Will Chinese Tech Make Democracy Irrelevant?

Will Chinese Tech Make Democracy Irrelevant?

My high school history teacher Dr. Cohen once told me, as we shuffled along the school cafeteria line, that computers would one day make socialism viable. Given that the Soviet collapse had already happened, and that Super Nintendo still seemed vastly more magical than anything you could put on your desk, this seemed far-fetched.


But his point was that one day, in principle, computers could amass enough detailed knowledge about people's needs and living patterns that governments could use them to run a planned economy efficiently. With enough data and computing power, you'd no longer need to rely on prices and markets to match up people with the things they want and need.

Almost thirty years later, computers are helping a Leninist state to maintain power, but in a very different way than Dr. Cohen had imagined.

China, now the world's second largest economy, has long since accepted the need to allow market forces to fuel its economy. But after all these years, the great question remains: As China grows wealthier and its people expect more from their government, can the Communist Party maintain its chokehold on political power? Isn't democracy still the least bad way for governments to understand what citizens want and to deliver those things efficiently?

Beijing is now betting that technologies like artificial intelligence and big data analysis will not only help the state stave off demand for democracy, but make democracy itself irrelevant for meeting the needs of its citizens.

The idea is to create a nation in which every person, company, road, bridge, river, air particle, hospital, school, and police station is monitored by sensors, cameras, or data hoovers. And then to feed that data into AI systems, developed by China's increasingly capable homegrown tech industry, that can help the government do to three things:

  1. Improve people's quality of life by using massive data sets and artificial intelligence to make roads, rails, hospitals, schools, and other public services run better and more responsively – without ever having to open up to the mess of democratic accountability or oversight. This might look good to those people around the world who believe democratic governments can barely tie their own shoes.
  2. Keep order by controlling the movement of "threatening" people and ideas. This is much easier to do via technology and data analysis than by sending spooks out to spy on people. This idea will appeal to governments looking to create the kind of stability that doesn't demand power-sharing.
  3. Create incentives for people to follow the rules by using technology to limit the access of lawbreaking citizens to important services. That might appeal to both law-abiding citizens and political officials.

It's a huge gamble, but control is a central motivation of the government's bid to become a 21st century AI superpower. That ambition isn't just about global power, it's about maintaining domestic stability. Can Beijing pull it off? No human can yet answer that question. But Dr. Cohen and I are watching closely.

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The European Union is, for better or worse, the most ambitious experiment in human history in institutionalized multinational cooperation. Its success depends on the willingness of its members to abide by its rules.

In recent years, the populist-nationalist governments of former Communist bloc members Hungary and Poland have flouted some of those rules in order to boost their own popularity with citizens suspicious of the EU's liberal values on issues like immigration and minority rights. In response, the EU has scolded these "illiberal" governments and threatened forceful action – so far without much effect.

The fight between EU institutions and Poland and Hungary has escalated.

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Some of the worst sectarian clashes since Lebanon's 15-year civil war (1975-1990) broke out in Beirut this week between supporters of Hezbollah and Amal, both Shiite political parties, and Christian, far-right Lebanese Forces. Shiite protesters were rallying against the state probe into the Beirut port blast, which occurred last year. They say authorities were singling out Shiite politicians for questioning and blame. Below is our original piece on the Beirut port explosions published on August 5, 2020.


The twin explosions at Beirut's port on Tuesday were so powerful that the aftershocks reverberated as far as the Eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus, 150 miles away. The specter of fire and smoke was such that many suggested on social media that Beirut had experienced a nuclear blast.

In the days ahead, more details will come to light about why a deadly cache of materials was haphazardly stashed at a port warehouse, and why Lebanon's government failed to secure the site. So, what comes next for crisis-ridden Lebanon?

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Jon Lieber, head of Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington, shares insights on US politics:

What does it actually mean to cut $1 trillion from the Democrats' $3.5 trillion social spending bill?

President Biden has proposed one of the most ambitious expansions of federal spending in recent memory. If he gets everything he wants, it would probably be the largest expansion of government since the Great Society, but he's not going to get everything he wants. Democrats have basically said they cannot do all $3.5 trillion in spending. They're probably going to end up around $2 trillion. So what gets cut? Well, we don't know yet. There's kind of two ways to go about this. They could either cut the number of programs that have been proposed, doing fewer things with more money on a permanent basis, or they could try to do more things, each program getting less money and potentially doing them on a temporary basis. So, a future Congress would have to extend it. What does this mean for you? Well, a lot of the money in here is designed to go directly to families, either in the form of cash payments, through the tax code, the Child Tax Credit and the Earned Income Tax Credit, or subsidies for things like child care, early childhood education, and community college. And if you cut these things back, it means less money is going to go out the door to the American people. It also means less tax increases to finance it. So the implications of what's being proposed could actually end up being a big deal for a lot of Americans who would qualify for benefits under these new programs.

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How will artificial intelligence change the world and especially the job market by 2041? AI scientist Kai-fu Lee just wrote a book about precisely that, and he predicts it'll shake up almost every major industry. AI, he explains, will be most disruptive to many so-called "routine" occupations, but the damage may be reduced by shifting "empathetic" workers to jobs that require human empathy. Watch his interview on GZERO World with Ian Bremmer.

Watch this episode of GZERO World with Ian Bremmer: Is a robot coming for your job? Kai-fu Lee explains AI

The Atlantic CEO Nick Thompson believes in tech firms doing business in China because connecting with people there is a huge social good for the world. But in demanding LinkedIn de-platform certain people, he says, the Chinese government crossed a line, and "you can't justify that."

Watch Ian Bremmer's interview with Nicholas Thompson in an upcoming episode of GZERO World, airing on US public television.

Sectarian clashes in Lebanon: As Lebanese supporters of Hezbollah and Amal, both Shiite political parties, were on their way to a protest in Beirut Thursday, gunfire broke out, evidently between Hezbollah militants and those of the Christian, far-right Lebanese Forces. The protesters were rallying against the ongoing state probe into last year's devastating twin blasts at a Beirut port, saying that state authorities were singling out Shiite politicians for questioning and blame. They have called for the dismissal of Judge Tarek Bitar — who is leading the probe and on Monday issued an arrest warrant for a prominent Shiite parliamentarian linked to Amal. Each side has blamed the other for starting the violence Thursday, which killed at least six people, injured dozens more, and threw the entire city into a panic. In a grim omen, the clashes, which are among the worst in recent years, erupted along one of the old front lines (dividing Muslim and Christian neighborhoods) of the 15-year sectarian civil war that devastated the country up until 1990. With the country mired in economic and political crises, the people of Lebanon can't seem to catch a break: just last week the country was plunged into complete darkness when its decrepit power grid ran out of fuel. Meanwhile, Najib Mikati, who became prime minister designate in July after months of political deadlock, declared a "day of mourning," but civil strife continues.

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35.4: The US has overtaken China as the country with the largest share of the world's Bitcoin mining networks, now accounting for 35.4 of the global mining presence. This comes after the Chinese government banned domestic cryptocurrency mining operations to promote its own digital yuan that would track every single transaction.

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