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China’s AI Gambit: Old Tricks for a New Game

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China’s AI Gambit: Old Tricks for a New Game

Rather than pushing the boundaries of innovation, Beijing seeks to mold existing AI technologies to fit its own socio-political objectives.

China’s AI Gambit: Old Tricks for a New Game
Credit: Illustration by Catherine Putz

In a crowded Beijing conference room in 2017, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) unveiled its audacious blueprint to lead the world in artificial intelligence (AI). The plan was ambitious, envisioning China as the global AI powerhouse by 2030. Yet, when OpenAI released ChatGPT in 2022, a seismic shift occurred, catching Beijing off-guard and throwing the quiet AI arms race into the global spotlight.

The United States’ sudden lead in AI, heralded by ChatGPT’s viral success, disrupted China’s meticulously planned ascent. For a regime that tightly controls information, the rapid, public demonstration of U.S. AI prowess was a stark revelation. However, this development didn’t spell the end for China’s AI ambitions. Instead, it underscored a vital insight: in the realm of technology, it’s not the novelty that counts but the mastery and strategic use of what is known.

One demonstration of this strategy is China’s latest AI initiative, the “Xue Xi” chatbot, designed to propagate President Xi Jinping’s political ideology. “Xue Xi” (meaning “Study Xi”) is more than just a chatbot. It’s a digital emissary of “Xi Jinping Thought,” a doctrine comprising 14 principles aimed at cementing the CCP’s absolute power, fortifying national security, and promoting socialist values. 

Developed by Tsinghua University, the chatbot utilizes natural language processing to engage users in discussions about governance, socialism, and national rejuvenation. Trained on seven databases, predominantly curated by China’s Cyberspace Administration, “Xue Xi” stands as a testament to how AI can be harnessed for ideological dissemination and social control.

The chatbot is part of a broader strategy to instill ideological loyalty among citizens. It joins a suite of tools including the “Study Xi Strong Nation” app launched in 2019, which integrates quizzes and educational material on Xi Jinping’s ideology, and mandatory classes in schools focusing on Xi’s thoughts. Together, these tools represent China’s innovative approach to using AI not just for technological advancement but for reinforcing state-approved narratives.

The development of “Xue Xi” is emblematic of a broader trend in China’s approach to AI: rather than pushing the boundaries of innovation, Beijing seeks to mold AI technologies to fit its own socio-political objectives. This strategy aligns with Xi’s broader vision of leveraging existing technologies to strengthen the CCP’s grip on power and reshape global information flows.

China’s AI endeavors extend beyond consumer-facing applications. While Western firms like OpenAI push the limits of what AI can achieve with vast, open datasets, Chinese tech giants such as Baidu and Alibaba focus on models designed for specific, state-aligned purposes. These include enhancing surveillance capabilities, driving industrial efficiencies, and reinforcing ideological education – domains where the technology’s strategic use is more valuable than cutting-edge innovation.

Amid economic challenges, AI offers a potential lifeline for China. The CCP envisions AI as a catalyst for economic revitalization, especially as traditional growth engines falter. This vision is manifest in China’s AI regulation, which seeks to foster innovation within controlled boundaries while preventing AI from disrupting the CCP’s narrative.

The party’s regulatory framework requires AI applications for public consumption to be registered and approved by the Cyberspace Administration of China. This involves disclosing the datasets used and the tests conducted on the AI. Such measures aim to ensure that AI developments align with state objectives while maintaining strict control over the information flow.

China’s AI strategy has far-reaching implications for global power dynamics. Even if China doesn’t outpace the U.S. in developing the latest AI models, its applications can still significantly impact the geopolitical landscape. By integrating AI into areas like biotechnology, industrial engineering, and state security, Beijing can export its controlled AI systems to other authoritarian regimes. This would not only spread China’s model of governance but also consolidate its influence in regions antagonistic to Western ideals.

In this context, the power of AI lies not in the novelty of the technology but in its strategic deployment. China’s approach illustrates a fundamental truth: for technology to alter the balance of power, it doesn’t need to be groundbreaking; it simply needs to be effectively wielded.

China’s AI journey illustrates that transformative power in technology isn’t solely about cutting-edge innovation. Instead, it’s about utilizing what is already known to achieve strategic goals. Beijing’s approach, though seemingly reactive, is a testament to this principle. By adapting AI to fit its unique socio-political landscape, China is crafting a technological paradigm that may not lead the world in novelty but could reshape global power dynamics through calculated, strategic use of existing tools.

As the world watches this unfolding AI race, the lesson is clear: mastery and application of known technologies can be just as disruptive and influential as the latest advancements. For Beijing, the game isn’t about having the newest tech but about knowing how to wield what it has to maximum effect.