The digital economy boom keeps momentum
By Ma Xiangdong  ·  2021-03-01  ·   Source: NO.9 MARCH 4, 2021
Unmanned delivery vehicles on display at the World Intelligent Connected Vehicles Conference in Beijing on November 12, 2020 (XINHUA)

The term digital economy has become a buzzword on the roadmaps for development unveiled by multiple Chinese regions for 2021 and longer term. For example, both Beijing and Shanghai aim at becoming international digital economy hubs.

Guangdong Province in the south, too, has proposed to build the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area into a full-fledged global digital economy powerhouse.

The southwestern province of Guizhou, which has the nation's first big data pilot zone established in 2016, also disclosed its latest agenda to boost the utilization of the thriving technology.

In recent years, the revolution of information technology has propelled the evolution of the digital economy.

From 2017 to 2019, the average annual growth rate of the value-added output of China's digital economy stood at 20 percent.

The market value of the sector totaled around 35.8 trillion yuan ($5.5 trillion) in 2019, accounting for 36.2 percent of the national GDP, up 1.4 percentage points from 34.8 percent in 2018. The digital economy boom has developed a strong momentum against the backdrop of exceedingly complicated external challenges.

The digital economy served as a mainspring in the resumption of social and business activities during the COVID-19 epidemic last year, easing downward pressures on China's economy.

At the same time, epidemic response measures offered yet another incentive for the acceleration of digital economy development, setting in motion widespread application of new technologies such as 5G and artificial intelligence (AI). These innovations prompted the greater use of non-contact living and working styles such as e-commerce, video conferencing, virtual schooling, sharing platforms and telemedicine.

Last year, the value added of information transmission, software, and information technology service industry improved 16.9 percent year on year, while online retail sales of physical goods went up 14.8 percent.

Around the world 

The digital economy has also witnessed its fair share of strong development in other parts of the world over the past few years. Its global value added came to some $31.8 trillion in 2019, a year-on-year increase of 5.4 percent, 3.1 percentage points higher than the global GDP growth rate that year. The share of the sector in the world economy reached 41.5 percent, up 1.2 percentage points from 40.3 percent in 2018.

In 2020, digital technologies such as AI, big data and cloud computing, together with online business models, advanced swiftly, injecting impetus into the world economy against the deep downturn caused by COVID-19.

According to the Global Competitiveness Report 2020 released by the World Economic Forum, economies such as the Netherlands, New Zealand, Switzerland and the United States maintained greater resilience throughout the ravages of the pandemic thanks to their cutting-edge digital economy sectors and mature digital technologies.

A trending reversal 

In recent years, the rise of unilateralism, protectionism, isolationism and technological decoupling attempts has threatened the globalization process.

The pandemic dealt a heavy blow to the already sluggish world economy and intensified anti-globalization sentiments. The majority of nations imposed strict restrictions on cross-border travel and international transportation to stop the spread of the virus. Several economies such as Italy, the Czech Republic, Spain, France and Japan even launched nationwide lockdowns, disrupting global production and supply chains.

The limitations to cross-border travel and global trade eventually led to the shortage of anti-epidemic supplies across several regions, crippling the notion of globalization at large. Countries such as Japan and the U.S. took matters one step further, revealing their plans to shift overseas production chains either back home or to other regions.

Nevertheless, the digital economy has changed the ways of production and life and simultaneously revolutionized modes of cooperation in terms of international trade and multinational investment, becoming a noteworthy force pushing against anti-globalization. 

Accelerated digital transition in technological, trade, finance, administration and security sectors has boosted the stability of global industrial and supply chains as well as forged more intricate connections between separate territories.

Although the pandemic admittedly escalated anti-globalization tendencies in the short run, the digital economy has thus far showed it can provide an impelling cause for globalization in the long run by taking on a key role in supporting epidemic prevention and control while ensuring industrial and social activities. It will surely go on to wield a huge influence on global trade, economic and social development, the international order and the global governance system.

Lingering challenges 

To promote the development of the digital economy worldwide, all parties involved must gear toward narrowing the digital divide and improving governance rules and regulations.

The current rules for cyberspace governance, as dictated and dominated by a handful of countries, more and more lag behind the rapid development of information technologies and the overall digital economy, let alone the demands of the modern day era.

The revamped and ever-more powerful digital age we now embark upon requires the creation of a set of digital governance rules that bear open, inclusive, and development-oriented features based on the principle of multilateralism.

Chinese President Xi Jinping stressed at the Davos Agenda virtual event of the World Economic Forum on January 25 that "we need to follow a people-centered and fact-based policy orientation in exploring and formulating rules on global digital governance" in upholding multilateralism and building a community with a shared future for humanity.

The world's major nations are expected to boost the digital economy and improve global digital governance rules to overcome anti-globalization tendencies and promote an all-inclusive and balanced economic globalization that seeks win-win cooperation.

As the world's second largest power in terms of digital economy, China needs to increase its participation in the formulation of global digital governance rules and regulations. 

Additionally, it should team up with other countries in the realm of digital economic governance and participate in the upgrading of existing international rules within both international and regional economic organizations such as the UN, the World Trade Organization, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, the Group of 20, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and BRICS.

Last but not least, China must hone its skills and focus on the issues of data security, cross-border e-commerce, digital certification and information technology in negotiations for bilateral and multilateral international trade and investment agreements such as the China-Japan-Republic of Korea free trade pact and the China-Norway free trade agreement.

The end goal should be to make global supply chains more reliable, stable and open, promote the healthy and sustainable development of the digital economy, and contribute to global digital governance. BR

The author is an honorary research fellow with the Research Center for Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era of Beijing.  

This is an edited excerpt of an article originally published in Guangming Daily 

(Print Edition Title: Strength of Digitalization) 

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon 

Comments to lixiaoyang@bjreview.com 

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