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In technology, where China leads, the rest of the world follows

From drones to surveillance, Beijing expands what is possible

Drones, with their civilian and military applications, can give rise to both amazement and alarm. (Nikkei Montage/ Source photo by Reuters and Getty Images) 

On New Year’s Eve, residents of Shanghai were apparently treated to a dazzling show produced not by the traditional display of fireworks over the Huangpu river but by 2,000 drones illuminating the night sky with lights, shapes, a constellation-like running man (symbolizing "Shanghai’s achievements," according to a government video) and, at the stroke of midnight, the Chinese characters urging viewers to follow their dreams.

No country has been more successful at producing drones to astonish its people than China, thanks to makers such as Shenzhen-based DJI. But at the same time, drones have far more malign capabilities. Like so many other technologies today, drones -- with civilian and military (mis) applications -- can give rise to both amazement and alarm.

In fact, it turns out that the New Year's eve display never happened. Instead the video footage that was widely braodcast was recorded at a practice run on Dec.28, the BBC has reported.

Without doubt other countries will follow China’s lead when it comes to all the uses of drones, if not to the fake broadcast of an earlier display. Indeed, over recent months it has become ever more obvious in most aspects of technology that China is a forerunner -- not an outlier. Much of what China now has will eventually make its way to all countries.

It is not only in drone technology where China is at the leading edge -- take facial recognition and surveillance. Video shot along the Bund waterfront in Shanghai on Dec. 31 showed nobody crossing the street except at designated places. Why would they when cameras placed strategically along the way would screen the transgressor’s face, identify him or her and then deduct points from the offender’s social credit rating?

Of course, the most notorious use of surveillance technology in China is in the Xinjiang region, where the central government has created a network of cameras, checkpoints and deep digital databases to spy on and control millions of Uighurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities.

We are now seeing a similar tight grip through technology in India. After his overwhelming mandate in the May general elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has become far more authoritarian.

His government has suspended internet service both in the capital of Delhi and in Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state in the country, and imposed a communications blackout on Jammu and Kashmir after it revoked the state’s constitution. Technology is facilitating government control and undermining rule of law.

Official Chinese surveillance over the "suspect" population of Muslims in Xinjiang differs little from the surveillance Modi has imposed on the Muslim majority in Kashmir. But the Modi government has gone further than China in some ways, with its sweeping total blocks.

Social credit is another example of where China is leading. Today the system can ban an uncooperative citizen from China’s fast trains and travel abroad; tomorrow, combined with med tech, it might be used to deny people the right to have even a single child on the basis that that child will be substandard by some government-determined measure.

China may still lag the U.S. when it comes to producing semiconductor chips. But in many spheres, from artificial intelligence and the life sciences to 5G and quantum computing, China is leapfrogging the U.S., in part because no country has more data -- and more access to that data -- than the mainland.

Other countries are trying to copy China’s massive data collection. In December, The New York Times reported that chat app ToTok -- not to be confused with video app TikTok -- was "a spying tool... used by the government of the United Arab Emirates to try to track every conversation, movement, relationship, appointment, sound and image of those who install it on their phones."

This also begs the question of how close the relationship between governments and technology companies is.

Despite the protestations of Huawei’s founder Ren Zhengfei, any tech company in China is subject to the will of Beijing, making the distinction between state or party and company essentially meaningless.

In the U.S., by contrast, company executives can and do stand up to requests from Washington, as Apple’s chief executive, Tim Cook, did in refusing to put in a back door on Apple-made cellphones. Of course, this was partly out of self-interest given Apple’s international presence -- including on the mainland.

That is not to say tech companies in the U.S. are therefore more trustworthy or less insidious than governments. Governments and companies on both sides of the Pacific use their customers’ data for their own ends. Privacy everywhere, including in Europe, is one of the first casualties of technology. The question is whether other governments want to or can ape China’s close control.

There is an irony in China’s current technological leadership. Its success was in taking over the model which was pioneered by the U.S. and then developed by Israel, where the military, leading academic research centers and companies work together to produce technological advances. China, being a follower, learned to be a leader.

Over the course of 2020 it will become clearer whether the rest of the world follows China’s new lead more closely -- and quite what positive or damaging things that lead enables.

Henny Sender is the Financial Times' chief correspondent for international finance, based in Hong Kong, and contributes occasional columns to the Nikkei Asian Review.

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