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China's 'Panda' Imperialism

Bright B. Simons, Essex, England, June 23, 2008

The primary driving force behind standardization in China is, however, the medium-term blueprint for innovation and its vision that China should become by 2020 a significant source of international standards.

Standards are the structures that govern transactions.

It follows that global standards govern global economic transactions, and for that matter legal and geopolitical transactions. The very flow of international business and diplomacy rests therefore upon the bedrock of standards.

The influence of this fact on the thinking of world leaders is reflected in the now famous assertion by Peter Mandelson, the European Union trade commissioner, in an address to his constituency that the export of "our rules and standards around the world" was one major source of European power.

Those regions of the world characterized as "standard takers" rather than "standard makers" thus rail consistently against the imbalance of power within the standards-setting bodies and networks of our global system. Africa is atypical of the "standard-taking" world, and a significant majority of its leaders and policy makers attribute to this woeful situation the sad fact that the continent accounts for only 2 percent of world trade despite having more than 10 percent of the global population.

In fact, given the disproportionate distribution of trading clout on the continent, the 2 percent share does not tell the full story. Sub-Saharan Africa, excluding South Africa, may contribute less than 0.5 percent of world trade, depending on purchasing power parameters and notwithstanding its 8 percent or so share of world population. The role and influence of global standards receives a considerable amount of attention from policy analysts on the continent concerned about the feebleness of Africa's trade strategy.

Even wealthy South Africa has had frequent occasion to feel duped by the standards regime that governs international exchange. The blatant use of self-serving standards by France to cushion its fishermen in Brittany from competition from more-efficient South African exporters has for instance received much commentary.

Now that the China-Africa story has moved beyond the boring and simplistic concerns with "raw material colonialism" (or as some have colorfully described the process of South-South exploitation: "the Bandung Scramble"), a rich array of interesting facets of the Sino-African project are being unveiled, one of which is the issue of standards diplomacy in the context of the evolving relationship between booming China and not-so-booming Africa.

The orientation of Africa as regards global standards has been hinted above; the continent feels wantonly done by and thoroughly dispossessed by a system that ignores its needs and fails to make accommodation for its inputs. This is not the whole story, but presently it is adequate to take that general perception at face value. China's orientation must now be briefly discussed before an analysis can proceed as to whether the burgeoning Sino-African relationship in the standards context is, or will be, marked by a 21st-century maternal-style imperialism (as opposed to a 19th- or 20th-century paternal-style imperialism).

China has been on a standards binge since the early turn of the post-Dengist era. Zhao Chaoyi of China's National Institute of Standardization reports in his informative monograph, "China's Evolving Standards System," that by 2004 the country had 21,342 national standards, 37,850 industry standards and some 15,800 local standards. The infrastructure for churning out these standards is said by Zhao to be underpinned by 25 national research institutes and 158 local counterparts as well as by 12 national standards associations and 257 local versions and driven by an inter-ministerial framework of which the proactive Ministry of Information Industry (M.I.I.) is a key prop.

About half of China's standards are international in origin, and of these more than two-thirds emanate from the I.S.O. (International Standards Organization) and the I.E.C. (International Electrotechnical Commission). The primary driving force behind standardization in China is, however, the medium-term blueprint for innovation and its vision that China should become by 2020 a significant source of international standards.

Zhao puts it pithily as a strategy to turn around the current focus on integrating international standards into national processes to one of internationalizing national processes by way of converting them to global standards.

Two insights emerge. China desires to create such self-evidently successful benchmarks of innovation that their export will be straightforward, but the strategists at Beijing also wish to influence the global trends that influence the direction of innovation in the first place. This two-pronged approach obviously has a common stem, and one that is adequately illustrated by the WAPI (WLAN Authentication and Privacy Infrastructure) saga.

No doubt most people are already aware of the WAPI story. China shocked the global electronics industry with an announcement in late 2003 that it intended to require all wireless products sold on its vast market to comply with a locally developed standard that in its view embodied greater levels of security than pre-existing standards. The pre-eminent standard then and now was the I.E.E.E.'s (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers') 802.11x "Wi-Fi." China claimed that its WLAN (Wireless Local Area Network) Authentication Privacy Infrastructure successfully remedied acknowledged defects in the Wi-Fi protocol.

This claim while not entirely ridiculous was open to some debate. The worrying thing, though, was that access to this technology was to be governed by an intellectual property rights regime that was blatantly designed to compel the transfer of technology from foreign technology firms to Chinese "partners" in a skilled policy to seal Chinese superiority in the global wireless domain. The M.I.I.'s adept maneuvering in support of this scheme brings to memory Japan's M.I.T.I. (Ministry of International Trade and Industry) ingenuity of the 1980's.

The narrow defeat of the Chinese standard at the I.E.E.E. underlined for Beijing's strategists the clear fact that "clear and distinct" innovation is only one aspect of the global standards struggle. Also crucial are the international alliances that legitimize the translation of superior innovation to standards dominance, a fact made more poignant by China's membership of the World Trade Organization, with its consistent provisions against the use of standards to gain unfair trade advantage against members ably equipped to assert their counter-interests effectively.

Even more interesting is another dualism at the global level itself. There are two reasonably successful competing global strategies as far as the use of standards as tools for economic expansion and domination goes: the Euro-Japanese approach, which veers more strongly to the rule of law, and the American approach, which veers more to the free market ("veers toward" because in practice grievous deviations are recorded and acted upon by observers). Both approaches yield durable norms, though a perfect (perhaps unattainable?) balance—that is, between free market and rule of law—creates the ideal system.

The worry for some observers is that China may end up embracing none. It is true that Beijing's two-prong strategy to internationalizing its standards is compatible with either global approach, or for that matter, with the ideal balance between the two. And in fact there is some rich evidence of pressures within the Chinese system engrafting the stem of its two-prong strategy atop a mix of the two global paradigms in order to sustain its tentative moves toward standards-driven innovation.

The case of TD-SCDMA (Time Division-Synchronous Code Division Multiple Access) is a clear one in point. This telecommunication architecture is the Chinese answer to global alternatives such as GSM (Global System for Mobile communications)—or its touted replacement WCDMA (Wideband Code Division Multiple Access)—and CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access). Two years after inducting the protocol as a national standard, the usually techno-chauvinist M.I.I. has tarried in issuing licenses for the construction of 3-G infrastructure to promote the standard. Fascinatingly, some Chinese telecom operators have been busy promoting alternative, global architectures.

The M.I.I. seems poised to restrict itself to a regulatory role and thus to enforce the strict application of impartial law in a free market scenario of healthy rivalry. The development of TD-SCDMA applications is fast becoming a bustling scene of local and international exchange between and among research and development firms, marketing companies, and contract manufacturers in a manner that suggest a spontaneous internationalization of the healthiest derivatives of the protocol.

Some observers, against the same background, also point to the rejection of the AVS (Audio Video coding Standard)—approved as a national standard by the MII and by China's audiovisual and broadcast regulators in favor of the Global MPEG-4 standard—as well as to the RFID (Radio Frequency Identification Device—a tagging technology) adoption fiasco, and suggest regulatory competition as another means by which the rule of law can be held in balance with the free market in China. In that regard EVD (Enhanced Versatile Disc)—another M.I.I.-approved national standard in the audio-visual scene -- has struggled not just because it has been typical of the "forced innovation by committee initiative" style favored by a good number of China's standards bureaucrats but also because it simply does not deliver the goods. In the end the market is proving very resilient in the quest for balance.

This is the background, in regard to China's own orientation, against which an analysis of China's standards-diplomacy with the developing world, particularly with Africa, ought perhaps to be assessed. The suspicion about whether the relationship, as raised at the outset, qualifies to be viewed as a "maternal (or, as one wit puts it, 'panda') imperialism" stands or falls to the extent that one current or the other within China's own orientation is predominant in the relationship with Africa.

It must quickly be added that the same yardstick is applicable to the Western orientation in standards diplomacy. For instance, a report prepared for the United Kingdom's information commissioner in 2006 says:

The American NSA [National Security Agency] has established a working relationship with most of the major US software and hardware companies, and through these relationships has ensured that encryption systems within export versions of software in particular are less sophisticated than US internal market versions, and are more easily crackable. The NSA and GCHQ [British Government Communications Headquarters] also do deals with International Licensed Cable (ILC) companies to allow interception. The NSA in particular has been reported to have representatives on transnational standards-setting committees, in particular the MFA [Frame Relay Alliance] Forum (previously the Frame Relay Forum), an unaccountable body responsible for the development of common standards for data transfer, and which also contains all the major telecommunications and computer companies from industrialized nations.

The primary question that concerns this analysis is whether China, even perhaps without self-awareness, is being lured to a "standards imperialism" in lieu of liberal "standards diplomacy" in its relationship with Africa. And the answer that has been implied is that given its particular orientation the settlement of the question will depend on which trends, still nascent as many of them are, become predominant within that orientation.

The factors that will influence the above-stated trends are, however, straightforward.

There is a clear expansion in the influence of developing countries in international standards setting organizations. Within the I.S.O. (International Organization for Standardization) the dominance is already complete: 120 of the 156 member countries are classified as developing, and close to one-third are from Africa. These countries have grown increasingly sensitized to the reality of their potential influence. For instance, the NEPAD (New Partnership for African Development) framework clearly mentions a unified standards strategy for Africa as one of its priorities. Not surprisingly, every diplomatic charter signed between China and Africa in recent years has given clear prominence to "standards harmonization."

Africa is a chronic net importer of technology. Mozambique, to illustrate the relevance of this point, has proprietary standards for cotton feedstock yet uses imported ginneries that assume compliance with global standards. This situation has caused significant stagnation. By rapid transfer of technology—particularly capital technology—to Africa, China could thus promote synchronization of her standards with domestic standards in many individual countries and thus facilitate the diffusion of her standards. This process is ongoing in the southern African nation in question, and is a phenomenon undergirded by trade.

The trade factor is fascinatingly illuminated by the Eritrean experience. The country's leaders have been celebrating a 90 percent switch from the West to China in their sourcing of capital and intermediary technology. Price has been a factor, but so also has better certification, licensing, and marketing-finance terms. Last year, the country's Ministry of Information released an interview of the country's president in which he coupled trade to technology transfer and by so doing indicated a strong self-awareness of a deliberate shift from Western to Chinese standards of technology innovation using references from the country's computer assembly industries.

In the context of the dichotomy posed above, maternal—or panda—imperialism on the part of China will emerge in a scenario where China decides to focus its attention on "induced" harmonization of its standards with those of African countries through diplomatic guile and other guises, such as the "capacity building" programs that it is increasingly foisting on African policy makers, language barrier notwithstanding, in order, among other things, to enhance its influence in international standards organization. From another standpoint, if China, by means of freer terms of trade, succeeds in rapidly transferring its capital and intermediary technologies to Africa so that the eventual tertiary applications, devices, and architectures that emerge on the continent are Sino-compliant rather than "global" compliant, the suspicion of a panda imperialism would prove unjustifiable.

More likely, the process of standards-diplomacy we shall witness between China and Africa will contain multivariate shades of all these trends. By coupling aid to trade, China could accelerate technology transfer beyond the dictates of the market and render it in the interest of African countries themselves to agitate for global acceptance of Chinese standards (since Africans will be innovating within Chinese paradigms using Chinese architectures).

Perhaps, the issue is made murkier by the lack of a universal appreciation of what constitutes "imperialism." An ambiguity, you bet, that will not stop China diffusing its standards in Africa or elsewhere.

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