Beijing’s two voices in telecommunications

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External Chinese government and commercial messaging on information technology (IT) speaks in one voice. Domestically, one hears a different, second voice. The former stresses free markets, openness, collaboration, and interdependence, themes that suggest Huawei and other Chinese companies ought to be treated like other global private sector actors and welcomed into foreign networks. Meanwhile, domestic Chinese government, commercial, and academic discourse emphasizes the limits of free markets and the dangers of reliance on foreign technologies — and, accordingly, the need for industrial policy and government control to protect technologies, companies, and networks. Domestic Chinese discourse also indicates that commercial communication networks, including telecommunications systems, might be used to project power and influence offensively; that international technical standards offer a means with which to cement such power and influence; and — above all — that IT architectures are a domain of zero-sum competition.

That external Chinese government and corporate messaging might be disingenuous is by no means a novel conclusion. However, the core differences between that messaging and Chinese internal discussion on IT remain largely undocumented — despite China’s increasing development of and influence over international IT infrastructures, technologies, and norms. This report seeks to fill that gap, documenting the tension between external and internal Chinese discussions on telecommunications, as well as IT more broadly. The report also parses internal discourse for insight into Beijing’s intent, ambitions, and strategy. This report should raise questions about China’s government and commercial messaging, as well as what that messaging may obscure.

This report is motivated by China’s growing influence in telecommunications and the growing controversy accompanying that influence. However, China’s telecommunications resources, ambitions, and strategic framing are intertwined with those around IT more broadly. For that reason, this report reviews Chinese government, commercial, and academic discussion of both IT generally and telecommunications…

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