Face recognition equipment in China's subways.

In a recent U.S. government ranking of companies producing the most accurate facial recognition technology, the top five were all Chinese companies. China is currently installing facial recognition equipment across entrances to many of its subway stations.

Imaginechina via AP Images

Nation & World

Why China has edge on AI, what ancient emperors tell us about Xi Jinping

5 min read

Recent event examines what social sciences can tell us about rising economic, geopolitical power

Dictatorships and authoritarian regimes tend to trail more democratic and inclusive nations in fostering cutting-edge, innovative technologies, such as robotics and clean energy.

Artificial intelligence may prove an exception, at least in China, owing to dovetailing interests.

Harvard Economics Professor David Yang  spoke to the outsized success of China’s AI sector at a recent dean’s symposium on insights gleaned from the social sciences about the ascendant global power. As evidence, he cited a recent U.S. government ranking of companies producing the most accurate facial recognition technology. The top five were all Chinese companies.

“Autocratic governments would like to be able to predict the whereabouts, thoughts, and behaviors of citizens,” Yang said. “And AI is fundamentally a technology for prediction.” This creates an alignment of purpose between AI technology and autocratic rulers, he argued.

Because AI heavily depends on data, and autocratic regimes are known to collect vast troves of it, this advantages companies with Chinese government contracts, which can turn around and use state data to bolster commercial projects, he added.

Yang’s research shows China exporting huge amounts of AI technology, dwarfing its contributions in other frontier technology sectors. Yang also demonstrated that autocratic regimes around the world have a particular interest in AI. “AI quite startlingly is the only sector out of the 16 frontier technologies where there’s disproportionately more buyers that are weak democracies and autocracies.”

“Autocratic governments would like to be able to predict the whereabouts, thoughts, and behaviors of citizens. And AI is fundamentally a technology for prediction.”

David Yang, associate professor of economics

And just when are these countries most likely to buy the technology from China? Yang ended his symposium talk by mapping the uptick in purchases that follow political unrest and protest events. “To the extent that technology is exported,” Yang concluded, “it could generate a spreading of similar autocratic regimes to the rest of the world.”

Hosting Yang’s presentation was Lawrence D. Bobo, Dean of Social Science and W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences. Launched in 2021, these virtual symposia gather scholars from across the division to trade research and thinking on topics of broad interest. “China in Focus: New Social Science Approaches,” which was held earlier this month, was moderated by Mark C. Elliott, the Mark Schwartz Professor of Chinese and Inner Asian History and vice provost for international affairs.

More bold predictions came from Professor of Government Yuhua Wang, whose current research relies not on contemporary economic data, but ancient indicators.

Drawing from his recent book “The Rise and Fall of Imperial China: The Social Origins of State Development,” Wang shared a chart of emperor assassinations across 2,000 years of Imperial China. Gathering this data meant analyzing the biographies of nearly 400 Chinese emperors, from the Qin Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty. Turns out, about a quarter were assassinated by members of their own government and most likely during economically strong governments, hitting their peak circa 900 A.D. during the late Tang Dynasty.

“Why do we see this contradiction between the strength of the ruler and the strength of the government?” Wang asked. “Chinese rulers — historically but also contemporarily — face a tradeoff that I call the Sovereign’s Dilemma.” That is, a coherent set of government elites is capable of strengthening the state but equally capable of overthrowing the boss.

On the other hand, fragmented elites spell longevity for rulers and decline for states. This is the very dynamic Wang sees playing out today under Chinese President Xi Jinping, whose anti-corruption campaign threatens government insiders with investigation and arrest.

As evidence of splintering elites, Wang cited the sudden pivot from China’s zero-COVID policy and the recent appearance of spy balloons in U.S. airspace. “It’s very clear the people sending balloons, maybe in the military, were not talking to the Foreign Ministry who were about to welcome [U.S. Secretary of State Antony] Blinken” for an official visit, Wang said.

“What happens is probably a very dramatic but also gradual decline of the capacity of the Chinese state.”

Also featured at the two-hour symposium was Victor Seow, assistant professor of the history of science, who covered 100 years of intensive energy extraction under multiple regimes in the country’s northeast. Ya-Wen Lei, associate professor of sociology, unpacked the human costs of China’s speedy transition from labor-intensive manufacturing to a science- and technology-driven economy.

Professors like these put the Division of Social Science in a strong position, Bobo noted at the end. “Harvard will be at the forefront of China scholarship for years to come.”