To write of China’s “rise” in artificial intelligence (AI) is no longer unexpected. There has been regular reporting on China’s advances in AI, often highlighting the rapid increases in the numbers of publications and patents, metrics in which China is starting to surpass the U.S., along with the dynamism of major Chinese technology companies, such as Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent (BAT), and a range of start-ups, such as iFlytek. This July, China released the New Generation AI Development Plan (新一代人工智能发展规划), which articulates a highly ambitious agenda for China to “lead the world” in AI by 2030. There have been several predictions of future Chinese predominance in AI based on such factors as the amount of data and talent available. Certainly, such developments are noteworthy and newsworthy. China might very well succeed in becoming the world’s “premier AI innovation center,” if able to overcome current shortcomings in the available talent and to catch up in AI hardware and advanced algorithms.
However, beyond the hype and the headlines, it is important to recognize that the future trajectory of AI in China will inherently be shaped and constrained by the interests and imperatives of the Party-State. While China’s advances in AI can be taken as a sign of its emergence as a powerful nation in science and technology (科技强国), the Chinese leadership’s approach reflects its intent to leverage AI in order to compensate for underlying challenges and shortcomings in its economy and governance. Indeed, the strikingly ambitious agenda in China’s new AI plan reveals Beijing’s tendency to look to AI as a potential panacea for problems that have proven intractable. Just as the Chinese government previously advanced an agenda for “informatization” (信息化) that sought to make use of information technology across China’s society, economy, government, and military, the focus has started to shift to “intelligentization” (智能化), a process through which China seeks to leverage AI to enable the next stage of its development.
As the economy has slowed towards a “new normal,” the CCP has recognized that its future legitimacy, which has depended in large part upon economic performance, may be at risk. Consequently, China’s new strategy for “innovation-driven” development reflects an attempt to avoid the “middle-income trap” that the Chinese economy otherwise confronts. President and CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping himself has highlighted the significance of rapid advances in AI and robotics in this new industrial revolution, in which China may have potential to seize market dominance. Indeed, AI has the potential to enable unprecedented increases in productivity. China could be one of the greatest beneficiaries of the economic contributions of AI, given an expected 26% boost to its GDP by 2030, according to a recent report from PricewaterhouseCoopers. If the Chinese leadership can indeed harness AI as a “new engine” of economic development, then the expansion of new AI industries could act as an impetus “to inject new kinetic energy” into the Chinese economy, thus averting what might otherwise become a major crisis for the CCP.
In particular, as China’s population rapidly ages, and the demographic consequences of the one-child policy become starkly apparent, AI is seen as a potential solution to the attendant labor and human challenges. There has been a discernable dwindling of China’s demographic dividend, contributing to initial labor shortages in factories that are starting to turn to automation. The introduction of service and industrial robots can compensate for an aging workforce, and China seeks to become a global powerhouse in intelligent manufacturing under Made in China 2025. Concurrently, as issues of eldercare are heightened by the lack of a social safety net and resulting reliance of parents upon a single child for sustenance in old age, AI is seen as an opportunity for a quicker and easier fix. For instance, Siasun Robot and Automation Co., Ltd., a leading robot manufacturer, recently launched an intelligent service robot intended to support the needs of the elderly. This introduction of “intelligent eldercare” could enable a higher quality of life for those growing old without able or available human caregivers.
As China faces a range of societal and governance challenges that the CCP may be ill-equipped to resolve, the new plan also reflects an intention to leverage AI to mitigate these problems. China remains at a “decisive stage” of creating a “moderately prosperous” (小康) society, and, as Xi Jinping highlighted in his work report during the 19th Party Congress, the CCP confronts the contradiction between “unbalanced and inadequate” development and the “ever-growing needs” of the people. The scope and scale of applications envisioned for AI reflects the Party’s attempt to take advantage of this technology to resolve issues that might otherwise threaten its legitimacy, which is based on sustaining increases in quality of life to keep pace with rising expectations, a factor often associated with democratic transition. Indeed, China’s new AI plan anticipates that this technology can be applied to a range of sectors and public services, ranging from intelligent learning systems in education to the use of big data for monitoring environmental protection. For China, the challenges of urbanization could be confronted through the construction of smart cities, the demands upon an often still subpar health-care system could be lessened by the use of AI, and even an overburdened judicial system could be rendered more efficient through the use of AI. These anticipated applications are already becoming a reality. For instance, China’s Chief Justice Zhou Qiang (周强) has called for the use of big data and AI in Chinese courts, and a number of Chinese courts, including in Hebei Province, have already started to adopt systems for intelligent assistance to judges.
Although, in the abstract, the Party’s plans to use AI to “enhance the people’s quality of life” is a laudable objective that proponents of “AI for good” would likely endorse, the trajectory of AI development in China will inherently be conditioned by the objectives of the Party-State. These expansive plans for AI applications cannot be separated from this underlying motivation of bolstering the Party’s performance legitimacy—and control. Just as cyberspace has presented a critical hurdle for the CCP to overcome to secure its survival, the Party’s prospects to capitalize upon the AI revolution, while mitigating the potential risks associated with it, could be a key factor for future regime resilience. For these reasons, the CCP seeks to ensure that AI remain “secure, reliable, and controllable” (安全，可靠，可控).