Remember 1989 – when the Berlin Wall came crashing down and the Soviet Union began to implode? For many of us who were around at the time, those memories are inextricably mixed up with a remarkable essay by a young scholar named Francis Fukuyama that appeared in the journal the National Interest in the summer of that amazing year.
Its title, The End of History?, was compelling, even if the question mark rescued it – just – from the charge of hubris. “What we may be witnessing,” Fukuyama wrote, “is not just the end of the cold war, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalisation of western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
For a time, it looked as though Fukuyama’s hunch might have been right. The postwar world had been a bipolar one, characterised by rivalry between two competing systems of social and economic organisation – western liberal capitalism and Soviet central planning. But from 1989 onwards, the latter self-destructed. The USSR collapsed into a chaotic, post-imperial mess. It was looted by would-be oligarchs; governed by a drunk and overrun by American economists seeking to transform it into a sandpit for neoliberal economics. At the same time, Nato aggressively expanded eastwards, until eventually we found ourselves in a new, unipolar, world over which the US towered like a triumphant colossus.
And now? We find ourselves back in a bipolar world, but the other pole is no longer centred on Moscow. Russia has degenerated into an aggressive kleptocracy with nukes: powerful and a nuisance, but not an alternative system. The real alternative system now is China, whose technocratic rulers have convincingly refuted western assumptions about what they would need to do to modernise their country. First, we said that if China wanted to industrialise then it would need to become democratic. Next up was the claim that adopting the internet would make it a more open society. These delusions have been brusquely consigned to the bonfire of western vanities as the Chinese leadership invents a new way of running society – networked authoritarianism, which is basically Leninism plus cyberspace. And it’s now the other pole in our geopolitical world.
That penny hasn’t dropped everywhere yet, but it definitely has in Silicon Valley, where people have been obsessed with China for years. They see it both as threat and opportunity. It’s a threat because the Chinese regime is determined to make China a dominant technological power and has the clout, the resources – and now the dominant companies – to make that happen.
It is seen as an opportunity because the American tech companies are desperate to find a way of getting into the Chinese market. (Which is why Google, for example, has been busy developing a tame search engine that might be acceptable to the Chinese government.)
Last week, the New York Times followed a group of American tech executives and venture capitalists on a fact-finding trip to Beijing and Shenzhen. They found themselves in a parallel universe that superficially resembles Silicon Valley but on closer inspection turns out to be “a futuristic yet closed-off world that can be equally impressive, alienating and dystopian”. The visitors were particularly stunned by the volume of investment, the pace of innovation – and the work ethic of their Chinese counterparts, summed up in the three numbers 996: 9am to 9pm work days, six days a week.
What really seems to alarm the US, though, is China’s determination to master the next strategic technology – artificial intelligence – which at the moment means machine learning plus big data. The critical element here is ready access to colossal amounts of data: machine learning is basically a sausage machine that takes in data at one end and spits out intelligence and predictions at the other.
And although the American tech giants have become accomplished data vampires in their own right, they are mere amateurs compared to their Chinese counterparts, who are not hampered by concerns about data protection, privacy or even the rule of law. And whereas in the west, governments worry (a bit) about these things, in China exactly the opposite applies. Any data a local company holds effectively belongs also to the state.
What the Chinese have discovered, in other words, is that digital technology – which we once naively believed would be a force for democratisation – is also a perfect tool for social control. It’s the operating system for networked authoritarianism. Last month, James O’Malley, a British journalist, was travelling on the Beijing-Shanghai bullet train when his reverie was interrupted by this announcement: “Dear passengers, people who travel without a ticket, or behave disorderly, or smoke in public areas, will be punished according to regulations and the behaviour will be recorded in individual credit information system. To avoid a negative record of personal credit please follow the relevant regulations and help with the orders on the train and at the station.” Makes you nostalgic for those announcements about “arriving at King’s Cross, where this train terminates”, doesn’t it?