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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As we enter the homestretch of the US presidential election — which is set to be the most contentious, and possibly contested, in generations — Americans are also voting on 35 seats up for grabs in a battle for the control of the Senate. The 100-member body is currently held 53-47 by the Republican Party, but many individual races are wide open, and the Democrats are confident they can flip the upper chamber of Congress.

Either way, the result will have a profound impact not only on domestic policy, but also on US foreign relations and other issues with global reach. Here are a few areas where what US senators decide reverberates well beyond American shores.

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On September 23, GZERO Media — in partnership with Microsoft and Eurasia Group — gathered global experts to discuss global recovery from the coronavirus pandemic in a livestream panel. Our panel for the discussion Crisis Response & Recovery: Reimagining while Rebuilding, included:

  • Brad Smith, President, Microsoft
  • Ian Bremmer, President and Founder, Eurasia Group & GZERO Media
  • Jeh Johnson, Partner, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, LLP and former Secretary of Homeland Security.
  • John Frank, Vice President, UN Affairs at Microsoft
  • Susan Glasser, staff writer and Washington columnist, The New Yorker (moderator)

Special appearances by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, European Central Bank chief Christine Lagarde, and comedian/host Trevor Noah.

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Jon Lieber, who leads Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington, offers insights on the Supreme Court vacancy:

Will Senate Republicans, who stopped a Supreme Court nomination in 2016, because it was too close to an election, pay a political price for the change in tactics this time around?

Not only do I think they won't pay a political price, I think in many cases, they're going to benefit. Changing the balance of power on the Supreme Court has been a career-long quest for many conservatives and many Republicans. And that's why you've seen so many of them fall in line behind the President's nomination before we even know who it is.

At this point, do Senate Democrats have any hope of stopping President Trump from filling the ninth seat on the Supreme Court?

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In a special GZERO Media livestream on global response and recovery amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Eurasia Group & GZERO Media president Ian Bremmer discussed the difference between Europe's unified approach to economic stimulus and the deeply divided and political nature of the current conversation in the US. While initial stimulus support was bipartisan, there is little chance of Democrats and Republicans coming together again ahead of the November 3 presidential election. "It's red state versus blue state. President Trump's saying that coronavirus isn't so bad if you take the blue states out. He's president of the blue states, you can't take the blue states out," Bremmer told moderator Susan Glasser of The New Yorker.

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Panel: How will the world recover from COVID-19?

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