Here’s the bottom-line up front: If you work digital policy in any government, read up now on Digital China, synchronize awareness and thinking with your colleagues, then start getting your talking points together. Depending on where you stand, you might be in for a bumpy ride. Digital China is going global. And when you hear this kind of language for the first time from a PRC colleague, “Build an open and win-win pattern of international cooperation in the digital field” (建设开放共赢的数字领域国际合作格局), the ride has begun.
There has been a flood of assessments and commentaries since last Friday (I’ve read nearly 60 so far) on the new plan for Digital China, including two important commentaries on Digital China penned by long time Xi ally Zhuang Rongwen. Zhuang leads the Cyberspace Administration of China (both sides, party and state) and he is deputy director in the Central Propaganda Department. His relationship with Xi on Digital China dates back more than 20 years to its origins in Fujian province. His commentaries on Digital China are infrequent but a very important source of insights on where Digital China is heading.
Zhuang is viewed by party commentators as speaking for Xi on Digital China, and two Digital China commentaries penned by Zhuang within days of each other may be a first. One of Zhuang’s commentaries is in the party theoretical journal Study Times and looks at Chinese Style Modernization broadly, including Digital China’s role in supporting it. This is a core aspect of the Marxist theory that Digital China stands on. Zhuang other’s commentary is in the party mouthpiece People’s Daily and looks at the new plan itself, and how it supports Chinese Style Modernization. Notice the repeating theme – Digital China + Chinese Style Modernization – it’s important.
At the onset, it’s also important to emphasize again that the plan is new, but there is nothing new about Digital China itself. Digital China is a strategy in evolution (for more than a decade), with regular accelerations (both targeted and whole system) and expansions (both targeted and whole system), but its overall structure has remained consistent. My working hypothesis is that the new plan is the first concrete expression of decisions made on Digital China at the 20th Party Congress last October. Like the 19th Party Congress, Digital China was only lightly referenced in the 20th Party Congress political report. The decisions made at the 19th Party Congress would be clarified in the months that followed. I believe that is what we are seeing now.
Today, I’ll only focus on the top five things about the new plan that I’m watching most closely. There are plenty of other details, but we can lay those out later as more information emerges.
(1) A New Global Strategy? Zhuang Rongwen used striking language to explain what the new plan and its 2522 framework are all about, and at the same time likely provided the first public expression of a significant 20th Party Congress outcome: defining a “Global Strategy for Digital China Construction in the New Era” (新时代数字中国建设的整体战略). In short, Digital China, under wraps for ten years, is going global. We don’t have a timeline, but we do have the first supporting propaganda campaign, so it has already started. I know “global” is a non-standard translation for “整体,” but it provides the proper context in this case (see this translation note for a more detailed explanation).
First, based on the evolution in naming conventions for the Digital China strategy itself over the past ten years, Xi’s own language on digital transformation appears to have finally overwritten 40 years of specialized party terminology on national informatization. Digital China is no longer the strategy supervising national informatization. National informatization is the process supporting Digital China.
Second, Digital China has always been defined theoretically by its transformative/competitive and domestic/international roles. For the past ten years, the overwhelming focus has been the transformative/domestic. Now that is changing. Zhuang’s single, authoritative reference (along with the plan and its 2522 framework) describe Digital China shifting from an “overall (总体) strategy for national informatization” to a “global (整体) strategy for Digital China.” This shift also correlates with the plan’s new external narrative highlighting an “an open and win-win pattern of international cooperation in the digital field.” If you’ve read the Pacific Forum paper on Digital China, these changes will make you pause. Xi’s two-decade old vision for Digital China continues to rise and expand.
(2) Where is Xi? Significant public accelerations and expansions of Digital China in the past have been touched (or even driven) personally by Xi Jinping in some way: inspections, letters, speeches, or statements. It is his strategy after all. We have not seen that yet for this plan. Perhaps it is no longer necessary, but I anticipate something is coming, which will provide us greater clarity on the points that follow below. What we can say for now is, based on the level and amount of commentary, the current surge is at least as significant as the one personally led by Xi at the onset of the COVID pandemic.
(3) Digital Systems, Not Digital Infrastructure. This is not an expansion of the Belt and Road Initiative or the Digital Silk Road. Although overlapping, those are lower-level strategies serving a different purpose. Digital China is a national-level developmental strategy focused on system-level digitalized transformation. As the plan and Zhuang make clear, the global focus of Digital China during this acceleration is on its “ways,” not its “means.” Think about accelerated global marketing of digital government services, e-commerce applications, virtual libraries, intelligent mining, smart healthcare — and the data management systems and digital infrastructure that they ride on. The list is nearly endless. (I’ve been cataloging such “systems” for ten years as each has been introduced, tested in provinces and localities, and then implemented.) I’ve wondered why the party narrative on extending China’s massive National Smart Education Platform overseas has picked up considerably in past months. Now I know. If you didn’t like Confucius Institutes, you are going to like the Smart Education Platform even less. And remember, all of this is designed to present a new model of Chinese-style modernization as an alternative to the “ill-focused and failed” capitalist model for modernization that now exists. The real competition is on.
(4) Cadre/Official Performance. One of the primary focuses in PRC commentary on the new plan is its reference to holding party cadre and government officials accountable for the success of Digital China construction through assessment and evaluation. That has been very much part of the Digital China program from the start, but now it takes on a much more serious tone. I can only think that the current Digital China drive is part of Beijing’s response to deepening technology competition with the U.S. Providing the digitalized/informatized conditions for building talent, innovation, and “new-type industrialization” are also core components of Digital China. To ensure there is no doubt on what is expected, the plan is now part of a public/cadre education campaign, including teaching graphics, breaking the plan down by its useful “2522” mnemonic slogan. (I even find it useful.) I’ve used my favorite “2522” teaching graphic (from People’s Daily Online) as the lead image for this post. I’ll post the translated version of the graphic in the Digital China Tracker. For now, read about the “2522” breakdown in this new translation of the plan from DigiChina. (My personal thanks to DigiChina for a very quick turnaround!) Make it more interesting for yourself and compare the “2522” breakdown to the top-level design of Digital China as you read the plan.
(5) What’s Up and What’s Down? Financial analysts across China are already sorting through the details and numbers to determine which Digital China systems/technology will be the new focus. Making money off these accelerations and expansions has long defined Digital China. This expansion will include both “infrastructure” (New Type Infrastructure has been part of Digital China’s domestic and international construction for some time) and “systems.” I’ll start writing both up, but the focus of this expansion overseas is systems and applications. There is one puzzler though. The new plan (and Zhuang’s commentary) makes clear that the focus domestically remains on building a “Data Element Resource System” and the “Aorta,” Xi’s own slogan for Information Infrastructure. But one of Digital China’s “means,” quite surprisingly, is dropped: the information and communications technology (ICT) industrial ecosystem. It certainly does not mean that it is not important, other “means” were not part of previous accelerations, only that it is not part of the current acceleration. I am not sure why, but I’ll be looking for clues.
This post was updated March 14, 2023: The word “Guideline” was converted to the word “Plan.” See translation note.