The Digital Curtain Descends


Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

Now the Trump administration is further drawing the digital curtain in a new code war aimed at keeping China from challenging the technological dominance of the West. Last week the United States banned the export of American technology, software and hardware, to Huawei, the world’s largest maker of telecommunications equipment that dominates markets not only within China, but also in large swaths of Europe, Latin America and Africa.

It was perhaps inevitable that once globalization entered the digital age, it would break apart on the virtual shoals of information technology. Control and manipulation of data and information flows, including artificial intelligence, is not just another factor of production like machine tools or steel. It lays at the heart of the political and civilizational rift between today’s economic superpowers. Paradoxically, it is the technologies of connectivity that are most dividing East and West.

Before the recent breakdown of trade talks, China appeared more than willing to reduce the trade imbalance with the U.S. by importing increased quantities of soybeans or other conventional traded goods. But it balked at swallowing American demands that it surrender its quest to catch up with, and even surpass, the technological lead of the West.

This is no surprise. The foundational project of modern China has been to overcome the humiliation of “unequal treaties” and oppression by Western colonial powers during the Qing dynasty that resulted from falling behind as the industrial revolution advanced. That lesson is seared into the national psyche. The very vision of a rejuvenated China that animates President Xi Jinping’s rule is grounded in never again making that mistake.

Because of these complex economic, political and civilizational interactions, we are headed into un-programmed times. The decoupling that the White House hawks yearn for is now underway. One bleak, but compelling, scenario is that the liberating potential of digital connectivity will now be squeezed into the Procrustean trajectory of an accelerated competition between the Chinese surveillance state and the surveillance capitalism of Western big tech. Techno-nationalist fervor on both sides will constrain other paths.

The conflict is already turning doves into hawks. While Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Congress are divided by partisan passions on nearly every other issue from health care to immigration, a bipartisan consensus against China has consolidated in the halls of power. Few politicians — among them, Rep. Ro Khanna, who writes in The WorldPost this week — have grasped that the primary response to China’s challenge is for America to get its own act together to compete with the kind of education, infrastructure and R&D investments that have so boosted the fortunes of its strategic rival.

The same hardening can be seen in China. Particularly striking was the recent comment by Zheng Bijian, the renowned author of China’s “peaceful rise” doctrine, that his country today “is prepared to endure a protracted war.” This week, Xi jettisoned his usual rhetorical balm of building a “community of common destiny” in the world and declared, before a cheering crowd in Jiangxi province, that “we are now embarking on a new Long March, and we must start all over again.”

This was a reference to the “heroic” feat, lodged in Communist Party lore, of the tactical retreat of Mao’s Red Army in 1934-35 to the remote hinterland of China to rebuild and ultimately prevail in the civil war with Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang and take power in 1949.

Today we are entering a kind of geopolitical purgatory characterized by the duality of both inexorable conflict and the imperative of cooperation. The synchronization of the planet through the recent decades of economic globalization and technological connectivity is now fragmenting as it penetrates the cultural surface and reaches the core that differentiates civilizational identities. At the same time this de-synchronization takes place, never has the need been greater to align efforts that address global warming. The very idea of “a global climate,” it is worth noting, is itself a phenomenon only enabled by computerized modeling on a planetary scale.

While both the U.S. and China may survive decoupling on the economic and technology front, the world won’t survive decoupling when it comes to global warming. Unless these two largest carbon-emitting powers link their climate fates, all will suffer. Here a “community of common destiny” is a concept that holds. Despite deepening conflict in other realms, a “partnership of rivals” on climate action is indispensable. To chart out this singular zone of common intent around a convergent interest in which the entire planet has a stake can also temper the darkening shadow of distrust over all else.

For now, since the Trump administration has pulled out of the Paris accord, “networks of the willing” in the U.S. and China must carry the torch and work together, building momentum until the post-Trump era. Those who have joined the hawks on both sides should be careful in the meantime not to so demonize each other into hostile camps that future cooperation becomes untenable.

Let’s hope that this historical passage will not end where it is headed — in a war for domination — but resolve itself into a diverse equilibrium of one world, many systems.