THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C.
Dr. David Dorman and Dr. John Hemmings present their report “Digital China: The Strategy and Its Geopolitical Implications.”
MODERATOR: Good afternoon, everybody. We’re letting folks come in. I see that audio is being connected. My name is Jed Wolfington. I’d like to welcome you to this afternoon’s briefing at the Foreign Press Center. Just a friendly reminder that today’s briefing is on the record. We will post a transcript and video of the briefing on our website, fpc.state.gov, at the end of the day. We ask that you put your name – full name – your outlet, and the country where your audience is in the name section of the Zoom.
So today we are very honored to welcome two distinguished scholars joining us from the great state of Hawaii. Dr. Dave Dorman and Dr. John Hemmings of the Pacific Forum will be presenting their findings on Digital China and Xi Jinping’s digital strategy for China. We suspect that their findings will be of great interest, particularly for those of you who cover the intersection of technology and geopolitics.
Just a reminder that the views of the briefers are their own and not those of the U.S. Government.
So thank you very much, gentlemen. Welcome. And I’d like to now invite Dr. John Hemmings to share his findings. John, welcome.
MR HEMMINGS: Well, thank you so much, Jed, and thank you to everyone for taking the time today to join us. This has been a long labor of love for my colleague and I, Dave Dorman. We’ve been working on this project for about 18 months, and so the briefing today will reflect some of our findings. And as we note, they’re not from just yesterday. We’ve been really working on this for a while.
Just to let you know, two days ago a slew of articles appeared in the Chinese state media. I encourage you to look at them. In the China Daily, the Global Times, the South China Morning Post, Xinhua – all essentially addressing a new announcement from the state council and the central committee of the CCP, essentially making a guidance note on Digital China. I think the article from South China Morning Post is very interesting and useful in terms of an overarching understanding of what that is, but I want to point out that these articles were essentially the first real push in the English-language media from China, but that the Chinese media and the Chinese state and the Chinese party have been working on Digital China for some years. In fact, we track it all the way back to 2012, but really it has emerged to become a very important strategy.
And if I can go to the slides. I can’t see if we’re on the second slide, but if I can ask that we can go to the primary findings of our paper that would be wonderful. So, yeah, what are we here to tell you about and what are the sort of important headlines from our perspective? As I said, all of the state media have suddenly started telling the world about Digital China, but actually you can find our report online. We say it first, and we’re not the party, so hopefully we’re saying it neutrally and without bias.
This is an overall, national-level digital strategy, not technology strategy. It’s a digital strategy that drives all efforts within China, not – it’s – this is not just a industrial strategy. It is not just a technology sector strategy. This covers every area: political, economic, military, even foreign policy, and China’s place in the world.
And so why have we not heard about it and why was the Chinese press not writing about it in English until two days ago? We’re not sure. My colleague Dave and I think that there’s just – it’s just been quietly hidden in plain view. The fact is the Chinese media inside China has been educating the party, the people, and the population about the importance of this strategy for a number of years, and the last two or three years during COVID was a particularly intense education campaign – daily articles, journal pieces in party journals, and a lot of articles reflecting on decisions made at the standing committee level or the state council level and speeches by Xi Jinping.
So why has it been hidden? We’re not quite sure, but it’s now emerging. And so you’re – as journalists, you’re on the cutting edge, we think, of the second largest economy is suddenly announcing that it has this grand digital strategy. So we’re all rushing to find out what does it mean.
Why is it important – it’s just not another strategy? Xi Jinping has personally supported this strategy. The strategy name, Digital China or Building Digital China, has been around since 2012, but he actually has been thinking about this idea of data and the importance of data in government and in powering China as a great power. Since the 2000s when he was governor of Fujian province, he sort of co-opted an academics campaign called Digital Fujian. And so even to this day, you can see the connection, the intellectual line between Fujian and Digital China with Xi Jinping as its architect.
The strategy has absolutely – as we say, it’s a digital strategy, but it’s also a deeply ideological strategy. And what do we mean by that? In essence, Xi Jinping views the arrival of the age of data – of course, we call it the new oil; some people call it the new oil – but he views it in a very Marxist historical, materialist lens, which means that he – like the steam engine essentially set the pattern and social structure of the Industrial Revolution and of capitalism, data is going to have that impact on society and create the sort of structure of society in a new way. And so Xi Jinping wants China to be ahead of that coming revolution, that coming data revolution. And for that reason, the party have gone so far as to rewrite Marxist economic theory, and data has now officially been made a factor of production. This has actually been revealed in English-language news, but what’s not known is that that was connected to this wider Digital China campaign.
So final two points and then we’re going to really open it back up to questions because we don’t want to talk too much at you. So, so far we’ve just been talking about strategy and the party design, top-level design meaning that it’s all-encompassing, but where’s the meat? Where’s the beef? What’s the actual reality of this strategy on the ground?
Well, the reality is that multiple provinces, state government, hundreds of agencies who are all budgeting, resourcing, and working in the name of Digital China, there is in fact a physical manifestation, an infrastructural manifestation of Digital China called New Type Infrastructure. It’s a way of realizing Digital China. So if you think of Digital China as the vision, and New Type Infrastructure is the sort of – a way of getting there. We’ll show you on the next page a sort of map of that. But $2.7 trillion over five years has been earmarked, so this is not an insignificant policy. And we argue it’s bigger than Belt and Road Initiative, it’s bigger than Silk Road, it’s bigger than Made in China 2025. It’s an all-encompassing, overall strategy that we’re just starting to learn the scale and scope.
And why is it a digital grand strategy? That’s our expression. The party doesn’t call it a grand strategy or digital grand strategy. We call it that because it’s all-encompassing, that it has foreign and domestic; it’s about changing China’s place in the international system to win the future and to compete more greatly with the Western powers and other powers. But it’s also about establishing, inside China, using all these digital infrastructures, these technologies – information highway, supercomputer network, satellite, industrial internet – to establish sort of control over data and a relationship between the citizens and the government that is, through the lens of Marxism, codified into data hierarchy and data usage.
So I’m not sure it makes a lot of sense. It doesn’t sound very English. We’re struggling ourselves with how these party terms actually translate on the ground. If you look at this – a couple of books on the side that show you some – there’s some textbooks that have been put out there and some magazines that essentially talk about 2035 being the date when Digital China should be realized, and you also have sort of Digital China wins the future – it’s all about the competition.
If you look at this wonderful information graph that my colleague Dave created, which I think says a huge amount, you can see Digital China strategy is in the center, and he’s broken it down into an ends, ways, and means, with supporting and driving effects. It’s quite complex, but we really encourage you to look at this graph over time, perhaps not so much now but after the session. You can see just the drivers are about intelligent data and about the forces of production. That’s pushing things along. Supporting Digital China has been these other strategies, which you will have – you will have knowledge of: Cyber Great Power strategy, national big data strategy, military-civil fusion strategy. Those are all familiar for you. They support now the Digital China strategy, and as you can see, the means, ends, and ways – I won’t read out everything to you.
But yeah, it’s a somewhat flat system. There’s no hierarchy within the system. All of these things are sort of equal.
Dave, do you want to add any more to this graph before we close out?
MR DORMAN: John, no, I think you’ve handled that well. I would say that the fundamental fact that’s presented to Chinese citizens is that Xi Jinping had a profound insight early in his career which he was able to realize after becoming general secretary in 2012. And that was the future competition, the future global competition is going to focus on data, and it’s going to focus specifically on the rules, institutions, and technology that govern that data. And it was imperative that China is the first to reach those goals. And that’s based on, as John described, the predictive elements of Marxism. This new technology, this new technology-intelligent data – whoever realizes those institutions first will be the country that can win the future. It’s a national plan, it’s in execution, and it’s in execution across the entire Chinese society.
MR HEMMINGS: Great. Here’s the – our paper that came out on the 22nd, and you can see some of the Chinese state media that are beginning to handle and discuss this in English. So encourage you to make up your own minds about it. Please read our paper, or at least the executive summary, if you’re interested.
And then finally, some questions that we’ve asked ourself that we need to answer: How does the Marxist view of informatization and modernization count? How is Chinese – the Marxist theory on data and new essential principles on control manifest themselves inside – outside and inside China? In other words, is this a sort of revival of Marxist ideology in the international system? And how important is that to the international society? And then what is the design by which China seeks a digital order, or is it a new global order?
And again, we’re asking a question, number four, which is very common right now, which is the authoritarian aspect inherent in the smart society technology. So smart society is a subsequent step to Digital China.
And finally, five, which I’m – I have something blocking. But anyway, let’s move to the next slide, which is: Any questions, you have my email and a code there, QR code, so you can find the paper yourself and have a look at it, and we’d be happy to take some questions now.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much, John and Dave. Looking for raised hands in the audience. I saw that Pearl Matibe had her hand raised earlier. Pearl, would you like to ask a question? If so —
QUESTION: Yes. Yes, thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you so much. So thank you so much for your presentation; I did find it quite interesting. But what I seem to recall, a few years ago – I want to say in the last five to seven years – certainly there seemed to be a push that – even during COVID, for example – that he, Xi Jinping, definitely had a Twitter strategy where other various locations, geographic locations across the world would sort of proliferate whatever messaging was, for example, coming out of the ministry of foreign affairs. So they have this – and then I think Twitter even went and took down some of those bot-type strategies that seemed to mirror Russian-style tactics.
What I’m keen to try and understand is – and I believe we’ve seen some of the sort of digital strategy to – more like disinformation campaigns on the continent of Africa. Could you please speak specifically to that region, Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa, and what Xi Jinping’s aims are for that region? Thanks.
MR HEMMINGS: Well, thank you so much, Ms. Matibe. That’s a really challenging question for us, because we’ve spent the last 18 months thinking about this strategy inside China, inside the party. But we can tell you two things. One is we are writing two subsequent papers that look at – one is the New Type Infrastructure program, and how that interacts with the Belt and Road Initiative, which of course does have overseas and African connections; and secondly the relationship with Marxism, which – obviously Marxism is a revolutionary for-export ideology, so we’re very curious to pursue that line. We know it’s a little bit controversial. Most people dispel the idea that Marxism is a really driving ideology of China, but we believe that the facts indicate that, whether they believe it or not, they’re using the language of Marxism to structure this strategy.
So those are the two things we can tell you that, again, don’t address directly the information campaign taking out – simply to say that along with the digital age, along with the transfer of data, you’ve seen, I think, Xi Jinping really come to understand discourse power. And I know in – and this is not related to our paper, but I can chat with you offline – you have my email there, john@pacforum – that he views, like technology and the digital area, as sort of – this as a competition that China has to win. And so the party has to be in control of the mechanisms of information, including the Chinese state media. So again, you look at the five papers that all suddenly published the same article two days ago.
How it relates to Africa, of course, is that Africa is viewed strategically by the PRC as a market for its digital infrastructure and for its standards. It’s had a very tough going with U.S., obviously, because of the strategic competition. But even with Europe, it’s struggled to export a lot of its standards because of the closeness – (a) the closeness of the U.S. to Europe, but (b) also the values that it’s trying to push into these standards and technologies, which Europeans, generally speaking, are against.
So I hope that’s helped a little bit answer.
MODERATOR: Thanks for the question, Pearl. Dave, did you have anything to add to that?
MR DORMAN: That’s a really important question. So Digital China is a top-level strategy, as John mentioned. And what it looks at, at this point – this is a program in execution across government. And the two issues that you bring up are actually in discussion now among party members, in party schools, and in party journals. And they break them down this way.
So as China begins to actually implement this program and find ways to organize a system of data management – and that includes data management of the media – they’re asking themselves, and it’s in discussion now, how do we transfer the Digital China program to our international presence in what they refer to as publicity or propaganda?
That is in discussion now. That will be a future paper. It’s not something that’s been implemented. It’s under consideration as the technology is being introduced. So one of the reasons we felt so strongly about getting these papers written is that this is a rare opportunity to understand the programs as they’re being implemented, before they are implemented, where we can ask questions and engage with our colleagues in China to ask, what is the intent? What is happening here?
So regarding your question on the media aspect, Digital China is not a propaganda or a publicity or a media program. Digital China is a program designed to transform the nature of Chinese society, and starting in the last two months, that includes how they look at publicity and propaganda both domestically and internationally. That is in discussion currently.
The second question you bring up is how does this impact Africa? There’s a tendency, when people bring up Digital China, to talk only about the technologies that are being developed. That is not the top-level design. The top-level design is this, that with Xi Jinping’s theoretical insight, China can be digitally transformed as it modernizes and will create a socialist, modernized society that provides an alternative worldwide to capitalism, a superior model.
As John has pointed out, this is a theory, this is a strategy, rooted in Marxism. Xi Jinping’s goal is to produce alternative models based on a superior structure that is driven by technology. This is part of the Chinese dialogue, it’s part of the conversations now, and it’s what we tried to introduce in the paper. It’s dense, particularly for U.S. readers; we’re not used to looking at ideologically driven strategies. But in China this is not unusual. Any top-level design, any top-level strategy is based on a Marxist theorem. In this particular case, it’s Xi Jinping who developed this theorem and the country is executing it in multiple ways.
In terms of your question, both in terms of international discourse, propaganda, publicity, and secondly, in terms of international models that can be offered as alternatives, that’s part of the discussion. I hope that helps.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Dave. I see there is a question from Ra Gore. Ra, you can either ask the question or I can read it from the comments. I’m going to give you a moment in case you’d like —
QUESTION: There’s a noise here. May I – may I ask that you read it? There’s a noise.
MODERATOR: Sure. No problem, no problem. So the question is: “Can you provide more about China’s digitalization of customer service tools and technologies in comparison to the United States?” Specifically, he’d like to know cloud storage and project management software tools and technologies, and how Chinese apply them to their economy. “Do Chinese have any advantage over Americans in those areas?”
MR HEMMINGS: Dave?
MR DORMAN: Do you want to try this one, John?
MR HEMMINGS: I thought I – yeah.
MR DORMAN: No. This is a – it’s a good question. So in terms of – if you’re asking for the names of individual companies and software and programs, message John, and I can provide you those individually. Those are readily available on any Chinese investing financial website. But I think the more important aspect of the question I would bring up, based on the context of what we’re trying to describe, is your question in the context of Digital China.
So a very important, a key aspect of this strategy for Xi Jinping personally is the aspect that the digital transformation of society will help China’s citizens. He has a number of different terms to refer to that, but if you see on the chart that John showed you, under means you’ll see references to digital government, digital economy, digital society. There’s aspects of these programs that I personally would see as authoritarian, but that – but Xi Jinping’s intent is truly to improve the lifestyle of Chinese citizens by the application of digital technology. Major portions of this program are focused on rural revitalization, the provision of services, the digitalization of taxation services, easier access to digital government. This is all part of providing a model, a model of socialist modernism that can compete globally with other models that Beijing describes as capitalist models.
So it’s broader than your question, but I think it’s very important to point out that you’ll see on that chart that John showed you that a very important aspect of this program is – and this is Xi Jinping himself brings this up repeatedly – that people’s livelihood at lower levels of the strategy – Xi Jinping – this strategy actually operates at multiple levels. At lower levels, the trademark is information for the people, how can information be protected, how can the people’s information be protected. It’s a different system of government. It’s a different system of how we would look at data. But there’s no doubt the seriousness of the program and providing services to the population in terms of digital transformation of what they have now.
There is – one of the most interesting aspects that I see is how the Chinese perceive of Digital China is important to the party, because it’s been provided as a – like grading. It’s – it’s graded in terms of party performance. The program in terms of digital government failed miserably for COVID. That was acknowledged by the party. But even in the last two weeks, there’s continual online surveys of Chinese citizens: What do you think of our new digital taxation program? What do you think of this?
This is the party reaching out and say, “How do you see our performance?” This is digital transformation of government in Xi Jinping’s eyes, and he’s quite serious about it. It’s just part of the program, though, but it’s an important part.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Dave. Is there anybody else who would like to ask a question? I’m not seeing any hands raised, but perhaps – in this moment?
Okay. Well if there are no further questions, I’d like to offer our guests an opportunity to offer any concluding remarks, and maybe a little bit about what your future work might entail on this topic.
MR HEMMINGS: Yeah, I’ll quickly say something and then turn it over to Dave. We hope you’ll at least read the executive summary of the paper, as I mentioned, the – and try to look for the China Daily, Global Times, Xinhua, and South China Morning Post articles on Digital China. It’s slowly starting to emerge. I think the more people looking at it, the better, the more we can understand this massive digital grand strategy of China and of Xi Jinping. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you, John. Dave, did you have anything?
MR DORMAN: Oh, I think that wraps it up. I’m happy to say that we’ve had a great deal of interest from people who look at China from around the world, who are beginning to look at this and offering to work with us on writing papers on different aspects of the program. What I’ll tell you is that that first paper at Pacific Forum is just a surface look at this strategy. This is a societal strategy that reaches multiple levels in multiple directions. Many people, I think, will begin writing on this as we all begin to try to understand it.
MODERATOR: Well, I’d like to thank you both for joining us today from Hawaii. It’s a true honor and pleasure. And I’d like to thank all the media representatives who are here, and we hope to be engaged with the Pacific Forum in the future on future reports. Again, this will be available – the transcript will be available on our website, fpc.state.gov. Thank you very much. That concludes our briefing today.