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China’s Long March to Technological Supremacy

The Roots of Xi Jinping’s Ambition to “Catch Up and Surpass”

Signs advertising 5G and China Unicom go up in Shanghai, April 2019 Aly Song/REUTERS

Until recently, American perceptions of Chinese technology tended to be either hopeful or dismissive. On the hopeful side, the information revolution was taken as a sure drive of greater freedom. “Imagine if the Internet took hold in China,” George W. Bush said in a presidential debate in 1999. “Imagine how freedom would spread.” Some observers noted considerable theft and imitation of U.S. technology firms, but Chinese technology was generally thought to represent little or no competitive threat, with analysts explaining—as a 2014 Harvard Business Review headline put it—“why China can’t innovate.”

But China has quickly moved up the value chain, creating world-class industries in everything from 5G and artificial intelligence to biotechnology and quantum computing. Some experts now believe that China could unseat the United States as the world’s leading technological force. And many U.S. policymakers view that prospect as an existential threat to U.S.

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