Illustration: Craig Stephens
by Josef Gregory Mahoney and Maximilian Mayer
by Josef Gregory Mahoney and Maximilian Mayer

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
Britain’s counter-intelligence chief recently said he believes the United Kingdom’s intelligence-sharing relationship with the US will not be hit if Britain adopts Huawei technology in its 5G mobile phone network. This is the latest twist in a deepening saga with major implications for Huawei, US-China relations and global technological progress.
In Germany, Economy Minister Peter Altmaier has been criticised for comparing Chinese with US surveillance capabilities, as the European Union laments its lack of digital autonomy and being at the mercy of American and Chinese firms.

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.

As University of Hong Kong professor Daniel Vukovich argued, these reforms were interpreted as confirmation of the “ end of history” thesis, whereby Deng was no longer really a communist but a pragmatist and it was only a matter of time before the Communist Party collapsed as tensions between China’s political and economic systems reached a breaking point. Believing China was “becoming us, but not yet us”, the West revelled in its superior path.
While such thinking has greatly influenced Western scholarship and policymaking, Western confidence is eroding. Following the global financial crisis, the strengthening of the Communist Party’s social and political control and China’s growing technological edge, the “threat school” has replaced the “collapse school”.
The administration of US President Donald Trump has made the China threat a centrepiece of foreign policy, with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo casting the Chinese government as a Marxist-Leninist scheme for undermining liberal democracies on the way to world domination.

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.

A woman talks on her mobile phone as she walks past a Huawei store in Kiev, Ukraine, on November 11, 2019. The US has been lobbying its allies to bar the Chinese company from participating in their 5G networks. Photo: Reuters

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.

These fears have accelerated in the West with the unprecedented rise of platform companies – technology-enabled businesses that create value by facilitating exchanges between two or more interdependent groups – and state surveillance.
But with the emergence of a Chinese tech state and mushrooming Chinese platform companies, and with China drawing even with and perhaps overtaking the West in some technology fields, these fears have been reinforced.

Huawei and the double standards of 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.

People walk past a CCTV camera operating on Oxford Street in London on August 16, 2019. Photo: AFP

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.

This convergence also causes discomfort in Beijing, which often trumpets China’s differences while struggling to discipline the ’90s and 2000s generations, which, having grown up in a market society with extremely high levels of personal technology usage, have more in common with American millennials than with their own parents.

How AI and quantum computing add to danger of US-China conflict

Whatever threats Huawei poses for democratic politics, it distracts us from those posed already by Western tech giants and algorithmic governance through an almost complete erosion of privacy, omnipresent surveillance and valid worries that elections can be hacked by foreign powers or purchased via social marketing using targeted fake news.

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




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