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. economic and military power. “Very dangerous,” President Donald Trump said recently when talking about the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei; National Security Adviser John Bolton has warned of a “Manchurian chip.”

Yet if China’s rapid technological advance came as a shock to most observers in the United States, for Chinese leaders it reflects a drive that dates to the origins of the People’s Republic. President Xi Jinping has described a formidable objective for Chinese tech: “catch up and surpass.” But that ambition, abbreviated as ganchao in Chinese, has long been one of the Chinese Communist Party’s defining goals; it remains the essential framework for understanding China’s ambition to become a technological superpower today, bringing together the legacies of Marxism, Maoism, and the tortuous pursuit of modernization by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In the minds of China’s leaders, from Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping, technological progress is not only a means to economic and military prowess but also an ideological end in itself—offering final proof of China’s restoration as a great power after decades of

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