Q&A October 27, 2020

Q&A with Graham Webster of the Program on Geopolitics, Technology, and Governance

Webster explains how DigiChina makes Chinese tech policy accessible for English speakers
Graham Webster Q&A

Graham Webster leads the DigiChina Project, which translates and explains Chinese technology policy for an English-language audience so that debates and decisions regarding cyber policy are factual and based on primary sources of information.  

Housed within Stanford’s Program on Geopolitics, Technology, and Governance (GTG) and in partnership with New America, DigiChina and its community of experts have already published more than 80 translations and analyses of public policy documents, laws, regulations and political speeches and are creating an open-access knowledge base for policy-makers, academics, and members of the tech industry who need insight into the choices China makes regarding technology.

Q. Why is this work important?

A lot of tech is produced in China so it’s important to understand their policies. And in Washington, D.C., you hear a lot of people say, “Well, you can’t know what China’s doing on tech policy. It’s all a secret.” But while China’s political system is often opaque, if you happen to read Chinese, there’s a lot that’s publicly available and can explain what the Chinese government is thinking and planning.

With our network of experts, DigiChina works at the intersection of two policy challenges. One is how do we deal with high technology, and the questions around economic competitiveness, personal autonomy and the security risks that our dependence on tech creates.

The other challenge is, from a US government, business or values perspective, what needs to be done about the increased prominence and power of the Chinese government and its economic, technological and military capabilities.

These questions cut across tech sectors from IT infrastructure to data-driven automation, and cutting-edge developments in quantum technology, biotech, and other fields of research.

Q: How was DigiChina started?

A number of us were working at different organizations, think tanks, consultancies and universities and we all had an interest in explaining the laws and the bureaucratic language to others who aren’t Chinese policy specialists or don’t have the language skills.  

We started working informally at first and then reached out to New America, which is an innovative type of think tank combining research, innovation, and policy thinking on challenges arising during this time of rapid technological and social change. Under the New America umbrella, and through partnerships with the Leiden Asia Centre, a leading European research center based at the University of Leiden, and the Ethics and Governance of Artificial Intelligence Initiative at Harvard and MIT, we were able to build out the program and increase the number of experts in our network.

Q: Who is involved in DigiChina and what types of expertise do you and others bring to the project?

More than 40 people have contributed to DigiChina publications so far, and it’s a pretty diverse group. There are professors and think tank scholars, students and early-career professionals, and experienced government and industry analysts. Everyone has a different part of the picture they can contribute, and we reach out to other experts both in China and around the world when we need more context.

As for me, I was working at Yale Law School’s China Center when I was roped into what would become DigiChina and had spent several years in Beijing and New Haven working more generally on US-China relations and Track 2 dialogues, where experts and former officials from the two countries meet to take on tough problems. As a journalist and graduate student, I had long studied technology and politics in China, and I took on a coordinating role with DigiChina as I turned back to that pursuit full time.

Stanford is an ideal home because the university is a powerhouse in Chinese studies and an epicenter of global digital development.
Graham Webster
Editor in Chief, DigiChina Project

Q. Are there other organizations involved as well?

We have a strong tie to the Leiden Asia Centre at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, where one of DigiChina’s cofounders, Rogier Creemers, is a professor, and where staff and student researchers have contributed to existing and forthcoming work. We coordinate with a number of other groups on translations, and the project benefits greatly from the time and knowledge contributed by employees of various institutions. I hope that network will increasingly be a resource for contributors and their colleagues.

The project is currently supported by the Ford Foundation, which works to strengthen democratic values, promote international cooperation and advance human achievement around the world. A generous grant from Ford will keep the lights on for two years, giving us the ability to build our open-access resource and, with further fundraising, the potential to bring on more in-house editorial and research staff.

We hope researchers and policy thinkers, regardless of their approaches or ideologies, can use our translations to engage with the real and messy evolution of Chinese tech policy.
Graham Webster
Editor in Chief, DigiChina Project

Q. Do you have plans to grow the project?

We are working to build an accessible online database so researchers and scholars can review primary source documents in both the original Chinese and in English. And we are working toward a knowledge base with background entries on key institutions, legal concepts, and phrases so that a broader audience can situate things like Chinese legal language in their actual context. Providing access to this information is especially important now and in the near future, whether we have a second Trump Administration or a Biden Administration in the United States.

On any number of policy challenges, effective measures are going to depend on going beyond caricatures like an “AI arms race,” “cyber authoritarianism,” or “decoupling,” which provide useful frameworks for debate but can tend to prejudge the outcomes of a huge number of developments. We hope researchers and policy thinkers, regardless of their approaches or ideologies, can use this work to engage with the real and messy evolution of Chinese tech policy.