The AI Now Institute is launching an essay series exploring the myths, realities, actors, and incentives underpinning dominant China tech and AI narratives.

By Meredith Whittaker, Shazeda Ahmed, and Amba Kak

The dominant narratives surrounding China’s economic and technological rise increasingly echo Cold War language, and are often Sinophobic, nationalistic, and self-contradictory. These accounts frequently paint China as a monolith, centering a hegemonic Chinese state as the unit of analysis against which the “democratic West” is contrasted. Complex issues are oversimplified as binaries, and weighty determinations are justified based on reductionist rationales. Frequent references to tech competition as a proxy for a “values war” between China and the United States imply that other parts of the world are somehow void of values or waiting for them to be superimposed on entire states and cultures.

At a policy level, this technological jingoism translates into calls for bans on Chinese apps or initiatives that use hygiene as a Sinophobic metaphor, and advocate for the creation of ill-defined “clean networks” free of Chinese tech. The framing of the so-called US-China “AI arms race” fits within this pattern. It is increasingly deployed to justify the expansion of large tech corporations’ AI capabilities, while acting as a defense against critical work calling for restraint, reflection, and regulation of AI technologies and the firms behind them.

In this environment, it is critical to hold both Chinese and US actors accountable for the rights violations they perpetuate. Instead, we see debates around which state’s technologically-mediated harms are “worse,” which often end in unproductive “whataboutery” that distracts from the seriousness of these issues. This argument also tends to erase efforts to resist technology-related rights violations within China, whether it’s Chinese gig workers speaking out about their grueling work conditions, or the country’s thriving public dialogue on the use of facial recognition in public spaces and residential complexes.

In AI Now’s own work, we take clear positions on regulation or outright bans of certain technologies. Yet we often see arguments that portray any check on American tech companies as allowing or endorsing China to grow and export “authoritarian social values” in the form of AI. In this framing, AI (and the Big Tech companies capable of producing it) is conflated with the national security interests of the US. Indeed, we increasingly see China-centered arguments against tech accountability, antitrust, and regulatory interventions.

Those working to advance a grounded understanding of AI and power, and to shape and support interventions to check AI’s harms, need to grapple with this core set of assumptions. The complexity of these issues, and the high political and economic stakes of this debate, require that we widen the aperture of analysis to examine not simply the myths and realities of the most harmful beliefs circulating about China, the US, and AI, but also that we map the actors and agendas that are shaping and promoting these narratives.

In partnership with domain experts who are leading the way in this work, we aim to equip the field to challenge and differentiate legitimate concerns from ungrounded bluster, to advance rigorous analyses that jettison convenient tropes, and to take informed policy positions. In that spirit, the AI Now Institute is happy to launch an essay series exploring the myths, realities, actors, and incentives underpinning dominant China tech narratives.

Drawing from a variety of perspectives that each reframe a particular China tech narrative, the authors in this series aim to expand the terrain of technology policy debates. Essays will explore “common sense” assertions about China and AI that are often treated as facts — from the belief that exporting Chinese technology is tantamount to wholesale transfers of governance models, to the notion that ‘digital authoritarian’ practices only originate in non-democratic countries. We’ll also look at issues like data sovereignty principles, surveillance technology export controls, and privacy legislation.

To begin, we are delighted to have journalist Alexandria Williams weave historical threads through her insider experience of working for a Chinese tech firm before moving to Kenya to conduct on-the-ground reporting about Chinese tech in Africa. Alexandria’s counterintuitive insights challenge conventional thinking about China-Africa relations and ‘digital authoritarianism.’ Read our first essay here.