Jonathan Hillman starts his analysis of "China's quest to wire the world and win the future" with an ebulliently optimistic quote from Ronald Reagan. Thirty-three years ago, just after leaving the presidency, Reagan declared that "the biggest of big brothers is increasingly helpless against communications technology". This book explains why - sadly - Reagan was wrong.
Hillman, a researcher at Washington's Centre for Strategic and International Studies (a quite pessimistic thinktank), seeks to outline China's transformation in the digital world "from customer to supplier, from copycat to innovator, from network offshoot to operator". He contends, incontestably, that "communications are racing faster, reaching further, carrying more and increasingly coming from China".
Fortunately, Hillman's thesis is not hobbled by China defeatism or determinism. He focuses on the United States' singular advantages in the digital realm: world-class research universities; innovative companies; deep pools of private capital; openness towards immigrants; and a global network of partners and allies. Any Australian might feel deeply jealous when reading that list of national assets.
Congress, the economy, the mid-term elections and Biden's tactics willing, Hillman may be preaching to the converted. If the United States' national skills base were enhanced, its infrastructure renovated, its scepticism towards China sustained, then American policy might actually align with what Hillman wants.
In his run-through of the historical record, however, Hillman offers one proof after another of how agile and alert China has been in building and using its strengths. He pays less heed to "lying, cheating and stealing" intellectual property than to China's employing all those legal options available to a country controlling access to a huge domestic market.
Huawei features prominently in the story, but so do other companies working on satellites, telecoms networks, fibre-optic cables and the diplomatic patina associated with talk of a Digital Silk Road. He then concentrates on efforts to control the flow of data, finance and communications around the world, again noting both China's edge and American capabilities.
Hillman works hard to make the masses of techno detail accessible to a general reader. He is especially good at describing China's attempt to impose "total surveillance of every inch of public space" in the country. Technological dexterity is credited in part, as is "old-fashioned intimidation". The technological corollary, also analysed here, is China's capacity to monitor, censor and cut off incoming traffic.
Hillman knows why it matters that Djibouti will host eleven cables, what Border Gateway Protocols regulate and why Glasgow, Montana, matters in an account of digital silk roads. He concludes that strategic competition with China will not be fast, easy or cheap. Surely nobody thought so any more. On the other hand, "it does not take a crystal ball or Hollywood screenwriters to imagine a world wired by China".
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