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PARPCC #8 – The Digital Silk Roads – standoff between Beijing and the Tech sector

PARPCC #8 – The Digital Silk Roads – standoff between Beijing and the Tech sector

Panda, Rice Alcohol and PCC

Panda, Rice Alcohol and PCC is a column of Camille Brugier, aimed at introducing scientific articles to a wider audience. His publications can be found on his thread Twitter.

We knew about China's New Silk Roads (2013), minus their numerical variation: the Silk Road… Digital (RSD). Cheng and Zeng describe the RSD as a “vague political slogan” whose adoption and implementation reflect internal tensions within China, notably between the CCP and the private sector.

The Digital Silk Roads – standoff between Beijing and the Tech sector

The implications of RSD, presented with great fanfare by Xi himself, are numerous and important: it is via the RSD that China could redefine standards like 5G at the global level, and promote digital authoritarianism going against democratic values.

On the political plan, RSD helps attract attention and trigger actions (Yes we can !). China announces that it will play an important role in digital technology. Cheng and Zeng, however, show that behind the “RSD” announcement effect, China does not have a precise geopolitical objective; and that the Chinese tech giants (Ali Baba, Tencent and Baidu in particular) are not fully involved in this initiative.

The tensions between the tech sector and the CCP can be read between the lines, because many Chinese private companies officially support the RSD. It's normal: tech giants have an economic interest. Ali Baba, for instance, uses RSD to promote its e-commerce solutions.

If Chinese tech has jumped on the RSD bandwagon, it’s that the train had left without her! As for the New Silk Roads, carried by companies public Chinese, the RSD first relied on the contributions of a happy few of public companies (China Mobile, China Telecom and China Unicom). It was only later that the Cyberspace Administration opened the door to a few private giants..

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In effect, Beijing and these digital behemoths hold each other by the goatee: the CCP relies on tech for the promotion and implementation of the New Silk Roads and the RSD; la tech, elle, relies on Beijing to have regulations (preferably soft!) which allow it to expand.  This relationship is strained, as evidenced by the episode of the disappearance of Jack Ma or the cancellation at the last minute by the Party of the IPO of Ant Group (2020).

The RSD was therefore not completely thought out before being launched, just like the New Silk Roads before it. It shows the tensions between Beijing and the private tech sector and also shows us the power of slogans: by dint of being perceived as a grand strategy, the RSD is scary, too scared, and invites one-upmanship, and the protectionist responses of Western actors, especially from the United States.

Reference: Cheng, Jing & Zeng, Jinhan (2023), « Digital Silk Road » as a Slogan Instead of a Grand Strategy”, Journal of Contemporary China, pp. 1-16.

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