There is a spectre haunting the People’s Republic of China, of commodity fetishism. As the middle kingdom does its best to climb up the superpower charts, its technological prowess, no longer limited to just hardware manufacturing — Chinese companies secured nearly half the global funding for artificial intelligence (AI) development last year — is turning into something of a mass obsession. Smartphones and payment apps are, of course, as welcome as they are lucrative. But what has some people laughing, and others wary, is the fact that the obsession with all things tech is not limited to things that are useful. Or even ones that work.
After setting the world record for the largest number of dancing robots in 2017 (1,007, for those who were wondering), doing even better this year is quite the national obsession. Then there were the many disasters at the Global Intelligence and World Business Summit held in Shanghai. Robot waiters constantly broke down, and their human predecessors had to take over serving entrées. Avatars, androids that will act out actions people think of, found it difficult to push a button. An AI security device, also meant to detect fires, turned out to be a fire hazard. The glitches on the way to a tech-enabled utopia, however, have done nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of the Chinese people about the marvels and promise of technology. And despite the deep concern of pessimists in the West, the Chinese obsession is something to be welcomed for champions of late capitalism.
That “socialism with Chinese characteristics” may not be that socialist at all — but rather state-run capitalism very much integrated into the global economy — is hardly news. But the obsession with things whose use value is far from certain is a sign that Xi’s China may well be heading the American way: The merits of driverless cars, sugary breakfast cereals and supersized meals are far from certain. China’s obsession with technology need not be threatening. It just shows that an emerging superpower isn’t all that different from its rival after all.