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China's Dilemma In Race For AI Dominance: Speed v. Control

The remarkable power of ChatGPT on the cutting edge of artificial intelligence took Beijing by surprise. As China rolls out its own version, it remains to be seen how the country will balance the need for control with technological development and innovation

Image of people watching an exhibit at the 23rd China Beijing International High-tech Expo in Beijing, China.

Exhibit at the 23rd China Beijing International High-tech Expo in Beijing, China.

Ju Huanzong via Zuma
Pierre Haski


PARIS — It was Vladimir Putin who uttered this alarming sentence one day in 2017: "The country that becomes the leader in the field of artificial intelligence will dominate the world."

One thing is certain, it won't be Russia, because instead of pursuing this path, it has engaged in an old-fashioned war in the Ukrainian trenches: it got lost along the way.

China, on the other hand, understood the message from its long time friend and ally Putin. In 2015, Beijing placed artificial intelligence (AI) in its "China 2025" plan, which set out the technologies in which the country aspired to become a world leader.

The investments were considerable — more than 20 billion euros, and the 25 members of the Communist Party of China's Politburo, or executive committee, even devoted an entire day of study to AI in 2018.

Chinese catch-up

However, China was caught off guard by the ChatGPT tornado. Despite repeatedly telling itself that America is in decline and that its time has come, it was in the U.S. that this technological breakthrough was conceived, not in the Chinese equivalents of Silicon Valley, in Shenzhen or in the suburbs of Beijing.

In just a few weeks, Chinese companies have also released ChatGPT-like software. Just yesterday, the giant Alibaba announced the launch of a service called "Tongyi Qianwen", which means "the truth through a thousand questions." Other Chinese tech giants, such as search engine Baidu or facial recognition specialist SenseTime, have also announced their own AI projects.

Yet, since this is China we are talking about, it's not that simple. Yesterday, the administration issued its regulation of the sector, a sign that this eruption of conversational software is disrupting the well-established order of Chinese digital technology.

Image of Tongyi Qianwen preview displayed on a smartphone backdropped by Alibaba Group logo

Tongyi Qianwen preview is displayed on a smartphone backdropped by Alibaba Group logo.

Andre M. Chang via Zuma

Weight of Beijing politics

Beijing's first reflex is always control.

The Chinese administration requires the prior validation of all these new services as well as the identification of all their users with their real names. What makes this even more complex is that it requires these services to promote "socialist values" and not convey information that would threaten the power of the state or incite the division of the nation.

In China, the issue is different.

Could Beijing's insistence on control slow down the development of AI? This has been the key question since the beginning of the digital revolution. Many analysts believed that the desire for permanent control would prevent China from staying in the technological race. This turned out to be inaccurate, and Chinese companies are even leading in several areas.

But AI poses a new problem for Beijing's censors, as demonstrated by the speed at which new regulations were published.

In the West, we wonder how to develop ethical AI that would not reproduce societal biases. In China, the issue is different: how to avoid losing control of information and how to avoid a breach in the absolute social control that Beijing has managed to preserve in 30 years of technological innovation.

Six years after Putin's prophecy, international competition in AI has certainly accelerated against a backdrop of increasing geopolitical tensions. AI has multiple facets and uses — political domination is undoubtedly one of those.

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Forced Labor, Forced Exile: The Cuban Professionals Sent Abroad To Work, Never To Return

Noel, a Cuban engineer who had to emigrate to the faraway island of Saint Lucia, tells about the Cuban government's systematic intimidation techniques and coercion of its professionals abroad. He now knows he can never go back to his native island — lest he should never be allowed to leave Cuba again.

Forced Labor, Forced Exile: The Cuban Professionals Sent Abroad To Work, Never To Return

Next stop, Saint Lucia

Laura Rique Valero

Daniela* was just one year old when she last played with her father. In a video her mother recorded, the two can be seen lying on the floor, making each other laugh.

Three years have passed since then. Daniela's sister, Dunia*, was born — but she has never met her father in person, only connecting through video calls. Indeed, between 2019 and 2023, the family changed more than the two little girls could understand.

"Dad, are you here yet? I'm crazy excited to talk to you."

"Dad, I want you to call today and I'm going to send you a kiss."

"Dad, I want you to come for a long time. I want you to call me; call me, dad."

Three voice messages which Daniela has left her father, one after the other, on WhatsApp this Saturday. His image appears on the phone screen, and the two both light up.

The girls can’t explain what their father looks like in real life: how tall or short or thin he is, how he smells or how his voice sounds — the real one, not what comes out of the speaker. Their version of their dad is limited to a rectangular, digital image. There is nothing else, only distance, and problems that their mother may never share with them.

In 2020, Noel*, the girls' father, was offered a two-to-three-year employment contract on a volcanic island in the Caribbean, some 2,000 kilometers from Cuba. The family needed the money. What came next was never in the plans.

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