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Emergence of a Technological Society
Sino(techno)phobia rises among Western technological leaders
By Josef Gregory Mahoney  ·  2020-03-20  ·   Source: NO.13 MARCH 26, 2020
Chinese technology giant Huawei opens its first flagship store in France in the center of Paris on March 5 (XINHUA)

The emphasis on developing science and technology and closing the gap that had emerged historically between China and the West has been and remains a key goal of Chinese leaders who have long understood that the Chinese nation's rejuvenation depends on it. Today, on many fronts, these efforts have paid major dividends, with China increasingly drawing even with and in some cases surpassing leading international competitors. This in turn has led increasingly to what I call a rising Sino(techno)-phobia, i.e., a fear of Chinese technological advances, particularly in Washington, which has targeted especially China's 5G leader Huawei, as a threat to Western technological dominance.

Technical to technological society

China has long been an advanced technical society as popularly attested by the Four Great Inventions (papermaking, compass, printing and gunpowder), as underscored exhaustively by British biochemist, historian and sinologist Joseph Needham's series on the history of Chinese science and technology. As D.E. Mungello, a U.S. historian, describes elsewhere, when Europeans traveled to China to visit the Ming (1368-1644) court in the 16th century, the technological and cultural advances observed by these visitors led some to classify Chinese people as "white." It was only later, when the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) was in decline and Europe was on the rise that Orientalism colored Chinese both yellow and scientifically inferior.

Among those initial European encounters were Jesuit priests and scholars, who brought their best propaganda with them aiming to convert Chinese to Christianity and extend Western influence.

The development of European art and aesthetics had led to advances in realism in artwork, and their religious themed paintings sought to impress both hearts and minds.

However, according to Peter Golas, a professor of history at the University of Denver, the Chinese were not impressed. While Chinese acknowledged the technical marvel of realism, they found the mish-mash of brushstrokes used to produce it to be too inelegant. They also judged realism to be both inartistic and deceitful. In other words, they viewed these works as being technologically flawed insomuch as art must be found first in the stroke and finally in the aesthetic purpose of the work. And what was the aesthetic value of reproducing reality except to present it in an unrealistic way, e.g., to promote religious ideological narratives?

In the 20th century, scholars began to debate the so-called Needham puzzle. They asked, why did China fail to develop as Europe did the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution despite enjoying essential cultural and scientific advances at least a century ahead of all others?

Dozens of scholars have addressed the Needham puzzle and put forward a great number of theories aimed at solving it. Their arguments variously emphasize cultural, institutional, geographical and economic differences, and there are many other possible explanations, including the destabilizing impact of the Mini Ice Age, as Chinese meteorologist Zhu Kezhen's groundbreaking research first explored almost a century ago.

In fact, many of these views are compelling, especially when they are combined with each other, insomuch as the conditions they describe are deeply intersectional; but all of them fail to differentiate between a technical and a technological society.

In China's case, its incredible expertise in flood control, irrigation, development of effective professional governance in a large state and other forms of technological development indicate its achievements as a technical society. It ought to be clear to everyone that Chinese writing among other cultural products is among the most technically oriented in the world. However, a technological society is one that transcends the mere utility of technique and instead puts technology in the first position, and that is what happened first in the West and then elsewhere.

The French philosopher and theologian Jacques Ellul introduced the concept of the technological society in 1954, and with concerns similar to those raised by the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, marked its emergence in Europe as a moment when the West inverted a longstanding hierarchy: Instead of tools serving people, the order was effectively reversed and people instead served tools or simply became more like a tool. Ellul and Heidegger were both horrified by these developments, and the latter even drew inspiration from Japanese Zen Buddhism, which originated in China, in his lifelong criticisms of technology's growing supremacy.

Given the proliferation of technology today, many can quickly grasp how it has reshaped human life for better and worse. Many around the world today question, for example, whether our smart devices serve us or vice versa, and the extent to which we are puppets of artificial intelligence (AI), big data, social media and platform companies, all of which contribute to "inescapable surveillance capitalism, the impossibility of data privacy, the normalization of stealth mass-manipulation and nudging campaigns, the experience of post-truth rationalities, and the reduction of individuals to constantly accessible screen-brain interfacing," to quote a recent article I published with Maximilian Mayer, assistant professor in international studies at the University of Nottingham Ningbo, China.

And above all, many believe today's younger generations above all have been transformed, producing both generation gaps and new forms of alienation as well as exciting new breakthroughs in science and computing that convey, frankly, benefits for everyone.

The key point here, however, is not to debate the pros and cons of these changes, but rather to note that since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949 and to some extent since the May Fourth Movement in 1919, popularly known as the start of modern Chinese history, China has rapidly transformed from an advanced technical society into an advanced technological society, and indeed, increasingly occupies a leading position globally in an era when doing so is not only inescapably vital for independence and security, but also a key driver of a global technological culture sometimes at odds with traditional national values, as well as a producer of other forms of insecurity if not fear.

A resident scans a QR code for health condition screening before entering a grocery in Zhengzhou, Henan Province in central China, on February 19 (XINHUA)

Going against logic

The fear that technology will erode traditional values and transform younger generations particularly is nothing new, and neither is the fear China would eventually learn from Western science and technology and surpass the West. Even the German polymath and Sinophile Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz had these worries in the early 18th century, as did Heidegger toward Asia generally in the mid-19th century. Consequently, it should be unsurprising that many in the U.S. today are unnerved by China's rise and contest it whenever possible.

The problem with doing so, however, is threefold. First, it runs against the very logic that the West foisted on the world by establishing the technological society as the basis for international competition and which continues to drive Western thought and development. In a word, therefore, to argue against one's own normalizations is irrational.

Second, it risks a deepening and mutually destructive conflict. Some believe this has already appeared in the growing calls for "decoupling," but plausible, worst-case scenarios that may follow can be found in the post-human landscapes described recently by Jairus Victor Grove in Savage Ecology: War and Geopolitics at the End of the World (2019). In fact, the problem isn't simply that the worst-case scenarios of harming each other might emerge, although indeed they might. Rather, a more immediate concern is that the world today requires more integration and working with each other in order to address problems like climate change, global economic recession, and the current global pandemic of COVID-19.

Third, despite the social and cultural costs associated with technology and the rise of technological society, and despite the need to better control these developments in ways that preserve humanity, to suppress others' technological development while advancing one's own is both hypocritical and unjust, and will only produce more harm than good.

China's emergence as a leading technological society is irreversible at this point, and the sooner this fact is absorbed intelligently, without Sino(techno)phobia and bellicosity, and instead with moves toward responsible exchange and partnership, the better.

The author is professor of politics and director of the International Graduate Program in Politics at East China Normal University in Shanghai

Copyedited by Madhusudan Chaubey

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