There seems to be a lot going on, right now, regarding China and data. There have been two major domestic policy announcements in the past ten days, and preparations for a major international event are ongoing, all related to data.

Are the three events themselves related? Let’s take a quick look.

You might have seen Chinese news reports on the new plan for China’s national-level Digital China strategy. This is Xi’s personal strategy, and the new plan is designed, in part, to formalize Digital China’s international component for the first time. The plan also calls for a renewed effort to facilitate the “circulation of data resources.” While there are other features in the new plan, these two stand out, particularly for this discussion.

We’re also learning about a new proposal coming out of the 14th National People’s Congress to establish a National Data Bureau (国家数据局) under the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), which currently supervises the execution of Digital China’s “means,” including construction of the National Data Element Resource System (体系). Under the new proposal, the National Data Bureau would assume Digital China functions that were previously assigned to its new parent, the NDRC. The National Data Bureau would also assume Digital China functions that were previously assigned to the Office of the Central Commission for Cybersecurity and Informatization.

Most important, the new proposal reflects the centrality of data governance and data control to Xi Jinping’s vision for Digital China. In the future, data central for Digital China looks to be the National Data Bureau.

Also, next month China will host the Fourth UN World Data Forum between 24-27 April in Hangzhou, Zhejiang. Although perhaps coincidental, Xi Jinping launched “Digital Zhejiang” in 2003 while serving as Zhejiang party secretary. The location is now considered to be the birthplace of China’s first efforts at the digitalized transformation of industry and manufacturing. In this context, “digitalized” refers to finding ways to add value to data.

The Leading Party Members Group at the National Bureau of Statistics, an agency directly subordinate to the State Council, is driving the PRC effort to ensure that the UN event is a success. Along with its co-host, Zhejiang province, meetings and taskings for the event began to accelerate in January this year. Among these tasks, the selection of the motto for the UN event was finally chosen. Out of the 710 proposals submitted (160 from the UN and 550 from China), the Leading Party Members Group found the perfect choice: “Embracing Data for a Win-Win Future” (拥抱数据 共赢未来). Now I’m just guessing here, but I suspect that this motto was one of China’s submissions. (See the UN World Data Forum website for a complete view of the UN forum and its laudable goals.)

Interestingly, if we compare the Communist Party-selected UN motto with the motto selected to support the new Digital China plan (and its new international focus), there’s a similarity: “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). Truth be told, this sort of win-win language is commonly used by the party, so it might just be coincidence. There’s no way to know for sure. But I am still suspicious.

Previously though, I speculated that the new Digital China plan may be the first concrete expression of decisions made on Digital China at the 20th Party Congress last October. So, one must wonder, could there be a connection between the Fourth UN World Data Forum and the 20th Party Congress that could help us tie all these pieces together?

In fact, Xi Jinping only raises “Digital China” and “data” once each in his political report to the congress. The two terms are not linked together, and he offers little context about either. No help there.  All we have left to assist us, possibly, is the Leading Party Members Group at the National Bureau of Statistics.

I checked the speech directory of Kang Yi (康义), who runs both the National Bureau of Statistics and its Leading Party Members Group, and there was indeed a tie between the two, repeated in several different ways: “The success of the Fourth UN World Data Forum is a specific action (具体行动) taken by the National Bureau of Statistics to study and implement the spirit of the 20th Party Congress.” But how can the forum be a “specific action” if the word “data” only comes up once loosely in Xi’s political report? Something else we’ll never know.

So are these three events related? At a minimum they reflect policy outcomes linked to Beijing’s high interest in using data intelligence to drive social and economic development, and to elevate national competitiveness. To reach these goals, the party seeks to build the world’s first nationally-integrated system of rules, institutions, and technology to comprehensively manage big data and its intelligent application. This is a central priority, well-coordinated at the national level, and it is accelerating. 

At the most basic level, we know that the current domestic focus on data is governance and control. We also know the international focus, as Kang Yi reminds us, is to ensure that the developing global regime does not constrain China’s interests just as its data element market is entering a phase of “high-speed development.”

We can’t say whether China’s data plan will be successful, even the party calls the task “monumental” and “complex.” We also don’t have a near complete picture of how such a system would be organized and operate, and I suspect neither does China. However, a new Digital China plan, a proposed bureaucratic reorganization, and an upcoming international data forum with ill-defined ties to party objectives (on data?) provide evidence that the effort is quite comprehensive and quite real.

My main interest in all of this is to ensure that our leaders recognize the seriousness, size, and speed of the party’s plan for data, evaluate what risks – if any – that it carries, and build an informed response together with our allies and partners that serve the greater good.

That sounds like a monumental and complex task too. I hope we’re accelerating.