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From AI to facial recognition: how China is setting the principles in new tech

This article is a part of a collection on the New Cold War

Zhao Houlin is head of the UN’s telecoms company, an unbiased worldwide arbiter that units a few of the guidelines shaping the trendy know-how business. But that doesn’t cease him from letting his patriotism burst into the open.

A former authorities official in China, Mr Zhao has repeatedly lionised the Belt and Road Initiative, the pet undertaking of Chinese president Xi Jinping to put money into abroad infrastructure. He has additionally defended Huawei, the controversial Chinese telecoms champion, towards US accusations that its tools can be utilized for espionage.

“Those preoccupations with Huawei equipment, up to now there is no proof so far,” Mr Zhao, who’s secretary-general of the International Telecommunication Union, informed reporters in Geneva final 12 months. “I would encourage Huawei to be given equal opportunities to bid for business.”

But it’s in his unabashed support for Chinese technology standards that Mr Zhao’s loyalty to Beijing is most placing. Although he was sworn into his ITU function with a pledge to behave “with the interest of the union only in view” whereas avoiding affect from anybody nation, he usually celebrates China’s rising presence within the telecoms and web industries.

“Nowadays in the discussion of relevant ITU standards, China’s technical strength is already in the first echelon and the international community expects China to play a greater role in the UN system,” Mr Zhao was quoted by the People’s Daily, an official Chinese newspaper, as saying final week. In different statements carried by the Chinese media he has praised the function of the nation’s telecoms firms in setting new business requirements.

Mark Warner of the US Senate intelligence committee says Beijing is intending to manage digital infrastructure and, because it does so, to impose rules which might be antithetical to US values © Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty
Zhao Houlin, head of the independent UN telecoms agency, regularly celebrates China’s growing presence in the telecoms and internet industries
Zhao Houlin, head of the unbiased UN telecoms company, usually celebrates China’s rising presence within the telecoms and web industries © Denis Balibouse/Reuters

Mr Zhao declined to touch upon his statements. His advocacy of China’s pursuits, nonetheless, throws mild on the intensifying geopolitical battleground of technological standards, a a lot missed but essential side of a brand new struggle for global influence between China and the US.

Such requirements might sound obscure, however they’re an important factor of contemporary know-how. If the chilly battle was dominated by a race to construct essentially the most nuclear weapons, the competition between the US and China — in addition to the EU — will partly be performed out via a battle to manage the bureaucratic rule-setting that lies behind a very powerful industries of the age.

Gearing up

The industrial and geopolitical energy of commercial protocols has lengthy been recognised. Werner von Siemens, the 19th-century German industrialist and innovator who gave his title to the Siemens conglomerate he based, mentioned: “He who owns the standards, owns the market.”

Standard-setting has for many years largely been the protect of a small group of industrialised democracies. Everything from the width of prepare tracks, to software program, satellites, the frequencies that cellphones use and a complete gamut of guidelines about how digital devices work and course of knowledge have been determined by western-dominated requirements organisations.

New Cold War

In a collection of articles this week, the FT explores how the US-China rivalry is starting to resemble a new cold war, with the know-how world splitting into two blocs and nations being requested to decide on sides.

Monday: Trump, Xi and the escalating US-China confrontation

Tuesday: Can supply chains in China be shifted elsewhere?

Thursday: How America turned hawkish on China

But China now has different concepts. “Industrial standards are an important area of contestation in the new cold war, with both Beijing and Washington gearing up to shape the development and implementation of global standards,” says Adam Segal, director of the digital and cyber area coverage programme on the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based think-tank.

He and different consultants say an intensifying US-China battle to dominate requirements, particularly in rising applied sciences, may begin to divide the world into completely different industrial blocs. In the identical approach that rail passengers who journey from western Europe to some former Soviet bloc nations should to today change trains to accommodate completely different monitor widths, strategic competitors between the US and China raises the spectre of a fragmentation of requirements that creates a brand new technological divide.

Mr Segal says it’s doable, for instance, that 5G mobile telecoms — a bedrock know-how that allows the “internet of things” — could also be divided into two competing stacks to replicate US and Chinese affect. Some measure of division can also be doable in semiconductors, synthetic intelligence and other areas where US-China rivalry is intense, he provides.

A software engineer works on a facial recognition program in Beijing. The technology used in 'smart cities', which automate multiple municipal functions, represent a big prize for China’s standards drive
A software program engineer works on a facial recognition program in Beijing. The know-how utilized in ‘good cities’, which automate a number of municipal features, symbolize a giant prize for China’s requirements drive © Thomas Peter/Reuters

“In some sectors, there will be two stacks that are relatively incompatible,” says Mr Segal. “But in others, there is likely to be some demand that they co-operate. It is possible that large markets that make it clear they do not want to choose between China and the US may be able to pressure Chinese and US tech firms to ensure some degree of compatibility.”

In Washington, the battle for affect over know-how requirements is seen in some quarters as essential to defending democracy from the affect of China, which Madeleine Albright, a former secretary of state, describes as “the world’s leading pioneer of what we call techno-authoritarianism”.

Mark Warner, Democratic vice-chair of the US Senate intelligence committee, sees the risk from China in equally unambiguous phrases. Beijing is intending to manage the subsequent technology of digital infrastructure, he says, and, because it does so, to impose rules which might be antithetical to US values of transparency, range of opinion, interoperability and respect for human rights.

“Over the last 10 to 15 years, [the US] leadership role has eroded and our leverage to establish standards and protocols reflecting our values has diminished,” Mr Warner informed a webinar in September. “As a result others, but mostly China, have stepped into the void to advance standards and values that advantage the Chinese Communist party.”

“Communist party leaders are developing a model of technological governance that . . . would make Orwell blush,” Mr Warner added, referring to George Orwell, the British author of the dystopian novel 1984.

Such points are exercising others in Washington too. Two congressmen, David Schweikert and Ami Bera, launched bipartisan laws referred to as the Ensuring American Leadership Over International Standards Act in June to fee a examine on China’s affect within the setting of worldwide know-how requirements.

Graphic showing the number of ‘smart city’ and ‘safe city’ project deals involving Chinese companies since 2013 (by region)

Military and civil functions

From a US perspective, China’s problem derives from three important areas. First, it’s creating world-beating know-how in a number of rising areas, resembling 5G telecoms and AI. Second, because it exports this know-how — usually to greater than 100 nations that take part within the Belt and Road Initiative — it’s nurturing adherence to a distinctly Chinese set of requirements and protocols. Third, Beijing is boosting its affect within the UN and different standards-setting our bodies to reinforce the pursuits of its personal firms.

Yang Guang, a Beijing-based senior analyst at Strategy Analytics, a consultancy, says China has lengthy been focused on elevating the profile of its know-how requirements. “It is just that foreigners didn’t pay attention before,” he says, naming as examples TD-SCMA and WAPI, two telecoms requirements that largely didn’t catch on greater than a decade in the past.

The Chinese authorities is working in the direction of a requirements masterplan — China Standards 2035 — which Beijing was anticipated to publish earlier than the top of this 12 months. The technique is predicted to set out standardisation objectives for essential next-generation applied sciences. It can also be because of emphasise the crucial to strengthen China’s function in requirements organisations, analysts say.

“The strategy will also focus on standards to facilitate civil-military fusion — a concept that has gained considerable traction in China and has caused a stir in strategic communities overseas, particularly in Washington,” wrote analysis fellow John Seaman in a report this 12 months for the French Institute of International Relations and the Policy Center for the New South.

Military-civil fusion is a plan to make use of the most effective of civilian analysis and improvement to bolster the technological capacities of the People’s Liberation Army. The drive is led by Mr Xi himself, who heads the Commission for Military-Civil Fusion Development. It is believed to focus on civilian advances in “dual use” areas resembling quantum computing, huge knowledge, semiconductors, 5G and AI, however concrete initiatives are shrouded in secrecy.

“China’s greatest potential lies in areas where standards have yet to be collectively developed and defined,” Mr Seaman says. “It can roll out technologies using Chinese standards in foreign markets, creating ‘facts on the ground’.”

Digital silk highway

Crucial to the aim of popularising Chinese requirements abroad is the Belt and Road Initiative, which Mr Zhao described in a weblog on the ITU’s web site as holding “so much promise”.

The BRI is usually seen as an enormous Chinese programme to construct roads, railways, ports, airports and different types of infrastructure in largely creating nations. But this portrayal overlooks a key level. The BRI can also be a method of diffusing Chinese applied sciences — and the requirements they function on — throughout the creating world by developing what Beijing calls a “digital silk road”.

Zhao Houlin of the UN’s telecoms agency has defended Huawei against US accusations that its equipment can be used for espionage, saying 'up to now there is no proof'
A Huawei brand in Belgrade, Serbia. Zhao Houlin of the UN’s telecoms company has defended the corporate towards US accusations that its tools can be utilized for espionage © Marko Djurica/Reuters

“The Chinese authorities has been actively selling its internet and cyber governance playbook in lots of creating nations, most lately by leveraging 5G connectivity and good metropolis tasks alongside the digital silk highway,” says Rebecca Arcesati, an analyst at Merics, a Berlin-based think-tank.

“Smart cities” are a spotlight of this requirements diffusion effort as a result of they incorporate so many rising applied sciences. The facial recognition programs, huge knowledge evaluation, 5G telecoms and AI cameras that go into creating good cities are all applied sciences for which requirements stay up for grabs. Thus good cities, which automate a number of municipal features, symbolize a giant prize for China’s requirements drive.

“China is setting standards from the bottom-up through widespread export and foreign adoption of its technology,” says Jonathan Hillman, an analyst at CSIS, a Washington-based think-tank. “A rustic resembling Serbia may not sit down and determine they need to undertake Chinese requirements, however after enough purchases and deals, they may find yourself with Chinese requirements. There is the chance of lock-in, a degree after which switching turns into too pricey.”

Serbia is only one of many nations that has signed as much as a Chinese-installed good metropolis package deal full with surveillance cameras provided by Hikvision, an organization blacklisted by the US due to suspected human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Indeed, the good metropolis package deal is proving immensely fashionable for governments that want to automate providers resembling site visitors administration, sewage programs and public security whereas conserving a detailed eye on what its persons are as much as.

According to analysis by RWR Advisory, a Washington-based consultancy, Chinese firms have executed 116 offers to put in good metropolis and “safe city” packages all over the world since 2013, with 70 of those going down in nations that additionally take part within the Belt and Road Initiative. The important distinction between “smart” and “safe” metropolis tools is that the latter is meant primarily to surveil and monitor the inhabitants, whereas the previous is primarily aimed toward automating municipal features whereas additionally incorporating surveillance features.

Cities in western and southern Europe collectively signed as much as a complete of 25 such “smart” and “safe” tasks, in accordance with RWR Advisory. Cities in south-east Asia and the Middle East have been additionally key recipients, taking 16 and 15 respectively.

Andrew Davenport, chief working officer at RWR Advisory, says good cities open the door to a collection of dangers. “Smart cities basically improve the draw back threat significantly of cyber intrusions or abuses, each by way of knowledge safety and cyber security,” he says. “The cyber risk that is associated with entities that are subject to Chinese laws and governance structures is amplified in this environment.”

People pass facial recognition cameras at Peking University. China's growing influence in global IT standards-setting bodies is facing a US backlash, while the EU is likely to be squeezed by competing superpower ambitions
People move facial recognition cameras at Peking University. China’s rising affect in international IT standards-setting our bodies is dealing with a US backlash, whereas the EU is more likely to be squeezed by competing superpower ambitions © Thomas Peter/Reuters
Chinese school children learn about artificial intelligence technology in Haian City. Some measure of global division is possible in semiconductors, AI and other areas where US-China rivalry is intense
Chinese college youngsters find out about synthetic intelligence know-how in Haian City. Some measure of worldwide division is feasible in semiconductors, AI and different areas the place US-China rivalry is intense © Costfoto/Barcroft Media/Getty

Alongside these export strikes designed to inculcate its know-how requirements, China can also be lively in signing political agreements to the identical finish.

The 2019 China Standardisation Development annual report, an official doc, makes clear that selling Chinese know-how requirements is a BRI precedence. As of 2019, some 85 standardisation co-operation agreements with 49 nations and areas had been signed, although scant literature exists on the depth and particular contents of such agreements.

Institutional push

Not content material with forging bilateral agreements alongside the Belt and Road, China can also be making an attempt to influence multilateral requirements businesses to recognise its rising clout.

As lately as 2007, China was a minnow within the International Organization for Standardization, one of many world’s main standards-setting our bodies, with 164 member nations. Back then, it had sparse illustration on the all-important technical committees and subcommittees that do a lot to determine which requirements to undertake.

But in 2008, Beijing managed to win a spot because the sixth everlasting member of the ISO’s council and in 2013 it grew to become a everlasting member of its technical administration board, alongside the US, Japan, the UK, Germany and France. In 2015, the organisation acquired its first Chinese president when Zhang Xiaogang, a former metal business government, was chosen for a three-year time period.

© Andrew Harnik/Pool/Reuters

It has been an identical story on the 88-member International Electrotechnical Commission, an organisation that publishes requirements on all digital objects. China’s affect on the IEC has grown steadily, culminating within the appointment in January of Shu Yinbiao — who can also be chairman of the State Grid Corporation of China — as president of the IEC. Mr Zhao completes the image as head of the ITU, which he is because of lead till 2023.

The elevated illustration has had a marked impact on China’s standards-setting clout. As of March 2019, as an example, China had proposed 11 requirements for the web of issues inside the ISO/IEC framework, of which 5 had been adopted and revealed and 6 have been nonetheless pending assessment, Mr Seaman mentioned.

State Grid Corporation of China has additionally pulled off a coup. The IEC has agreed to tackle co-ordinating requirements for an idea referred to as Global Energy Interconnection, which basically goals to create enormous grids of energy cables that run between nations and continents. If the thought will get off the bottom it may immediately profit State Grid, which is the global leader in making ultra-high voltage transmission traces.

The build-up of such institutional firepower in these standards-setting our bodies is a positive signal that China is about to wield far more affect over international technological requirements. But equally as positive is that the backlash from Washington is constructing. Europe, for its half, is more likely to be squeezed by competing superpower ambitions.

“The non-transparent and authoritarian way in which China is going about data security management at home undermines trust in its standards and platforms abroad,” says Merics analyst Ms Arcesati. “On the opposite hand, the present US technique is actually equating knowledge safety with a complete and unilateral decoupling from Chinese know-how within the digital area.

“This places Europe is a particularly troublesome place,” she provides.

The worst-case state of affairs, as described by Mr Seaman, is of a rising technological divide. If worldwide collaboration on requirements grinds to a halt, it may create opposing know-how blocs that don’t discuss to one another. “Think of it almost like trying to connect with someone on [Tencent’s] WeChat by using Facebook, but on an industrial scale.”

Mr Davenport sees an identical threat. “If the US does engage more proactively in trying to confront Chinese influence over standard-setting bodies . . . it could lead China to explore creating parallel alternatives. This could ultimately result in a more bifurcated arena on industrial standards.”

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