Contradictions in Freedom: the U.S. / China information ideology divide

by Sebastian Benthall

Reflecting on H.R. McMaster’s How China Sees the World essay about the worldview of China’s government and how it is at odds with U.S. culture and interests, I am struck by how much of these tensions are about information ideology. By information ideology, I mean “information ethics”, but applied to legitimize state power.

I certainly don’t claim any expertise on the subject of China–I’ve never been there! But McMaster’s argument, as written, is revealing. McMaster is pointing the ambiguity of China’s position: it is both ambitious and insecure. But it is just as revealing of the contradictions in U.S. information ideology as it is of the CCP’s political ambitions.

The distinctions McMaster draws between China and the U.S. are familiar. Rather than become “more like the West” as it modernizes, China is developing and building a different model. McMaster identifies several features of Chinese internal and foreign policy, which he claims is inspired by a historical period in which China was a major world power able to exact tribute from less powerful states.

  • Suppression of internal dissent–include Tibet, and religious groups.
  • Creation of a surveillance apparatus.
  • Aligning the ideology taught in the universities with the state’s ideological interest.
  • An economic policy geared towards extracting “tribute”–which is another way of saying that they are trying to capture surplus. The economic policies include:
    • “Made in China 2025” — becoming a science and technology leader. McMaster criticizes the part of this policy which involves forced technology transfer for foreign firms trying to access the Chinese market.
    • The “Belt and Road Initiative”: lending money to other countries for infrastructure improvements, which then means clientele nations are debtors.
    • “Military-Civil Fusion” — All citizens and organizations are part of the state intelligence system. This means that Chinese companies and researchers, even when acquiring and researching at foreign companies or universities, are encouraged to feed technology back up to the state.

McMaster’s critique of China, then, starts with human rights abuses but settles on the problem of “cybertheft”–the transfer of technology to the Chinese state from U.S. funded research labs and companies.

This transfer is both militarily and economically significant. From the perspective of a self-interested U.S. policy, these criticisms are alarming. But the blending of the human rights moralizing with the economic complaint is revelatory of McMaster’s own information ideology. The writing blends the human rights interests of individuals and the economic interests of large corporations as if this were a seamless logical transition. In reality, this is not a coherent line of reasoning.

Chinese espionage is successful in part because the party is able to induce cooperation, wittingly or unwittingly, from individuals, companies, and political leaders. Companies in the United States and other free-market economies often do not report theft of their technology, because they are afraid of losing access to the Chinese market, harming relationships with customers, or prompting federal investigations.

Here, for example, the idea that Chinese espionage is subversively undermining the will of individuals is blended together with what we must presume is an explicit technology transfer requirement for foreign companies trying to sell to the Chinese market. The first is an Orwellian dystopia. The second is a form of overt trade policy. It is strange that McMaster doesn’t see a bright line of difference between these two ways of doing “espionage”.

The collapsing of American information ideology is even clearer in McMaster’s articulation of “Western liberal” strengths. Putting aside whether, as Goldsmith and Woods have recently argued, U.S. content moderation strategies are looking more like Chinese ones all the time, there is something dubious about McMaster’s appeal to the perhaps greatest of U.S. freedoms, the freedom of speech, given his preceding argument:

For one thing, those “Western liberal” qualities that the Chinese see as weaknesses are actually strengths. The free exchange of information and ideas is an extraordinary competitive advantage, a great engine of innovation and prosperity. (One reason Taiwan is seen as such a threat to the People’s Republic is because it provides a small-scale yet powerful example of a successful political and economic system that is free and open rather than autocratic and closed.) Freedom of the press and freedom of expression, combined with robust application of the rule of law, have exposed China’s predatory business tactics in country after country—and shown China to be an untrustworthy partner. Diversity and tolerance in free and open societies can be unruly, but they reflect our most basic human aspirations—and they make practical sense too. Many Chinese Americans who remained in the United States after the Tiananmen Square massacre were at the forefront of innovation in Silicon Valley.

It is ironic that given McMaster’s core criticism of China is its effectiveness as causing information and ideas to flow into its security apparatus for the sake of its prosperity, he chooses to highlight freedom of expression as the key to U.S. and liberal innovation. While I personally agree that “freedom of expression” is good for science and innovation, McMaster apparently doesn’t see how limiting technology transfer is itself a limitation on the freedom of exchange of information.

McMaster uses the term “rule of law” here to mean primarily, it would seem, the enforcement of intellectual property rights. However, some of the cases he raises as problematic are those where a corporation trades access to IP in return for market access. This could be seen as a violation of IP. But it might be more productive to view it more objectively as a trade–perhaps a trade that in the long run is not in the interest of the U.S. security state, but one that many private companies willingly engaged in. Elsewhere, McMaster points to the technology transfer via Chinese researchers from U.S. funded university research labs. While upsetting the geopolitical balance of power, there are many who think that this is actually how university research labs are supposed to work. Science is at its best with “freedom”, with public results, in part because it is the exposure to public criticism by the international community of scientists that gives its results legitimacy.

Viewed from the perspective of open scientific cooperation, McMaster’s main complaint against China boils down to the idea that it is free-riding, in the economic sense, on U.S. investments in science and technology. This is irksome but also in a real sense how scientific progress is supposed to go. McMaster’s recommendations amount to economic and intellectual sanctioning of China: excluding its companies from the stock market, and punishing U.S. companies that knowingly aid in China’s human rights abuses. However well-motivated these ideas, they don’t resolve the core problem at the heart of these relations.

That problem is this: the U.S.’s international leadership has involved, in part, its enforcement of intellectual property rights. These intellectual property rights have allowed U.S. companies to extract rents and have prevented other countries from developing competitive militaries. U.S. technological supremacy has, among other things, made the U.S. an effective exporter of military technology. But this export trade only works if other countries cannot reverse engineer the technology. In some cases, they have been prevented in doing this by “rule of law”–U.S. led international law–but not that soft power is fading.

So McMaster’s policy recommendations are an attempt to carve out a separate sphere of influence in which U.S. intellectual property titles are maintained. This boils down to the idea that in some places, U.S. telecom companies should continue to extract IP rents, instead of Chinese state-owned telecom.

McMaster argues for “strategic empathy”–seeing the world the way the “other” sees it. But a simpler approach might be viewing the world “strategically”–i.e., in terms of incentives and the balance of power in the world. A question facing the U.S. going forward is whether it can make being a tributary of the U.S. intellectual property regime (not to mention debt regime–discussing the history of the IMF is out of scope of this post) more compelling than being a tributary of the Chinese state. For that to work, it may need to get better clarity about its own ideological interests, and stop conflating its economic incentives with moralistic flappery.