Western perceptions of digital innovation have long remained in thrall to East-Asia. Just as Japan was seen as the world-leading innovator in micro-electronics and computers during the 1980s, China is now widely considered to be leading the development of artificial intelligence. Western news media, policy and public opinion perpetuate a sense that “China Is Dominating Artificial Intelligence” (Forbes 2018), “Will China Lead The World in AI by 2030?” (Nature 2019), “China – The First Artificial Intelligence Superpower” (Forbes 2021), and variations thereof. The ways in which AI is discussed and imagined in the West therefore continues to lean heavily on the notion that AI is being done by the Chinese in different, more rapid and efficient ways.
Such discourses are not without substance. China is certainly home to some of the world’s most successful AI companies, with the Chinese government promoting AI as a central tenet of its strategies toward economic development and political stability over the next 20 years. In contrast to the oscillation of Western computer science between relatively bountiful ‘AI springs’ and fallow ‘AI winters’, Chinese AI is seen to be experiencing a prolonged AI ‘heat wave’ – bolstered by significant state involvement and support. Indeed, the Chinese government support for AI has been described as a “real existential threat to US technological leadership” (Chen 2019).
Nevertheless, these discourses around AI are also underpinned by a continuation of ‘techno-orientalist’ discourse (Roh et al. 2015) that has long influenced Western thinking around emerging technologies. Thisframes Chinese society and culture in hyper-technological and distinctly ‘othering’ terms – what Huang (2020, p.59) describes as “a form of accelerationism where China is unstoppable in its technological development”. Crucially, while China is acknowledged to be making great strides in the development of emerging digital technologies, this is also framed in largely pejorative terms. Indeed, current Western discourses around China and AI span a range of contradictory characteristics – in one sense spanning what Lawrence Lek (in Huang 2020) describes as the “exotic, bizarre, tacky, and cheap”, while also seen as chillingly authoritarian, unethical and oppressive.
Common tropes around China’s involvement in AI innovation throughout the twenty-first century therefore repeated return to notions of China as a ‘copy and counterfeit’ culture, as well as a place of mindless labour – with people working hard in high-tech factories without capacity for critical or original creative thought. At the same time, China is seen a place where the state make extensive use of digital technology to enforce totalitarian control, while Chinese companies gain unfair competitive advantage from the nation’s fierce protection of its internal market. As Huang (2020, p.46) concludes:
“According to techno-orientalist stereotypes, China is home to a generic communist horde that threatens to imitate (and potentially steal and undermine) Western techno-hegemony”.
Of key significance to our own research on facial recognition technology, is how these views are being espoused (and perhaps internalised) by Western IT industry actors involved in the development and roll-out of facial recognition technology in Australian society. Certainly, AI-related discourses from Western news media, policy-makers, academia and IT industry actors continue to draw regularly on notions of ‘look at what China is doing’. Commenting on academic depictions of developments in big data and commercial dataveillance, Wu (2020, p.7) notes how “the new spectral China begins frequenting conferences, journals, and PowerPoint slides”. Similarly, in-depth research by Dan Kotliar (2020) describes how Israeli IT start-up developers are happy to rely on reductive (and in some instances racist) connatations of somehow operating along more expert and ethical lines in comparison to their much more successful Chinese competitors – therefore justifying their own actions in terms of ‘old colonialist’ tropes.
Indeed, the forms of technological ‘othering’ that typify Western views toward Chinese AI echo the forms of cultural differentiation described by Edward Said (1978) as ‘Orientalism’. Here Said examined how perceptions of South and East Asia during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were defined by recurring tropes and clichés drawn from colonial and imperialist perspectives – all implying a stark distinction between the ontological and epistemological foundations of ‘the Occident’ (self) and ‘the Orient’ (other) in order to justify Western superiority, authority and capacity to reconstruct the passive and weak Oriental other. The current literature on technological orientalism suggests that such discourses are being perpetuated in terms of the twenty-first century context of artificial intelligence.
As such, it is worth paying closer attention to how IT industry actors in the West are talking about ‘Chinese’ facial recognition and the imagined ways that facial recognition is being developed and implemented in the Chinese context. In one sense, facial recognition industry talk about China is likely to be projective in nature – in short, using the idea of China as “a screen on which the West projects its fears of being colonized, mechanized, and instrumentalized in its own pursuit of technological dominance” (Roh et al. 2015). Similarly, industry talk of China is also likely to play a part in justifying local actions – a key part of what Kotliar (2020, p.932) describes as “tech companies’ attempts to point their gaze at far-away populations, and to localize their platforms or contents based on this gaze”.
It is also important to pay attention to what is not being said in Western portrayals of ‘Chinese’ facial recognition. For example, this might involve missing out on the distinctly different epistemological lines along which facial recognition technologies are being imagined in China – such as the common emphasis placed on the potential for AI as a replacement for elite expertise rather than the Western tendency to see AI as a means of replacing human labour (Wen 2018). Elsewhere, as Fan Yang (2021) details, this might include overlooking issues of citizen resistance, the circumvention of facial recognition-led surveillance, and the general disconnection between Chinese people and the state ideology. All told, there is a need to point out ways in which Western perceptions of ‘Chinese’ FR are able (or not) to engage with the diverse, heterogenous, pluralistic realities of China as a technological society, culture and economy.
Finally, it is also important to explore the extent to which Western facial recognition industry talk of China acknowledges the interdependence between East and West. In reality, the development of facial recognition technologies does not take place in national or regional silos. Instead, the development of facial recognition technologies is dependent on considerable international flows of data, ideas, expertise and funding between industries in different regions. In this sense, concentrating on Western facial recognition industry discourses about China is also a useful way of understanding issues of power and political economy around the global expansion of facial recognition and other biometrics technologies.
Our research into the growth of facial recognition technology in Australian society would therefore do well to address three associated research questions, i.e.:
- How is ‘China’ being talked about in Western conversations about facial recognition? In what roles and guises is ‘China’ imagined (e.g. commercial firms, state intervention, citizen-users), in what contexts of facial recognition development (specific technologies, specific use-areas & applications), with what imaged motivations, and with what imagined consequences?
- Why is ‘China’ being talked about in Western conversations about facial recognition? How are perceptions of Chinese facial recognition development being used to rationalise actions by Western commercial actors, as well as the actions of Western state/government actors?
- What is not being said in Western conversations about China and facial recognition? What forms, uses, justifications, and practices are not foregrounded in Western conversations about Chinese facial recognition? What might be gained by Western actors by engaging with these current silences and gaps in their knowledge of the development and implementation of facial recognition technology in China?
Chen, W. (2019). Now I know my ABCs: U.S.-China policy on AI, big data, and cloud computing. East-West Center. https://www.eastwestcenter.org/publications/now-i- know-my-abcs-us-china-policy-ai-big-data-and-cloud-computing
Huang, Y. (2020). On Sinofuturism: resisting techno-orientalism in understanding kuaishou, douyin, and Chinese AI. Screen Bodies, 5(2), 46-62.
Kotliar, D. (2020). Data orientalism: on the algorithmic construction of the non-Western other. Theory and Society, 49(5), 919-939
Roh, D., Huang, B. and Niu, G. (2015). Techno orientalism: imagining Asia in speculative fiction, history, and media. Rutgers University Press
Said, E. (1978). Orientalism. Pantheon
Wen, H. (2018). Information fantasies. China Review International, 25(3-4): pp. 280-282
Wu, A. (2020). Chinese computing and computing china as global knowledge production. Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience, 6(2), 1–12.
Yang, F. (2021) https://twitter.com/fanyaang/status/1401345350372270081