Xinhua reported yesterday on a new “Digital China” plan issued by the Central Committee and State Council which was reprinted on page one of People’s Daily today: “Plan for the Global Layout of Digital China Construction” (数字中国建设整体布局规划). It is important. But let me explain why.
The new plan has been described in PRC English-language media as an “unveiling” and as a “blueprint,” all suggesting that there is something new here.
Digital China is a blueprint. But it is Xi Jinping’s blueprint for digital transformation of socialist modernization, and it is certainly not new.
Digital China (not digital China) was elevated to a national strategy in 2017 at the 19th Party Congress and has a personal history with Xi Jinping dating back 23 years.
The plans’s content, with two exceptions which I will highlight below, has long been part of Digital China’s overall structure. The 2035 timeline has been part of Central Party School instruction on Digital China for several years, and every element of the plans’s “2522 Global (整体) Framework,” are long established components of Digital China’s “ends, ways, and means,” including the international component.
So what’s truly new? Only two things:
The 2025 date is new. But it is the end date for a centrally-directed acceleration of Digital China’s infrastructure programs from earlier this year, reflected in both the NDRC 2023 Central Budget and bond issues for digital infrastructure at the local level in January. The new plan provides focus for this effort and highlights those portions of the Digital China strategy which are to receive emphasis during the current surge. This is standard practice for Digital China.
But what is surprisingly new is the external media focus. This is the first time I have seen Digital China highlighted in PRC English-language media in this way, and as a program. I can find examples of Digital China in English, but it is rare and mostly characterized by mistranslation or mischaracterization. The evolution of Digital China, first as Xi’s personal vision, and then as a national strategy, has been largely under wraps for a decade.
The other aspect that is new is the propaganda effort to swing the (or build a new) Digital China narrative on the strategy’s international component: “We will expand the space for international cooperation in the digital field, [and] actively participate in digital cooperation platforms under multilateral frameworks … [and] build a new platform for open cooperation in the digital field with high quality.”
Although overlapping with the truth, the entirety of the media narrative is inconsistent with Digital China’s theoretical origins, party definition, and current execution, as laid out in authoritative PRC sources.
Although only correlation and not causation, I will also highlight that this first-ever external media campaign on Digital China follows increased research and writing on Digital China, laying out its history, goals, and structure.
We must understand Xi’s Digital China to understand his vision for China’s future. That’s what the party tells cadre. It’s true for us too.
Update March 14, 2023: The word "Guideline" was converted to the word "Plan" in this post. See translation note.
Update March 7, 2023: Zac Haluza just published a useful and well-crafted summary of the new Digital China plan and wider Digital China program, "Building a Digital China," in his Root Access newsletter. It is well worth your time.
Update March 3, 2023: Many thanks to DigiChina for publishing a full, reviewed translation of the new plan. You can find it here. The DigiChina translation is far superior to my lightly edited DeepL translation of the plan that was posted here previously. I do have several differences with the DigiChina translation of the new plan that are worth highlighting, see translation note.