Joe Biden’s New Year resolution? A fresh approach to China tech


This FT correspondent doesn’t know whether Donald Trump makes New Year’s resolutions, or if Joe Biden does either. The US presidential transition may be a little too tense for a tête-à-tête about their personal targets for 2021. Instead, this column would like to help out by offering a reflection on what the Trump administration did with its China tech policy and what Biden might resolve to do.

First, while Trump’s approach to Chinese tech leaves much to be corrected, its purported goals — if taken sincerely — are important. China’s government uses technology as a weapon of surveillance not just domestically but internationally. Despite a partial ceasefire agreed with President Barack Obama in 2015, China’s state-sponsored hackers have intensified their cyber attacks on foreign governments and companies.

The state has also tried to hack Tibetans and Uighurs living in exile outside China. Meanwhile, as China threatens to “take back” Taiwan, the de facto self-governing country that it regards as a renegade province, its military technology, particularly satellite systems and missiles, is a major advantage.

Amid these malicious acts, as well as the continued surveillance and attempted hacking of foreign correspondents in China, I am glad some in the US are taking China’s cyber threats seriously. There has been a growing desire in the US government, long before Trump, to take action. But nothing the US did in 2020 — or in the previous three years of the Trump administration, for that matter — has convinced me that the world’s data is any safer from Chinese spying.

Most of the US’s actions on Chinese tech have taken the form of sanctioning individual companies. In the silliest examples, these were done via Trump-issued orders, such as those on WeChat and TikTok. But since Trump faces legal checks and balances, these two orders have gone nowhere. They have, instead, convinced the rest of the world that the US government may try to chase away foreign tech companies on a whim.

More broadly, the US has placed Chinese organisations — from universities to AI surveillance companies — on its ever-growing entity list, meaning that US technology cannot be directly sold to them. This has been pretty ineffective: there are many ways of circumventing the sanctions, such as selling via a third country. Chinese AI start-ups SenseTime and Megvii are still selling to a global market hungry for the surveillance tech that Chinese, Israeli, US and other businesses offer.

For Huawei, the impact has been more severe. The Direct Product Rule closed most sanctions loopholes and this, combined with US lobbying of allies to limit the company from their 5G networks, means the telecoms giant’s profits and future expansion will certainly be slowed. But stripping out Huawei does nothing to solve more fundamental telecoms security risks.

The biggest risk I face when making video calls to my family in the UK is not Huawei’s sloppy coding but western governments pushing for their own backdoors into encrypted messaging platforms such as WhatsApp.

What can Biden do differently? To begin with, the incoming president faces a domestic mess. Once he has cleaned up Covid-19, he can look at repairing relationships with Europe and others Trump has slighted. Only then will he have sufficient strength to achieve anything on China.

Despite complaints from Europe over unilateral US sanctions, there is broad recognition that China’s military build-up has been enabled by foreign chip technologies. Biden’s appointees so far, and their Europe expertise, could help create a forum for building consensus over which military dual-use technologies to restrict.

When it comes to human rights in China, Biden’s goals need to be specific and credible. Sanctions on Xinjiang, for example, must be targeted and tightly enforced. “Whatever was intended by Trump’s sanctions, the effect was more of an addition to decoupling than any type of improvement for the lives of people suffering terrible abuses in China,” says Graham Webster, head of the DigiChina project at Stanford University.

The problem for Biden is twofold: first, the US has lost its dominance in many aspects of global technology. Second, the Trump administration’s offensive on Chinese tech is easily read as a protectionist attempt to claw back that dominance. That is no way of reassuring allies in Europe or Asia. The US cannot be self-sufficient in technology, much as any other country cannot. Reaching out to allies would be a start.

Yuan Yang is the FT’s deputy Beijing bureau chief

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