Chinese Assessments of AI: Risks and Mitigation Strategies
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Chinese Assessments of AI: Risks and Mitigation Strategies

As artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities and applications develop at an unprecedented pace, governments around the world are grappling with regulatory, commercial, and ethical risks and opportunities. Here, two leading analysts examine recently translated documents to assess how Beijing is weighing the risks and challenges of AI, similarities and differences to the approaches emerging in other capitals, and implications for U.S.-China competition.

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Newly translated documents discussed in these analyses include:

  1. A Reshaped World? New Features of Artificial Intelligence and National Security under the Rise of ChatGPT by Huang Rihan, professor at the School of Journalism and Communication at the Central University for Nationalities and Yao Haolong, master’s degree candidate at the School of International Relations, Huaqiao University.
  2. Artificial Intelligence-Generated Content (AIGC) White Paper by the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology (CAICT), a research institution at the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.
  3. Wu Zhaohui, Member of the Party Group and Vice Minister of the Ministry of Science and Technology: Brain-Computer Intelligence and Human-Computer Collaboration are Important Directions for AI Development
  4. Li Qiang Chairs the State Council Executive Meeting to Study Comprehensive Measures for Rural Revitalization

Jump to commentary from:

Rebecca Arcesati | Rogier Creemers

Rebecca Arcesati

Lead Analyst, Mercator Institute for China Studies

The translated texts offer a glimpse into Chinese policy and scholarly debates around emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), where the at once reinforcing and competing relationship between security and development imperatives is a constant theme.

As evidenced by both the remarks of Deputy Science and Technology Minister Wu Zhaohui and the readout of a recent State Council executive meeting, China’s government regards AI as a key lever for transforming the country’s economy and strengthening its competitiveness on the global stage. In Beijing’s view, upgrading manufacturing in service of “high-quality development” is where AI’s greatest promise lies. Mentioned at the meeting, the phrase “new productive forces” encapsulates Xi Jinping’s emphasis on new growth engines for China, such as homegrown technological breakthroughs conducive to the construction of a “modern industrial system.” As Wu remarked, AI, and particularly artificial general intelligence, will become seamlessly integrated with biological, physical, and digital systems through human-computer collaboration, thus ushering in “a new industrial revolution.”

On the other hand, such a “deep integration” of machine intelligence with economic and social structures generates security and other kinds of risks. This tension between technology promotion and risk governance, which is by far not unique to China, is captured in the “Artificial Intelligence-Generated Content (AIGC) White Paper” published by the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology under the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology. After a techno-optimist overview of AIGC’s application scenarios across sectors, from media and e-commerce to manufacturing and health care, the white paper unpacks some of the challenges ahead.

Unsurprisingly, online information and network security are top concerns, in part because generative AI companies still struggle with content moderation, technology management, and risk governance. The authors refer to the Cyberspace Administration of China’s “Guiding Opinions on Strengthening the Comprehensive Governance of Network Information Service Algorithms” from 2021, which marked the beginning of an ambitious regulatory program by the Chinese Communist Party’s cyber watchdog to tame companies’ AI algorithms. China’s generative AI industry is currently grappling with cumbersome regulatory obligations, which are translating into detailed technical specifications (i.e., standards) aimed at ensuring that, among other things, chatbots do not return any politically undesirable information.

But generative AI could affect China’s national security in deeper ways. In their article for the Journal of International Security Studies, academics Huang Rihan and Yao Haolong argue that ChatGPT will not only reshape the global balance of power, but also affect countries’ security. In their view, AI leadership has become a tool for the United States to maintain its hegemony. Such pessimistic views have gotten more common in the domestic Chinese discourse since Washington began restricting graphic processing units (GPUs) and other AI-relevant semiconductor technology from China. While Xi has characterized the AI-driven industrial revolution as an opportunity for China to “overtake on the curve” (i.e., surpass incumbents), Huang and Yao write that this will be difficult and that generative AI will instead lead to a monopolistic world of AI “haves and have-nots.” The authors also cite other challenges, such as Western countries manipulating public opinion and waging cognitive warfare against China.

While such worries are also present in Western debates around Beijing’s offensive uses of AI advances, one recommendation Huang and Yao offer gives a hint about China’s potentially distinctive role in global AI governance. To counter the U.S.-led “Technology Democratic Alliance,” China should create regional organizations to promote cooperation on large AI models, share training data and technology with other countries, and help them develop infrastructure. China should also support partners in promoting large-model applications to tackle developmental challenges, such as environmental hazards, and in training talent.

Chinese corporate and state actors already play a significant role in providing digital connectivity across the Global South, particularly through the Digital Silk Road, and Beijing’s AI diplomacy is increasingly seeking to empower the United Nations in global AI governance. Therefore, China will likely place considerable focus on shaping large-model development—and standards—in developing and emerging markets over the coming years.

Rogier Creemers

Lecturer in Modern Chinese Studies, Leiden University

The four translated documents reflect a very common mode of engagement with new technologies among state-adjacent experts in China. They combine a study of the new technology’s features, a diagnosis of both the potential gains and risks associated with the technology’s application, including strengths and weaknesses, and a prescription of how policy and regulatory authorities can guide further roll-out in the light of overarching policy objectives. This, in turn, sheds light on specific policies that can be expected in the realm of artificial intelligence (AI) in the foreseeable future.

In its white paper on AI-generated content, the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology not only focuses on how AI may transform the production workflows of media content in areas such as news, gaming, film, and television. It also explores scenarios for the integration of AI-generated content and e-commerce, for instance, through virtual product and interactive shopping experiences, as well as its ability to transform traditional sectors ranging from education, medicine, and other social services to the financial and manufacturing sectors.

Wu Zhaohui, deputy minister of science and technology, takes a very specific approach, exploring how new AI tools such as ChatGPT may advance the integration between humans and machines, between brains and computers. This, in his view, will engender new patterns for labour as well as new business models, drastically increasing productivity and efficiency. A similarly sharp focus is present in the Xinhua report on the use of AI in rural revitalization, highlighting how digital upgrades to traditional agricultural and industrial activities support the broader transformation in China’s growth model intended to characterize Xi Jinping’s “New Era.”

Huang Rihan and Yao Haolong, in contrast, situate the AI revolution in the broader context of growing geopolitical tensions with the United States, in which technology plays a central role. They are deeply concerned about the ability of ChatGPT and similar generative AI tools to influence public opinion—a perennial if continuously morphing concern of the leadership since at least 1989. Moreover, ChatGPT’s hunger for data may imperil the security of sensitive governmental information as well as users’ personal information. It may have hitherto unimagined applications in the military realm, lower the threshold for crime, and result in mass unemployment. At the same time, failure to capture a globally competitive position in generative AI may exacerbate the digital divide between China and the United States.

In combination, these four documents sketch the parameters of China’s approach to new, advanced technologies. First, although AI is seen as a potential transformative factor across the socio-economic sphere, a first priority is risk management, particularly where threats to regime integrity, such as undesirable content and national security considerations, are at play. Governmental actors have a very important role to play here by setting rules and standards, but significant responsibility must lie with businesses. This is, after all, an important cost of doing business. Second, AI is seen as critical to the transformation of China’s growth model. Under the 14th Five-Year Plan, this has increasingly focused on “high-quality growth” through “new productive forces.” In normal language, this involves upgrading, rather than shedding, many legacy industries, particularly if they might impact China’s self-sufficiency. It also focuses on capturing a greater share of generated value, particularly through developing homegrown intellectual property, brands, and competitive advantages. In short, AI is critical in what Chinese commentators often call the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Third, this industrial strategy means that the Chinese economy will become more competitive with, rather than complementary to, its Western counterparts, which is a major driver of growing geopolitical tensions. However, those tensions are unavoidable, and China must catch up in the field of advanced technology to safeguard its autonomy and national security, or again face up to the much-maligned hegemony of the West.

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