China’s goals of technology regulation are often in direct conflict with what the rest of the world is trying to do. “Nothing or very little about what is being done in China is restraining the power of the biggest data processor of them all: the Chinese government,” said Jamie Susskind, a lawyer specializing in data and technology at London law firm 11KBW. Within China, officials have focused their attention on regulates domestic technology companies to the point of submission. The broader techlash has already resulted in Alibaba co-founder and CEO Jack Ma resign from public life and is rumored to be behind the decision by Zhang Yiming, founder of ByteDance, to resign as CEO.
Ma’s dramatic decline is typical of China’s approach to regulation. “As we begin to become starry-eyed about the Chinese enforcement model, we have lost sight of the fact that regulation should not only restrain private companies,” says Susskind. “It is also supposed to limit the power of the state.” In China, this is rarely the case. The challenge, Webster adds, is to remove the areas where China and the rest of the world share common goals – and areas where China pursues goals that democracies would find disgusting.
Tag China draft rules on synthetic media as an example. The proposals, presented in January, call for limits on the proliferation of deepfake content – a problem that has affected not only China but the world. According to the rules, anything “synthetic” can not be promoted through algorithms. Apps that promote deeply fake content can risk prosecution and fines of up to RMB100,000 ($ 15,000). However, China has been one of the main developers of deepfake technology, among others homemade app Zaowhich became popular in 2019.
But China’s recent wave of conspicuous actions against big technology is also a sign that officials are playing catch-up with the rest of the world. For years, the country, like many others, has let the tech sector run wild as a key driver of economic growth. And as a result, the sector was closely linked to the political elite. Alibaba’s Ma, for example, has been one member of the Chinese Communist Party since the 1980s. Such proximity has allowed certain technology founders to lobby officials for preferential treatment. “Chinese regulation used to be very lax,” Zhang says. “Recent enforcement mostly restores some balance between regulation and innovation.”
And in some cases, Chinese politicians are adapting ideas from the West. The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation inspired not only California’s consumer protection law, but also similar initiatives in China, including its Privacy Act, which limits how much personal data private companies can collect. (The state can, of course, collect whatever it wants.) The concept of seeing what the world does and then casting a China-appropriate solution is not unique to technology, Webster says. “This is how China’s policy makers work: They are actively comparing other systems.”
Chinese regulators may to some extent creep in from elsewhere, but they largely go their own way with how they seek to control the technology sector. And as more regulation rolls in, it will only shatter an already shattered internet further. But, Webster claims, there may be lessons to be learned what China tackles, rather than how it’s about that. “There are smart people who are working hard to try to reshape the Chinese digital economy,” he says. “The task is not so different, even if the political systems are.”