterley in an interview following his annual State of the World Speech.

Still, he says China knows it cannot kill its private sector because it needs to keep growing and competing with American tech firms.

So, who's winning the global battle for tech primacy?

Right now, Bremmer believes the US and China are at tech parity — thanks to their tech giants.

"When we're talking about tech supremacy, we can't just talk about governments anymore."

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