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Experts discuss China’s ‘data sphere of influence’

Panelists from China, U.S., and Europe shared their views on China’s data governance and its technology competition with the U.S.

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There is “a real cognitive dissonance between American policy and business leaders about China,” Andrew Grotto said in his opening of a Tuesday talk on artificial intelligence (AI) and digital policy in China.” 

Grotto, formerly the Senior Director for Cybersecurity Policy at the White House in both the Obama and Trump administrations, was one of ten expert panelists who gathered to discuss the state of artificial intelligence technology in China and its impact on global data governance.

The event was hosted by DigiChina, a joint project of the Stanford Cyber Policy Center Program on Geopolitics, Technology and Governance (GTG) and Washington D.C.-based think tank New America’s Cybersecurity Initiative. New America’s website introduces DigiChina as “a broad, cross-organization collaborative effort among specialists to give the English-language world better insight into the debates and outcomes around digital economy policy in China.”

‘Data sphere of influence’

Experts disagreed over issues of international collaboration for the global regulatory standards on data governance in a session moderated by Graham Webster, a China Digital Economy fellow and coordinating editor of the DigiChina project at New America.

Wu Shenkuo, a law professor at Beijing Normal University, opened with a summary of China’s recent development in AI-driven data governance.

China is facing “new five-year planning for the national informatization,” Wu said. As the nation moves on to the next stage of data governance, he said a new trend is emerging in China. “Chinese judicial organs are interested in the introduction of international judicial practice” and paying more attention to the “opportunities and risks” in introducing new technologies.

“[China] would like to have more experience or reference from international practices” of regulatory compliance, Wu continued. He cited the EU’s introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in 2015 and California’s signing of the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) in 2018, both designed to enhance privacy rights and consumer protection. 

“We would also like to introduce such elements and the factors of internationalization in the area over digital policy… to facilitate an enhanced integration level of China and the outside world,” Wu said.

However, Rogier Creemers, assistant professor in the Law and Governance of China at the University of Leiden, did not hide his skepticism toward the feasibility of transnational cooperation between China and the Western world.

He explained his belief that the Chinese Communist Party’s “official worldview” is based on its conviction that technology like artificial intelligence can aid its understanding of “social reality,” enabling them to determine ways to improve society. 

Creemer also said that the Chinese state strives to avoid the fate of past authoritarian regimes, such as the Soviet Union and countries in eastern central Europe. As the U.S. poses an existential threat, the Chinese Communist Party finds technological development more indispensable for its survival amid such competition, Creemer said.

Samm Sacks, a Cybersecurity Policy and China Digital Economy Fellow at New America, concurred with Creemer’s claim on the increasing significance of information technology in global competition.

“Data is increasingly going to be caught in the crosshairs of bigger geopolitical competition,” Sacks added. 

She explained that China is following the practices of the E.U. in its introduction of the GDPR, creating its own version of cybersecurity law. Following the signing of the law, China expanded its scrutiny over private company databases, arresting both Chinese and multinational members of the “data broker chain,” Sacks continued.

Tension is also building up outside the country. Citing the U.S. government’s recent decision to force a Chinese company to relinquish its control over the online dating app Grindr, Sacks said the U.S. government is showing more security concerns over China’s abuse of information technology. This was the first instance in which the U.S. expressed national security concerns regarding foreign control over a social media app, The New York Times reported last March. 

“We are… seeing both governments looking to put controls and checks in place that might limit the ability of data to flow freely across borders,” Sacks concluded.

Shazeda Ahmed, a Ph.D. candidate at UC Berkeley School of Information, stressed the globalization of Chinese tech companies. She said it would be increasingly important to understand the “inherent biases” of their services, citing the MIT Media Lab’s research on current facial recognition software. 

All panelists agreed that the U.S., Europe and China will be three key players in determining the future of data governance. In the Q&A session that followed, Wu said international community can focus on “specific issues” that pertain to particular industries, such as finance, health, or airline industry, before finding consensus at a higher level.

However, Creemer argued that the interests of national governments would ultimately determine the course of international regulation, depending on how much key actors prefer “regulatory harmonization” with transnational cooperation or “protectionism,” as has been the trend in recent U.S.-China relations.

“We are moving towards a world of what I’m calling [the] data sphere of influence,” Sacks said.

‘Regulatory renaissance’ on digital issues

“At the government level, we have stopped formal cybersecurity dialogues between the U.S. and China.”

Opening the second session, Voo, research director of China Cyber Policy Initiative at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, shared her pessimistic view on the U.S.-China collaborations ion technology issues.

The second session, moderated by Ian Wallace, director of New America’s Cybersecurity Initiative and a senior fellow in the International Security program, focused on the global impact of policy developments in China’s digital technology, especially on its relations with the U.S.

“I think the discourse on this issue is increasingly toxic,” Voo continued. She claimed that politicians who built their careers during the Cold War and the conflicts in the Middle East are driving Washington’s hawkish attitudes towards China.

Washington’s stance could provoke self-censorship among researchers, Voo said. “If you have a more moderate view [on China] and you dare to voice it… your credibility is questioned.”

Voo also worried about the impact of current tug-of-war on the experience of ethnically Chinese communities overseas. 

“When they go back [to China], they are going to be future leaders,” Voo said. “It’s not going to help us to find a long term solution.”

Yuan Yang, Beijing correspondent to the Financial Times, echoed Voo’s view while adding that she also sees a similar kind of hostility from the Chinese government.

Both the U.S. and China are overestimating “the capabilities and the bad intent of the other side,” Yang said. 

According to Yang, such misunderstanding is driving both governments towards disengagement. She said China’s policymaking circles are showing concerns not only over the decoupling of the U.S. and Chinese economy but also over Washington’s “decapitation” of Chinese growth.

This reinforces Washington’s “fatalism” in the perception of its ability “to influence outcomes in terms of establishing norms around AI and data policy in China,” Yang said. “And that that fatalism leads us to presume that China is already that already there at some kind of dystopia that’s already fixed in the future. And it’s incredibly disempowering.”

Katharin Tai, a political science Ph.D. student at MIT, also stressed the feasibility of coordination between the U.S. and China. “It’s easy to miss that there’s actually a lot of agreement,” Tai said. 

According to Tai, the U.S. and China need to “zoom out” from viewing U.S.-China coordination over data regulation as “a bilateral dynamic.” Tai suggested that including Europe, which does not wholly endorse either position, in their discussion can bring alternatives to the status quo. Moreover, she argued that Europe has “credibility that the U.S. simply does not have,” citing the Edward Snowden case, which “created a degree of mistrust” in the U.S. government.

However, Tai also said the U.S. and China should both agree to bring Europe to the table. “Even though Europe has the possibility of acting as a credible intermediary, this also crucially depends on a willingness on both sides,” Tai said.

Grotto, the last speaker of the session, provided his  take on the current tension between the U.S. and China as a Washington insider.

“This shift in Washington’s orientation towards China is not a recent development… this shift began in 2015,” followed by Chinese President Xi Jinping’s rise to power, Grotto said. “What Trump did was take the populist anxiety around all things foreign in the U.S. and dial up the temperature of the rhetoric on China.”

However, Grotto shared his hope for transnational collaboration to mitigate the hostility from both sides. Chinese, American and European regulators face similar problems on the issues of AI technology and data governance, Grotto said. He also shared his belief that, by reconciling differences between their values, the world can expect a better outcome from what he calls the “regulatory Renaissance” on digital issues.

The two-hour event at the Arrillaga Alumni Center was organized as a workshop affiliated with the Stanford Human-centered Artificial Intelligence (HAI) Center’s 2019 Fall Conference on AI ethics, policy, and governance. 

Contact Won Gi Jung at jwongi ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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