China’s Innovation Push: Utopia or Dystopia?

The chinnotopia feature series examines the innovation push in Asia

Imagine hurtling from Hamburg to Munich at 1200 kilometers per hours in just 45 minutes. A journey like this in a sealed capsule at close to the speed of sound in a vacuum tunnel may sound visionary but the first test tracks are already in place. China’s Southwest Jiaotong University in Chengdu is also developing a maglev system using a vacuum tube. Future, present and past are merging with an incredible dynamism. In China, time has been moving at an even greater pace since the government presented its vision to achieve global technological dominance in ten key industries by 2049 in its “Made in China 2025” economic plan. This includes hightech facilities in the areas of aeronautics and astronomics as well as maritime and rail transport, energy-efficient electromobility, information and communication technology, robotics and biotechnology.

Online event to take place on 9 February 2021

Beginning November 2020, Dr. Tania Becker, sinologist at the China Center at TU Berlin (TUB), Dr. Josie-Marie Perkuhn, political scientist at Kiel University (CAU), and Dr. Nancy Wilms, business economist at Ruhr-Universität Bochum (RUB), have been organizing a series of events addressing both the fascination and contradictions of developments in China entitled chinnotopia– Future designed by China. The online feature series is intended for experts, the general public and startup entrepreneurs and aims to provide an informed and controversial debate about China’s role as an incubator of innovation. The next event is scheduled to take place on 9 February 2021 from 16:00 until 18:00. The topic is an appropriate one for a date so close to Valentine’s Days: Visions of Love.

To register and find out more, go to: https://www.china.tu-berlin.de/menue/projekte/tuwitech/chinnotopia/.

A country as a field lab

Driven by the challenges of a rapidly growing population, future mobility in smart cities should help prevent complete traffic congestion and the build up of smog. Widespread use of autonomous transport as well as car and bike sharing schemes will replace privately owned vehicles. Equipping autonomous vehicles with sensors will enable intelligent traffic monitoring. Crowd logistics, which enables packets to be delivered to a central location for collection by customers, will reduce delivery transport.

Do such technologies provide an indication of what life will be like in Europe in 10, 20, or 30 years? Do we even want to live like this? These are the questions addressed by chinnotopia – Future designed by China. Among the approximately 80 participants at the events are students, academics, politicians and economists, startup entrepreneurs and other interested parties.

“On the one hand, we want to take a look at how innovation technologies work, and on the other, examine how they influence society,” says Becker, describing the idea behind chinnotopia. “We are also looking to generate interest in China among students and the broader public.” All three organizers of the event are convinced that the future is coming from China and with an unparalleled speed of digital innovation.

During the series of events, academics and experts in the field openly debate the impact of technological progress: How has it been possible in China for the blockchain data structure to develop into a widely-used digital payment system, or cryptocurrency, in the shortest of times? Why does the Chinese government place so much reliance on e-mobility? How much acceptance is there among the Chinese population?

At the opening event, Miriam Theobald, co-founder and managing director of DONGXii, a platform which supports German businesses seeking to break into the Chinese market, showed how life streaming and social media have long played a role in shaping everyday life in China. Her challenge to the participants was: “View China as a field lab. Take an unbiased look at how digital transformation functions there.”

Willingness to experiment helps drive innovation

Compared to Europe, Becker, Perkuhn and Wilms see China as a driver of innovation. China’s growing markets rely on state subsidies – for example favorable investment conditions, state grants, transport benefits – and political measures, such as quotas for electric cars and increasing bans on combustion engines. With the support of state agencies, the innovative technological startup scene is booming. There is also no shortage of venture capital and investors willing to take a risk.

The combination of a legislation keen to push technology and a society willing to experiment creates the right conditions to try out in reality which technologies work well and which don’t. “Germany is sluggish,” says Perkuhn “and functions according to the maxim: ‘Don‘t change a running system’”.

“The Chinese like to experiment. Innovation is firmly rooted in their everyday life. Their comprehensive communication infrastructure reaches into rural areas to allow almost ubiquitous live streaming. To provide an example, the video portal TikTok is particularly popular in villages,” says Wilms, reinforcing this point. “When making guided tours with business delegations, I frequently observe that these representatives from business are not technically equipped for everyday tourism in China. They don’t have the technology to cope with the cashless systems of payment now used in every small town and village. They are not able to even buy themselves a drink.”

The online series of events also thrives on a curiosity regarding the future. “As humanities scholars and social scientists, we are seeking to find out more about fundamental technologies such as LiDAR, a radar-like method for measuring distance and speed, digital twins, online dating and cybersecurity,” says Tania Becker.

China as a promised land?

“China’s emerging economic power fascinates and scares people in equal measures. Without naively disregarding the many socio-political differences that exist, we want to invite everyone to join us in a dialogue,” says Perkuhn, finetuning the focus of the events. chinnotopia discusses the benefits as well as the drawbacks of innovative technologies. For example, China’s leaders have developed very clear ideas regarding the conditions and applications of blockchain technology. The question is whether a compromise between political central control and decentralized software protocols really works in practice?

Legal barriers regarding data protection are lower in China. Risks, such as the danger that big data could be used to develop a comprehensive surveillance system, are taken less seriously, with greater emphasis placed on benefits. It is true that the Chinese social credit system gathers extensive data on people’s behavior, but the activities of businesses and organizations are also assessed, meaning that the Chinese believe the system will protect them from problems such as food scandals and financial fraud. The use of data storage for automatic face recognition is a controversial issue in China. However, as Wilms explains: “There is a willingness to first try out the technology. Any possible shortcomings which then emerge are subsequently improved - usually discreetly and in secret.”

The series of events will also be continuing during the semester break. An online dialogue with student groups in Berlin and Kiel is planned for summer semester 2021. “Organizing the cooperation between the universities requires a lot of work, but the opportunity for exchange makes it worth while. We also very much appreciate the support provided by the universities,” Tania Becker stresses.

Utopia or dystopia - or perhaps ultimately both?

In the first event, Ulrike Freitag, a doctoral student at the University of Heidelberg, examined the connection between the terms utopia and dystopia. In his work of 1516, English statesman Thomas More presented the imaginary island of “Utopia” as an ideal society. More created the term utopia from the ancient Greek “ou” meaning “no” and “topos” meaning “place”. In the 19th century, the British philosopher John Stuart Mill used the term dystopia, derived from the Ancient Greek word “dys”, to describe a place where everything is bad, the antithesis of a utopia. chinnotopia makes clear that future scenarios based upon artificial intelligence can be seen as neither absolute harbingers of good or evil.

“We took a very deliberate decision to use the term 'ch-inno-topia',” explains Josie-Marie Perkuhn. “It embodies the notions of China, innovation, and utopia as well as dystopia.” It all depends on how we see things and our willingness to discuss normative values in society: How do we want to live? “One person’s utopia is another person’s dystopia,” Pekuhn concludes, quoting her colleague Dr. Hilmar Grabow of the CAU.

 

Author: Christina Camier

Contact

chinnotopia – Future designed by China

info@chinnotopia.de

Dr.

Tania Becker

Center for Cultural Studies on Science and Technology in China (CCST)

tania.becker@tu-berlin.de

Dr.

Josie-Marie Perkuhn

Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel (CAU)

jmperkuhn@politik.uni-kiel.de

Dr.

Nancy Wilms

Ruhr-Universität Bochum (RUB)

Nancy.Wilms@rub.de