The information and biotechnology revolutions have changed our world and will heavily inform the future of society. Whoever controls these technologies controls the future, and whoever controls their standardization controls the technologies. China understands this well. For two decades, it has been working to take over international standardization rulemaking bodies to serve the goals advanced in “Made in China 2025” — that is, to dominate world manufacturing and then transition to become the center of the world’s technological innovation
The dangers to the United States are already present, and in forms that are not obvious. These include, first, direct-to-consumer genetic testing. China may be using such testing to gain genetic information that permits the identification and tracking of Americans, including U.S. military and intelligence community personnel or their relatives. Second, health monitoring apps are able to provide geolocation data to Chinese entities, which means to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its security services. This provides location data that is valuable on its own and might be compared with data from other sources to reveal key information about Americans. Third, the CCP, in cooperation with Chinese industrial entities on international bodies, are developing and setting international standards for emerging technologies. China’s influence has grown over the past two decades, and Beijing now possesses leadership roles in standards-drafting technical committees, which means it could shape outcomes to its benefit.
China has formulated a four-step strategy to seek dominance in this area: plan, track, participate and take over. Beijing has boasted that it completed the first three steps and is on the last, which is to “develop indigenous standards and to lead international standardization.” This means China may be replacing international standards with its own standards, in order to control technologies and the market. In 2017, China revised its standardization law, almost 30 years after its adoption in 1989. It also set up the Standardization Administration of China to implement its strategy in the early 2000s. China’s standardization strategy also has been incorporated into the Belt and Road Initiative so that, as countries are weaved into this network, they adopt China’s standards.
Beijing essentially has had the three primary standard-setting international organizations — the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) — under its influence. Two Chinese government officials currently serve as president of ITU and IEC, and placed China’s proxy as the head of the ISO after the organization was led by a Chinese official for many years. Meanwhile, Beijing has taken leadership or other influential positions in the International Accreditation Forum (IAF), United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), American Society for Quality (ASQ) and perhaps others.
China’s strategy to determine the world’s standards appears to be working. In 2019 alone, China submitted 830 standards proposals to the ITU. According to Zhang Xiaogang, former president of the ISO, China planned to initiate 395 international standards by 2020 but, in actuality, it set 495. Zhang claims that “China has made the greatest contribution in the field of international standardization in the past five years.” Indeed, China has dominated 5G standard-setting, for example, in the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), an organization to develop mobile broadband standards, and 90 percent of standard proposals in the 5G super uplink field is done by China Telecom.
Unfortunately, Western countries fail to see the importance of China’s strategic move. Zhang states, “Whoever leads in standard-setting will be the leader of the technology and the controller of the market.” China’s dominance in 5G standards-setting enables it to avoid the West’s sanctions against its tech giants such as Huawei, continue to expand globally, and to dominate the market. This could be a paramount communication-security problem for the U.S.
Of particular importance is China’s standardization strategy — as identified in “China Standards 2035” — on international bodies engaged in developing and setting standards for select emerging technologies. These include advanced communication technologies and cloud computing and cloud services. The United States and its allies must ensure that international standards for emerging technologies are not being designed to promote the interests of China. If China is successful, it would lead to the exclusion of other participants; China would be the architect, builder and maintainer of the 21st century’s information technology infrastructure.
Washington must take steps to bolster U.S. public- and private-sector participation in international standards-setting bodies. The U.S. must underscore the dangers of interacting with Chinese firms. The government, particularly the Department of Homeland Security, has called attention to this, but there is little recognition that U.S. firms understand the risks associated. There must be greater awareness of smartphone apps, which should be graded on user privacy and their security from Chinese penetration. And U.S. entities that permit Chinese entities to exploit data should be subject to possible legal action.
A key question of the 21st century is a holdover from the previous century: Which state will control scientific knowledge and its standards? The answer is not yet clear. Thankfully, in the 20th century, the U.S. surpassed Nazi Germany to dominate physics and related sciences and industries, and generated the century’s most fearsome weapon — the atomic bomb and its progeny, the hydrogen bomb.
If these revolutionary advances occur within the framework of the U.S.-led liberal international order, we are assured improvements to the well-being of people. But if China leads the scientific and technological revolution, these advances will serve the CCP’s inherently malign interests. China will aggressively seize opportunities, particularly in nascent areas where standards are not developed — including biotechnology, genetic engineering, energy production and distribution technologies, aerospace, 5G and artificial intelligence.
If China has its way in standards-setting, the communist regime will control these critical technologies and the global supply chain. That means it would dominate the future of the free world’s economy, media and politics. The United States no longer can afford complacency.
Bradley A. Thayer is the co-author of “How China Sees the World: Han-Centrism and the Balance of Power in International Politics.”
Lianchao Han is vice president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China. After the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, he was one of the founders of the Independent Federation of Chinese Students and Scholars. He worked in the U.S. Senate for 12 years, as legislative counsel and policy director for three senators.