Google Widens War With China On the Future
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Google this week moved to restrict Huawei’s access to its Android operating system and apps. The big-tech tiff is also a major escalation in a war to determine which form of government will dominate our future.
Here’s the big-picture question behind the current cyber battles: If innovation and superiority in smart industries define global economic prowess, can a country that limits its population’s access to the Internet win?
Under President Xi, Beijing has made an aggressive push to dominate cyber. China is no longer the manufacturer of cheap, cute gizmos. Nor is it any longer merely a technology copycat, either. Amazon innovators often nervously glance at their Chinese competitor, Alibaba, and at times borrow marketing ideas from Jack Ma’s shop, just as his Alibaba, er, borrows tricks from them.
Huawei’s chief, Ren Zhengfei, tried to allay his customers’ fears about Google’s move. His “What, me worry?” act carries some weight. Sure, being cut off from the Android system will hurt Huawei, but Ren’s company didn’t become the world’s second largest manufacturer of smartphones by mere chance. A force to reckon with, Huawei is big, advanced, and innovative.
The huge success of Messrs. Ma, Ren, and other Chinese titans of smart industries suggests that the country’s blend of capitalism and a government-steered economy can advance far beyond what we predicted a decade ago.
It is possible that in the coming decade these Chinese capitalists, currently operating under the ever-watching eye of nervous apparatchiks, will overcome them and free China from under Communism’s yoke. For now, though, Mr. Xi and his enforcers see them as agents in Beijing’s drive to compete with America for global leadership.
And, at least by some indicators, we’re doomed in that competition. Thirty percent of bachelor degrees in Chinese universities are in engineering. In America, where victimhood “sciences” are greatly prized, only 5% of students opt for engineering. Chinese students majoring in computer-related sciences lead their American counterparts by a ratio of three to two.
Then again, formal education isn’t everything. Both Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were university dropouts, but between them a whole new industry was created. They practically reinvented today’s economy.
Why? Because they could. The Internet started out as a military program, but its Great Leap Forward (to borrow from Mao) was made possible because capitalism allows access to everyone.
In China, an ever-paranoid government meticulously monitors cyber interactions, lest some independent thought lurking in the Web’s crevices penetrates the Great Firewall. Yankee tech giants so far have tolerated Beijing’s commissars and agreed to operate under their rules.
Those rules mean that unlike people living under other dictatorial regimes, mortal Chinese find it nearly impossible to bypass Big Brother. Iranians, for example, are brilliant at dodging state restrictions, finding one tool after another to access banned info. Not so the Chinese.
Why? Iran relies on Western satellites for Internet access. China has its own, so rather than surfing the sprawling, global Web we’re familiar with, the Chinese get online through a huge intranet, which is almost hermetically sealed from the outside world. Only authorized information gets through.
So while countless keyboard warriors curse Mr. Trump 24/7, criticism of Mr. Xi on Weibo, China’s well-monitored short-messaging platform, is mild, if it exists at all.
The battle, then, is between a strictly managed, top-down system and a free economy.
The winner won’t necessarily be the manufacturer of the best smartphone. After all, how long will we even use smartphones? Even the race to unroll 5G, the next-generation Internet that Huawei now seems to lead, may well mark just another phase.
What about the Next Big Thing, whatever it is? Regrettably, it’s no longer guaranteed to come from America or other innovative free societies like Europe, South Korea, or Israel. Let’s hope it does. Because if a regime like today’s China dominates the industries of the future, well, winter is coming.
Twitter: @BennyAvni. This column first appeared in the New York Post.