China’s AI Ambitions: Strategic Comparison of Past and Recent Congress Report

The 20th Party Congress report highlights the development of “unmanned, intelligent combat capabilities” in terms of specific uses of AI. This is consistent with the PLA’s ongoing long-term investments in unmanned vehicles at prestigious academic institutions and research centers since the early 2010s. The clear mention of unmanned vehicles outfitted with AI may signal Beijing’s interest in using this particular technology on the battlefield, in contrast to the 19th report’s somewhat ambiguous phrasing of “accelerating military intelligentization.”At China’s recently culminated  20th Party Congress, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping delivered a lengthy speech outlining his vision for development of sophisticated artificial intelligence technology in the present  decade of 21st century where it is aspiring to be a superpower. Notably, compared to his report five years ago, Xi dedicated a whole section to technological development and talent management  and enhancement of existing talent pool in the recently held CPC meetings. At the  same time  Washington has attempted to slow down China’s advancement in artificial intelligence (AI) with various new export controls. Beijing is determined to catch up with a comprehensive set of policy measures sooner or later (Xi speech, 2022). It aims to achieve “great self-reliance and strength in science and technology” in the present and following decade.

This piece will analyze the implications of the 20th Party Congress report on China’s technological development, especially focusing on AI in Chinese at the centre of discussion.

Increasing Technological Development Efforts

Five section of the reports out of 15 sections of  the CCP’s new missions,i.e (section III-Economic development), (section IV- science, technology, and education strategy), (section V- Domestic security), (section XI-  Military and  defense), (section XII- Technological development) underscores  the future ambition of China in emerging as a tech-leader in near future. Xi included a whole section to expound on “invigorating China through research and education and establishing a strong workforce for the modernization push,”(Xi speech,2022). Whereas the 19th Party Congress report only mentioned the innovation-driven development plan in one paragraph. It shows the gravity of orientation of China towards  the development of advanced technology.

Two significant terms in the technological  context that step-in this year’s report compare to Xi’s Party Congress report of  2017 are “technology” and “talents.”

It’s telling that the words “technology” and “talents” are mentioned 55 times and 34 times, respectively, in the report, compared to 25 and 5 uses of each phrase in the 19th Party Congress report. Other tech-related terms including innovation, information, internet, digital, smart/intelligent, and uniqueness also showed up more frequently in the 20th Party Congress report than in the previous one. In the long run, it is obvious from the recently conducted party congress that China’s development plan will be driven by investments in technology.

AI in China’s Military Defense

Given the dual-use nature of this developing technology, China’s main development philosophy for AI has been “civil-military fusion”. In his report to the last Party Congress, Xi explains his views on integrating AI into the Chinese military.

The strategic objective is now “integrated development of the military through mechanisation, informatization, and the use of smart technologies,” or collectively, whereas the previous report promised to make progress in the mechanisation and informatization of its force by 2020.

At a Politburo discussion on military modernization in July 2020, Xi proposed it; it was further developed at the Fifth Plenum of the 19th Party Congress. Notably, the CCP claims that the Chinese military cannot follow the Western development path in military upgrade from mechanisation to informatization to adding artificial intelligence sequentially. China should instead use AI to speed up the automation and informationization of its military forces. Consequently, Xi recommends that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) “study and gain a good grasp of the characteristics of informatized and intelligent warfare and the laws that govern it.” As AI’s applications in defence are currently in their infancy, being the first to grasp their potential will not only allow for more effective deployment but will also help mitigate the risks involved and subsequently make them leader of the world Artificial intelligence.

The 20th Party Congress report highlights the development of “unmanned, intelligent combat capabilities” in terms of specific uses of AI. This is consistent with the PLA’s ongoing, long-term investments in unmanned vehicles at prestigious academic institutions and research centers since the early 2010s. The clear mention of unmanned vehicles outfitted with AI may signal Beijing’s interest in using this particular technology on the battlefield, in contrast to the 19th report’s somewhat ambiguous phrasing of “accelerating military intelligentization.”

Bejings’s Roadmap to Technological Autonomy

The 20th Party Congress report is in line with what Xi is doing to increase China’s independence because he believes that “foreign measures to stifle and control China may rise at any time.” More precisely, Xi emphasizes innovations in fundamental technologies that result from original research supported by a talented pool that is competitive. A market-oriented system for technical advancements, which Xi suggested in 2017, is no longer the preferred course of development. Instead, he instructs scientists to meet “national strategic demands.” It first appeared in the National Science and Technology Innovation Plan in 2016 during the 13th Five-Year Plan Period, therefore this phrase is not wholly new. 

However, dropping the term “market-oriented” from the report and designating “national strategic demands” as the new course for technological advancement suggests possibly more concerted government efforts to direct, if not force, Chinese researchers to work on projects that Beijing considers to be priorities. According to earlier documents, such efforts in the field of artificial intelligence typically involve the “bottleneck” technologies for China, such as high-end generic chips, basic software, and the underlying technologies for core electronic equipment.

Xi regards abilities as the “main resource” for achieving technological self-reliance. In addition to fostering great brains at home through improved education, China will step up efforts to draw talent from outside. China has already created a number of programme, such as the “Thousand Talents Program,” which was introduced in 2008 and is intended to bring in STEM researchers and engineers. Given that Xi said that “no effort should be spared and no rigid boundaries should be drawn in the endeavour to bring together the best and the brightest from all fields for the cause of the Party and the people,” more aggressive measures may follow as Beijing seeks “comparative strengths in global competition for talent.” 

The CCP also recognizes the importance of international cooperation to advance research and development (R&D), as Xi proposes to “expand science and technology exchanges and cooperation with other countries.” In fact, despite geopolitical unease, China and the United States have generated the largest amount of cross-national collaborations in AI publications from 2010 to 2021, nearly three times more than between the United States and the United Kingdom, the second most productive pair. While Beijing is eager to engage with foreign researchers and institutions, the scale of collaboration may hinge on Washington’s evaluation of associated costs and benefits, given its concerns about technology transfers.

Xi also notes in the report that improving intellectual property rights, building scientific innovation hubs, broadening funding sources, changing money distribution procedures, and elevating private sector R&D leadership as further initiatives to aid China’s technological development.

Understanding the CCP’s policy priorities for the next five to ten years requires in depth knowledge of the report from the 20th Party Congress. The report’s detailed examination in light of the previous version reveals Xi’s conviction that technology plays a crucial role in propelling China’s development and realising “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” and show the prowess of China in scientific development to the world. Furthermore, the CCP has given AI a lot of attention as a promising new technology. In response to U.S.-led containment, this report follows that trend and commits to making even greater efforts to advance the core technologies with top personnel and coordinated state backing. This paper also suggests a more practical integration of AI into the PLA’s combat capabilities to show the world that China is moving parallel if not ahead with most developed countries in the AI domain.

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A. R. Alok is a Master’s student in International Relations at Jawaharlal University, New Delhi.

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