The rise of China as a technology power: Some principles for a democratic response — Robert Hannigan

Robert Hannigan
6 min readJul 1, 2020

The West’s approach to Chinese advances in technology over the past twenty years has been almost entirely reactive, complacent, and belated. Worse, the democratic world has looked to its own technologists as proxies for a wider political strategy in handling the rise of China. There has been no coherent strategic political approach capable of reacting to Beijing’s newly aggressive stance — highlighted by its abuse of power in Hong Kong — and an apparent inability within or between western governments to decide whether China is an opportunity or a threat. This has suited the Chinese Communist Party’s strategy: its greatest strength has been disunity, apathy and disarray among democratic countries.

China’s rise has also exposed some deep inadequacies in unguided market-driven approaches to technology development in the West. For much of the last forty years it suited western economies to outsource IT manufacturing to China and to ignore the very obvious shift in the last decade as the Chinese academic and tech sector became innovators, backed by a well-funded, centrally-driven technology strategy from Beijing.

This shift was particularly obvious to anyone monitoring cyber space. Chinese state-backed attacks progressed from high volume, low-level raids on intellectual property, albeit on an industrial scale, to highly sophisticated and targeted intrusions into government and private sector. The ‘Cloudhopper’ attacks on household name giants in western IT services, with the clear intent of accessing their customers, showed the scale of ambition, patience and skill of Chinese state cyber actors. If the recently announced attacks in Australia turn out to be inspired by the Chinese state, as the scale, methodology and targeting suggest, that will not be surprising. Yet democratic governments have only recently begun to call out this behaviour and name the source of the attacks, whether from Russia, China, Iran or North Korea; we have paid a price for this collective timidity.

At a political level, western governments have been torn between tantalising opportunities for Chinese trade and inward investment as the Belt and Road Initiative rolls out across the world, and their domestic inability to construct an industrial strategy beyond a four year cycle. The failure to invest in 5G development and the subsequent row over Huawei is only one example. Without a change of direction and…

Robert Hannigan

Cyber Security Specialist. Chairman of BlueVoyant International. Former GCHQ Director & Founder of UK National Cyber Security Centre. Views are his own.