Editor’s letter: China’s technology ambitions—and their limits
In November 2018 a Chinese researcher, He Jiankui, announced that he had produced the first ever gene-edited children. (MIT Technology Review was first to report that he had embarked on the attempt.) The story stunned and unnerved the world, not just because a medical taboo had been broken but because of where it had happened. It seemed to confirm China’s popular image as a country with growing technological powers and few limits on using them.
Similar anxieties drove the US-China trade war that broke out in 2018 and the restrictions several countries imposed on Chinese telecom giants Huawei and ZTE. In November the US began to consider tighter controls on exports of AI and other technologies.
It’s fortuitous but fitting, then, that this 120th anniversary issue of MIT Technology Review is about China’s status as a rising technology superpower.
Two centuries ago China was the world’s largest economy, with some 15 times the GDP of the US. But wars, rebellions, and a lack of industrialization made it stagnate. By the time our first issue appeared—sporting the walrus-whiskered president of MIT, James Mason Crafts, on the cover—the US was slightly ahead. By 1950 its GDP was several times larger than China’s, which had scarcely budged in real terms in 130 years.
Today, however, the two are once again roughly on a par, thanks to China’s explosive growth since the 1970s. Visiting the country brings to mind the impressions of European travelers to America a century ago—of a land where everything is bigger and happens faster, a place bursting with energy and ideas.
Our goal in this issue was to answer the question “What is China good at?” The common prejudice that China doesn’t innovate and steals all its intellectual property from abroad has been outdated for a while, but can its companies build world-changing products, and can its scientists win Nobels? Can it meet its goal, laid out in various long-term plans, of achieving supremacy in key areas of technology? Could its top-down system of government even make it better than the world’s increasingly fractious democracies at tackling urgent problems like climate change? Or will the Xi administration’s authoritarianism choke off innovation?
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Our writers examine China’s progress in autonomous and electric vehicles, microchips, nuclear power, high-voltage grids, space exploration, quantum computing and communications, and gene editing. We look at how the government has let the tech industry flourish while co-opting it into the growth of a surveillance state, wielded censorship and squeezed out foreign firms like Google, and bent scientists to its ideological will.
We profile Shenzhen, dubbed the “Silicon Valley of hardware”, explain how China is extending its geopolitical influence by building the world’s biggest dredging industry, and analyze how the rivalry between China and the US may play out. Finally, we sample the art that has sprung up critiquing the country’s consumerist culture, internet aesthetics, and authoritarian tendencies, and end with a dystopian short story specially commissioned from one of China’s leading science fiction writers.
I hope this issue leaves you with a picture of China’s ambitions and its strengths, but also of its limitations. We believe both China and other countries have more to gain from collaborating than from driving up barriers to trade, travel, and the free flow of knowledge.
I’m interested in hearing your opinion, as well as what stories you think we missed. Write to me at [email protected] and let me know.