You have probably already read up on last week’s new “Plan for the Overall Layout of Digital China Construction (数字中国建设整体布局规划; see my translation note and the DigiChina full translation of the plan). I didn’t think the national strategy Beijing calls “Digital China,” already more than six years old and tied to Xi Jinping personally, could rise any higher in national importance. In essence, it is already the world’s first digital grand strategy. What’s bigger than that?
I was wrong. It can get bigger.
The new plan specifically calls for the extension of “digitalized development” to the “international environment.” “Digitalized development” is a Communist Party term-of-art (提法) used to describe the digitalized construction of economic, political, cultural, social, and ecological civilization (i.e., Five-Sphere Integrated Plan). Previously reserved for the “domestic environment,” Xi Jinping has extended the same party term-of-art to the “international environment.” In fact, a key purpose of the new plan (and perhaps the key purpose) is to formally incorporate the party’s concept of “global digital development” (全球数字发展) into the top-level design of the Digital China strategy. It is an extraordinary call for international action.
The Plan clarifies that Digital China construction will be structured based on the “2522” Overall Framework,”” namely, strengthen the “Two Foundations” of Digital Infrastructure and the Data Resource System; promote the Deep Fusion of digital technology with economic, political, cultural, social, and ecological civilization to construct the “Five Sphere Integrated Plan;” strengthen the “Two Capabilities” of the Digital Technology Innovation System and Digital Security Barrier; [all of these to] optimize digitalized development in the “Two Environments,” [both] domestic and international.
《规划》明确，数字中国建设按照“2522”的整体框架进行布局，即夯实数字基础设施和数据资源体系“两大基础”，推进数字技术与经济、政治、文化、社会、生态文明建设“五位一体”深度融合，强化数字技术创新体系和数字安全屏障“两大能力”，优化数字化发展国内国际“两个环境”。“The Central Committee and State Council Issue the ‘Plan for the Overall Layout of Digital China Construction‘” (中共中央 国务院印发《数字中国建设整体布局规划》, Xinhua, February 27, 2023.
Even couched in dense theoretical language, this still sounds stunning, and it is. But let me first explain what it means.
Ever since Xi Jinping’s vision for Digital China emerged following the 18th Party Congress in 2012, and even more so following its elevation to a national strategy following the 19th Party Congress in 2017, Digital China has called for the digitalized transformation of Chinese society in support of socialist modernization. This, in turn, would support a digitalized model of modernization, Chinese-Style Modernization, that would provide a competitive, alternative worldwide model to what the party calls “capitalist (i.e., Western-style) modernization.”
In the past this was all mostly theoretical, but now Xi Jinping has called for practical international efforts across all five digitalized spheres to more aggressively market the Chinese model. If you are a bit confused by all this, so are folks in China. Just two weeks ago, the “monumental” and “complex” task of digitalization and informatization was going to take another quarter century. Now, that’s too slow.
Handle the relationship between top-level design and practical exploration well. Promoting Chinese-Style Modernization involves each sphere, including economic, political, cultural, social, and environmental civilization…
处理好顶层设计与实践探索的关系。推进中国式现代化涉及经济、政治、文化、社会、生态文明等各个领域…Dong Zhenhua (董振华), “Continuously Expand and Deepen Chinese-Style Modernization” (不断拓展和深化中国式现代化) , Study Times, February 10, 2023
Until this point, the Digital China timeline paralleled time markers in 2035 and 2049 set out in the party’s grand strategy, the Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation. Xi has moved up the Digital China timeline, added a new time marker, 2025, and called for action.
If you’re thinking this must be all about Xi’s response to deepening technology competition. I’m with you on that one. But the new plan does not mean that the “monumental” and “complex” task just got easier. In fact, it got a lot harder. Xi is just asking for more.
General Secretary Xi Jinping has repeatedly stressed that informatization provides a favorable opportunity for our country to seize the high ground in the new round of development and build new advantages in international competition. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the Chinese nation.
习近平总书记多次强调，信息化为我国抢占新一轮发展制高点、构筑国际竞争新优势提供了有利契机，为中华民族带来了千载难逢的机遇。Zhuang Rongwen (庄荣文), “Thoroughly Implement the Spirit of the 20th Party Congress and Boost Chinese Style Modernization with the Construction of Digital China” (深入贯彻落实党的二十大精神 以数字中国建设助力中国式现代化
庄荣文, People’s Daily, Page 10, March 3, 2023
For additional context, I should also point out that when Xi set deadlines during previous accelerations of Digital China, the result was pretty much a solid “F” on the strategy’s report card. This is all about intent, not short-term success.
Importantly, the overall structure of the Digital China strategy has not changed. But the changes brought by the new plan are significant enough to require a nationwide education campaign to help party cadre and Chinese citizens understand what just happened. These online “explainers” are public and range from simple to complex.
My plan is for all of us to jump onboard the same nationwide campaign so we can learn right along with the cadre.
Today, we’ll start with a simple one. It’s an easy look at the “2522 Overall Framework,” so says the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC). The “2522” is a mnemonic slogan designed to help cadre and citizens understand and remember the essential elements of the new Digital China plan. The framework itself is essentially made up of four bullet points.
The graphic that leads this blog is divided into two sections. On the right side is a copy of a graphic produced by CAC and published on its online educational platform “Cyberspace China.” Explaining new policies is one of platform’s primary functions. The CAC graphic is designed to explain each element of the 2522 framework. You’ll find a translation of the CAC graphic on the left (and a larger version below). Today, all we are going to do is exactly what CAC told all readers to do: study the four main points.
Let’s start at the bottom and work our way up: 2-5-2-2.
First, the “Two Foundations.” “New Type (Digital) Infrastructure” and a “Data Element Resource System” have long been two of the “means” of Digital China. As I noted previously, the “Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Industrial Ecosystem,” is missing in this current acceleration/expansion of the Digital China strategy. Why it’s missing is still a mystery that needs to be solved.
Second, the “Five-Sphere Integrated Plan.” Each of the five spheres is undergoing “deep fusion” (another party term-of-art that we are going to cover in detail later) with digital technology. Once complete, the five spheres are digitally transformed and ready for innovative applications in the “two environments:” domestic and international.
The Plan’s issuance and implementation is to give full play to the driving and leading role of Digital China construction, coordinate and promote the whole process of fusion and application of digital technology in each of economic, political, cultural, social, and ecological civilization spheres, better support High Quality Development in the economy and society, and provide an inexhaustible driving force to promote Chinese Style Modernization.
《规划》的印发实施，就是要充分发挥数字中国建设的驱动引领作用，统筹推进数字技术在经济、政治、文化、社会、生态文明建设各领域全过程中的融合应用，更好支撑经济社会高质量发展，为推进中国式现代化提供不竭动力。Zhuang Rongwen (庄荣文), “Thoroughly Implement the Spirit of the 20th Party Congress and Boost Chinese Style Modernization with the Construction of Digital China” (深入贯彻落实党的二十大精神 以数字中国建设助力中国式现代化), People’s Daily, Page 10, March 3, 2023
Third, the “Two Capabilities.” Digital China is now bookended by security and innovation. The concepts are not new. Security and innovation have long been emphasized by Xi Jinping personally. So what’s changed? An important part of Digital China has long been to provide an informatized/digitalized environment to spur innovation, so that’s not new. What is new is the security component, which has appeared on both sides in various editions of this same graphic. For instance, CAC places it nearer the international component. A Tencent graphic places it nearer the domestic component. I’m not sure which is authoritative, or if it matters.
Fourth, the “Two Environments.” This is the most significant change. Digital China will now be formally implemented and synchronized across two environments: domestic and international. Thus, the plan and framework are now “global.” (See my translation note on the contextual meaning of “整体布局.”) Again, it important to stress that the structure of the Digital China strategy has not changed, only the emphasis. The Digital China strategy has always had an international component, but it was nothing close to an equal partner with the domestic component. As the graphic is designed to show, the “two environments” are now equal. The term “digital spheres” is quite specific here and refers to the digitally transformed Five-Sphere Integrated Plan.
…build an open and win-win structure for international cooperation in the digital spheres. Comprehensively plan international cooperation for the digital spheres; establish an international exchange and cooperation system for the digital spheres with multi-level coordination, multi-platform support, and multi-subject participation…
…构建开放共赢的数字领域国际合作格局。统筹谋划数字领域国际合作，建立多层面协同、多平台支撑、多主体参与的数字领域国际交流合作体系…“The Central Committee and State Council Issue the ‘Plan for the Overall Layout of Digital China Construction‘” (中共中央 国务院印发《数字中国建设整体布局规划》, Xinhua, February 27, 2023.
We can’t say whether the Digital China strategy will be successful, as stated earlier, even the party calls the task “monumental” and “complex.” We also don’t have a near complete picture of how the multiple systems the strategy calls for will be organized and operate, and I suspect neither does China. However, a new plan, a proposed bureaucratic reorganization, and an upcoming international data forum with ill-defined ties to party objectives (on data?) provide more evidence that the effort is quite real and quite comprehensive. How much more evidence do we need?
My main interest in all of this is to ensure that our leaders recognize the seriousness, size, and speed of Digital China implementation, evaluate what risks – if any – that it carries, and build an informed response together with our allies and partners that serve the greater good.
This sounds like a monumental and complex task for us. I hope we’re accelerating.