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China Brief: Xi Jinping Is a Techno-Utopian

Is his optimism in fix-all technological solutions actually a weakness?

I attended a webinar hosted by the Center for Strategic & International Studies on Xi Jinping’s New Policy Framework. Jude Blanchette and Andrew Polk of CSIS Freeman Chair in China Studies laid out their take on Xi Jinping’s governance model, the goal of which is to make China into a “great socialist nation” by 2035. This is a change from the Deng Xiaoping goal of making China into a “moderately prosperous society” and includes his common prosperity initiative.

For those interested in some of the ins-and-outs of macro-economic policy, you can read the CSIS report, “Chinese State Capitalism: Diagnosis and Prognosis” here.

Two key takeaways from the webinar are 1) Xi Jinping’s model is not a rehash of Mao or Lenin, although both Mao and Lenin are important for understanding Xi’s rhetoric and perspective, and 2) Xi Jinping is a techno-utopian who seeks technological solutions to societal problems. 

In a previous article, I described how Xi Jinping’s speech at the centennial anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) signaled old Marxist and Maoist ideals, such as identifying with the working class and a commitment to socialism. Although Mao, Deng, and Xi have all used the phrase “common prosperity,” Xi’s model is distinctly different. Xi’s common prosperity is not about class struggle but about addressing economic inequality. 

Blanchette and Polk’s webinar described Xi common prosperity as a “social stability measure wrapped in a socialist package.” China’s extreme inequality is a looming problem for the CCP’s goal of reforging China into a strong nation. According to the World Bank, China’s GDP is $14.7 trillion, second to the U.S at $20.9 trillion, and many analysts predict that China will surpass the U.S. as the largest economy in terms of GDP. However, strong nations tend to not have extreme inequality, particularly high rates of poverty. If we look at China’s GDP per capita, we see a slightly different story: China’s GDP per capita is $10,500 compared to the U.S. at $63,543. Even if you consider trade using GNI rather than GDP, the numbers are relatively similar according to the World Bank. 

Young workers have expressed frustration over the “996” culture, in which employees work from 9AM to 9PM, six days per week by “laying flat.” Additionally, even though the CCP has lifted their one-child policy, many young Chinese could not have children even if they wanted to because of prohibitive home prices and cost of living in urban areas. 

A pop song by Namewee, featuring Kimberly Chen, called “Fragile” has several overt and covert pokes at the Chinese Communist Party, including the disparity between China’s wealthy elite and its working class. One such criticism is around minute 2:24. The English translation is “Carrying cotton and collecting his favorite honey (common prosperity), worked hard (combat poverty). In the tree leek farm one thousand is certainly beyond expectation.” 

The scene depicts Kimberly Chen in a bathtub of pearls, exemplifying the wealthy, while Namewee is in a building working or in a field. The “leeks” are a Chinese reference to the working class. “One thousand” is a reference to the fact that some Chinese people live on $1,000 per month.

Xi Jinping Is a Techno-Utopian

Among Xi Jinping’s core assumptions is that governance and economic problems can be solved with technology. This techno-optimism guides Xi’s national goals. CSIS’s Blanchette points out that while Xi is ambiguous when he speaks on most topics, he is specific when he talks about technology, and he talks about technology often. Xi’s fourteenth Five-Year plan focused on three main ideas: national security, technology, and achieving self-sufficiency. Among China’s technological ambitions is global supremacy in artificial intelligence. Xi sees AI, or machine-learning algorithms operating on a large swath of data, as the solution to everything from productivity to national security, which means data is power. But, in the CCP’s model, power belongs to the Party, so China’s private sector, including its Big Tech companies, needed to be reined in and its resources redistributed in ways that align with the Party’s goals.

While not covered specifically in the CSIS webinar, Xi’s techno-utopian assumptions are also the impetus behind the Chinese Communist Party’s dystopian surveillance state in which AI is the solution to social stability. However, Xi’s over-confidence in technology may also be a weakness. Not all problems can be solved with technology, and sometimes the solutions can make matters worse, just ask Mark Zuckerberg.

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Heather Zeiger

Heather Zeiger is a freelance science writer in Dallas, TX. She has advanced degrees in chemistry and bioethics and writes on the intersection of science, technology, and society. She also serves as a research analyst with The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity. Heather writes for bioethics.com, Salvo Magazine, and her work has appeared in RelevantMercatorNet, Quartz, and The New Atlantis.

China Brief: Xi Jinping Is a Techno-Utopian