China veteran Kaiser Kuo discusses the relations between the US and China, and here focuses on the splintering of the internet, at a wide-ranging interview at the Wire China. “I also think we need to recognize that our worries are more about us than they are about China. We have in this country a real problem with surveillance capitalism, as it’s been called,” says Kaiser Kuo.
Given that first narrative switch you described — the now-accepted idea that technology has not led to a more open political system in China — many people talk about the splintering of the global internet. Do you think a splintering is inevitable?
To some extent, we have to recognize that there has already been a splintering when it comes to a lot of popular services on the internet. A lot of that owes to China’s very severe regime of internet censorship. But I worry about the United States accepting this as a norm and simply going along with it and imposing these same types of objectionable ideas that run so counter to our core values. I think the impact of it is not so much economic as it is moral, and it would be a betrayal of our values to embrace this. I think we should all be working to have a more open internet rather than acquiescing, and proactively helping it toward this other outcome — a splintered, fragmented, and decoupled internet.
I also think we need to recognize that our worries are more about us than they are about China. We have in this country a real problem with surveillance capitalism, as it’s been called. Our concerns over Chinese tech have been amplified in large measures by our worries about how American tech companies are treating our data, and following our every click online and targeting us with greater and greater precision.
Let me put it this way: the Trump administration and its moves against companies like Tencent’s WeChat and Bytedance’s TikTok were clearly never about national security. They were never about data privacy. We’ve seen that now. It’s clear, at least to me, that they were about this broader project of suppressing China’s technology prowess, and were very much of a piece with what we’ve done with Huawei. There are important differences between them, of course. And I think from a national security point of view, you could certainly make a stronger case for Huawei being of concern. But when you look at WeChat, which has users only in the single digit millions in the United States, almost all of them are either Americans with strong connections to China or are Chinese nationals or ethnic Chinese. That national security case is very weak. With TikTok, it’s almost laughable.
The WeChat and TikTok ban is a good example of how many American lawmakers view the U.S.-China tech competition as a zero-sum game. Are there areas where you could imagine productive cooperation in technology between the two countries?
I think if you look back over the last 30 years, cooperation in technology has been fantastically fruitful. Let’s start with immigration policy. The Trump administration is going after H-1B visas and trying to restrict the ability of ethnically Chinese scientists, researchers or technologists to participate in research in the United States. All these things are shooting ourselves in the foot and surrendering, or deliberately blowing up, what is probably the single greatest advantage that this country has had in technology. You only have to look at the great companies of Silicon Valley, Seattle, or Boston, and look at a list of the surnames to realize what kind of contribution is being made by people who the Trump administration’s Department of Justice is targeting through its China initiative, that Homeland Security is trying to prevent from entering this country, and that the Trump administration is attempting to demonize. Part of productive technology cooperation would be stopping this utterly feckless policy and reversing it. We can do that and still protect American national security interests if we put a little more trust into the natural immune system of an open society.
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