April 5, 2021 | The Brookings Institution

China as a ‘cyber great power’: Beijing’s two voices in telecommunications

April 5, 2021 | The Brookings Institution

China as a ‘cyber great power’: Beijing’s two voices in telecommunications

Executive Summary

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 specifically. This report also contextualizes its analysis in terms of Beijing’s program to become a “cyber great power,” also translated as “network great power,” the blueprint for China’ ambitions to leapfrog legacy industrial leaders and define the architecture of the digital revolution.

A new technological landscape is taking shape. China works to define that landscape. More than ever, it is imperative that China’s ambitions be documented.

Rush Doshi was the director of the Brookings China Strategy Initiative and a fellow in Brookings Foreign Policy. He was also a fellow at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center and part of the inaugural class of Wilson China fellows. His research focused on Chinese grand strategy as well as Indo-Pacific security issues. Doshi is the author of The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order, forthcoming from Oxford University Press. He is currently serving in the Biden administration.

Emily de La Bruyère is a co-founder of Horizon Advisory, a geopolitical consultancy, as well as a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). Her work focuses on China’s standardization ambitions, military-civil fusionstrategy, and platform geopolitics, as well as their implications for globalsecurity and the economic order. She holds a Bachelor of Arts summa cum laude from Princeton University and an Master of Arts summa cum laude from Sciences Po, Paris, where she was the Michel David-Weill fellow. Follow her on Twitter @edelabruyere.

Nathan Picarsic is a co-founder of Horizon Advisory, a geopolitical consultancy, and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). His research focuses on the development of competitive strategies responsive to the Chinese Communist Party’s asymmetric orientation for global economic and security competitions. He holds a Bachelor of Arts from Harvard College and has completed executive education programs through Harvard Business School and the Defense Acquisition University.

John Ferguson is a former Brookings intern with the Center for East Asia Policy Studies and the China Strategy Initiative. He will graduate from Harvard in May 2022 completing both a Bachelor of Arts in Government and a Master of Arts in Regional Studies-East Asia, concurrently in four years. He was previously a research intern for the Director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy and leads the Harvard Undergraduate Foreign Policy Initiative.


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