This half, China is copying Russia’s Twitter interference playbook

I also moderated three discussions on the global technological challenges facing the world. A big focus was of course China – which, as you readers of the newsletter know, is one of the most important tech players today. My guests dealt with crucial questions such as: Why are the recent chip export controls of particular importance? And how do we understand them not only from a geopolitical but also from a moral perspective? I also had a conversation about disinformation on social media, which has proven to be extremely timely reports last week by China-based bot networks trying to influence US politics ahead of today’s midterm elections.

Well, those conversations weren’t exactly the right thing hopeful friendly, but they gave me the clarity I needed about what’s happening on the other side of the Pacific. The China news cycle has always been busy (hence this newsletter!), but it’s also good to take a break, chat, and understand where we stand on US-China relations.

In case you missed this year’s event, here are the China-related highlights I think will interest you:

What is the strategy – and the real reason behind the US restrictions on China?

It has been several years since US-China relations suffered a significant slump, and academics and technicians on both sides now accept that tensions will not ease anytime soon. When I asked Matt Sheehan, a Global Technology Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, how he felt about US-China relations today, he said he was “nervous” because “a lot of decisions being made in quick succession are extremely uncertain outcome.”

One of those big decisions is the Biden administration tightening restrictions on chip exports to China. While people are still trying to understand politics in real-time, it has become clear that the government’s moves are not just about adding more Chinese companies or more chip technologies to a list of goals, but about changing the way people think US government is about containing China.

For a long time, the main question on China’s export controls has been whether to “do as much damage as you can today, or maintain your influence longer,” Sheehan said.

The latter — continuing to sell chips and related tech to China in hopes the country will not develop its own self-sufficient ecosystem — is what the US has done. But that’s about to change, according to Sheehan: “I think this latest scrutiny solidifies that debate [Washington] DC is on the damage-making side today. People have decided that leverage wears off over time anyway, and we need to leverage that leverage while we can.”

Photo by EmTech MIT with speakers Yangyang Cheng, Matt Sheehan and Zeyi Yang

But it is also important to question the rationale behind these export controls. Are they really based on addressing human rights issues, as is often claimed, or are they more of a political game? Yangyang Cheng, a fellow at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center, noted on the panel that the guidelines are “logically inconsistent and morally indefensible” if the reasoning “is not that the construction of weapons is bad or that the construction different kinds of surveillance systems is bad, but because I want to build better weapons and better surveillance systems.”

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