Note on Austin’s “Cyber Policy in China”: on the emphasis on ‘ethics’

by Sebastian Benthall

I’ve had recommended to me Greg Austin’s “Cyber Policy in China” (2014) as a good, recent work. I am not sure what I was expecting–something about facts and numbers, how companies are being regulated, etc. Just looking at the preface, it looks like this book is about something else.

The preface frames the book in the discourse, beginning in the 20th century, about the “information society”. It explicitly mentions the UN’s World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) as a touchstone of international consensus about what the information society is, as society “where everyone can create, access, utilise and share information and knowledge’ to ‘achieve their full potential’ in ‘improving their quality of life’. It is ‘people-centered’.

In Chinese, the word for information society is xinxi shehui (Please forgive me: I’ve got little to know understanding of the Chinese language and that includes not knowing how to put the appropriate diacritics into transliterations of Chinese terms.) It is related to a term “informatization” (xinxihua) that is compared to industrialization. It means the historical process by which information technology is fully used, information resources are developed and utilized, the exchange of information and knowledge sharing are promoted, the quality of economic growth is improved, and the transformation of economic and social development is promoted”. Austin’s interesting point is that this is “less people-centered than the UN vision and more in the mould of the materialist and technocratic traditions that Chinese Communists have preferred.”

This is an interesting statement on the difference between policy articulations by the United Nations and the CCP. It does not come as a surprise.

What did come as a surprise is how Austin chooses to orient his book.

On the assumption that outcomes in the information society are ethically determined, the analytical framework used in the book revolves around ideal policy values for achieving an advanced information society. This framework is derived from a study of ethics. Thus, the analysis is not presented as a work of social science (be that political science, industry policy or strategic studies). It is more an effort to situate the values of China’s leaders within an ethical framework implied by their acceptance of the ambition to become and advanced information society.

This comes as a surprise to me because what I was expected from a book titled “Cyber Policy in China” is really something more like industry policy or strategic studies. I was not ready for, and am frankly a bit disappointed by, the idea that this is really a work of applied philosophy.

Why? I do love philosophy as a discipline and have studied it carefully for many years. I’ve written and published about ethics and technological design. But my conclusion after so much study is that “the assumption that outcomes in the information society are ethically determined” is totally incorrect. I have been situated for some time in discussions of “technology ethics” and my main conclusion from them is that (a) “ethics” in this space are more often than not an attempt to universalize what are more narrow political and economic interests, and that (b) “ethics” are constantly getting compromised by economic motivations as well as the mundane difficulty of getting information technology to work as it is intended to in a narrow, functionally defined way. The real world is much bigger and more complex than any particular ethical lens can take in. Attempt to define technological change in terms of “ethics” are almost always a political maneuver, for good or for ill, of some kind that is reducing the real complexity of technological development into a soundbite. A true ethical analysis of cyber policy would need to address industrial policy and strategic aspects, as this is what drives the “cyber” part of it.

The irony is that there is something terribly un-emic about this approach. By Austin’s own admission, the CCP cyber policy is motivated by material concerns about the distribution of technology and economic growth. Austin could have approached China’s cyber policy in the technocratic terms they see themselves in. But instead Austin’s approach is “human-centered”, with a focus on leaders and their values. I already doubt the research on anthropological grounds because of the distance between the researcher and the subjects.

So I’m not sure what to do about this book. The preface makes it sound like it belongs to a genre of scholarship that reads well, and maybe does important ideological translation work, but does provide something like scientific knowledge of China’s cyber policy, which is what I’m most interested in. Perhaps I should move on, or take other recommendations for reading on this topic.