Donald Trump’s campaign against Huawei is a symptom of digital orientalism, ignoring similarities in Chinese and Western surveillance
- The US’ targeting of Huawei is rooted in long-standing fears that China might challenge the idea of civilisational superiority on which the West constructs itself
- Focusing on Chinese surveillance effaces the threat posed by Western tech giants
The distortions and anxieties at work in these controversies require a new critical perspective for weighing dystopian concerns against promises to the contrary.
Edward Said’s Orientalism analysed how the “East” was fabricated as the exotic, feminine, irrational and backward other of the “West”. Said argued that the West constructs itself on the idea of civilisational superiority, which has justified imperialism and hegemony by and through technological advances.
Said’s concept has long been a fixture in postcolonial studies, especially discussions of the Chinese communist revolution. However, following Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping’s market-oriented reforms and modernisation drive, a new “Sinological orientalism” emerged.
These developments mirror long-standing fears, described by some as Western anxiety in the face of Chinese civilisational confidence. These fears have returned with a technological twist.
We introduce the concept of “digital orientalism” to help explain what is really at stake in controversies over China’s rapid digitalisation.
In a special issue of the Journal of Chinese Political Science, we write: “The increasingly apparent and uncomfortable development that many instinctively deny is that one of the key elements of Sinological orientalism, the notion that China would become more like the West, has become increasingly true, with the caveat that the West, likewise through the same types of technology, has become increasingly like China.”
Anxieties have resurfaced in two key areas. First, worries about the “technological society” and its threat to values and practices considered culturally intrinsic are key concerns in both China and the West.
Second, China’s technological leapfrogging has produced “Sinotechnophobia”. The fear of Chinese technology has diminished Western fears of Western tech in a manner that recalls the cold war’s arms race (“we’re bad, but they’re worse”).
But Sinotechnophobia could have apocalyptic consequences, either through self-destruction or mutual destruction, on par with those described by Jairus Victor Grove in Savage Ecology: War and Geopolitics at the End of the World: imagine unrestricted surveillance states justifying self-suppression in the name of bolstering security against each other, with competing artificial intelligence running algorithms that accelerate poor decision-making.
What digital orientalism masks is the extent to which China experiences many of the same problems and practices found in democratic societies. Surveillance capitalism works similarly everywhere and some misuse of AI and big data by US agencies is on par with China and sometimes worse.
In the Journal of Democracy, Larry Diamond describes this as the “road to digital unfreedom” and “postmodern totalitarianism”. We add that a self-defeating “us versus them” logic is merely picking your poison.
Instead of focusing on the drawbacks of an individual company or technology, we should acknowledge the broader reality: intensifying global homogenisation, cyberwar, the dominance of platform companies, inescapable surveillance capitalism, the impossibility of data privacy, the normalisation of stealth mass-manipulation and nudging campaigns, the experience of post-truth rationalities and the reduction of individuals to constantly accessible screen-brain interfacing.
Liberal societies don’t need Chinese tech to destroy not just democratic processes but the very conditions of democratic life and politics. Yet, by creating a “dangerous other” and foregrounding misleading binaries, digital orientalism keeps us from deliberating socio-technical futures and the good society that we should envision.
Only by recognising the convergence of authoritarian digitalisation in China, Europe and the US can we unchain our imaginative powers as digital citizens and find a better way forward.
Josef Gregory Mahoney is professor of politics at East China Normal University in Shanghai. Maximilian Mayer is assistant professor of international relations at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China