Panelists discussed Chinese energy policy, surveillance, artificial intelligence, and leader priorities at the fourth Dean’s Symposium on Social Science Innovations on Thursday.
Titled “China in Focus: New Social Science Approaches,” the event was hosted by Harvard Dean of Social Science Lawrence D. Bobo as part of the running Dean’s Symposium series that began in 2021. Vice Provost for International Affairs and History professor Mark C. Elliott moderated the discussion.
Panelists included Sociology professor Ya-Wen Lei, History of Science professor Victor K.G. Seow, Government professor Yuhua Wang, and Economics professor David Y. Yang.
“The world’s attention seems focused on China in a way that just is relentless,” Elliott said. “I can tell you that was not always the case.”
Lei and Yang both expressed concern about what they described as China’s growing use of technology to constrain personal freedoms.
Lei said China has employed “surveillance capitalism” to maintain power, adding that China has a “mixed ideology of techno-nationalism, technological fetishism, and meritocracy that tend to justify social exclusion and inequality.”
Though Lei said she believes China approaches policy making with science and objectivity, she said many times “the real outcome diverges from what they want.”
Yang, who discussed the mutually beneficial relationship between AI and autocratic states like China, said technology has the potential to shift the world’s political equilibrium in favor of authoritarian governments.
He added weak democracies and other governments tend to buy AI technology from China when experiencing public unrest.
“In the year when there is local political unrest, there is a substantial increase in the likelihood that that country is purchasing facial recognition AI services from China,” Yang said.
“It could generate a spreading of similar autocratic regimes to the rest of the world,” he added.
Wang argued that Chinese rulers cannot prioritize both staying in power and creating a powerful state because a strong state requires empowering elites, who can then overthrow the leader.
“If you want to stay in power as long as possible, you have to have an incoherent elite — you need to fragment the elites,” Wang said. “If the elites are too coherent, if they trust each other, they can take actions; then the ruler is in danger.”
Wang added that a fourth of all Chinese emperors were assassinated by elites around them.
Seow said China, along with many other countries, embraced what he called a “carbon technocracy” in development by using mass energy extraction.
Historically, energy extraction has carried “staggering human and environmental costs,” he added.
“Some scholars say that China has been experiencing a gilded age, but there is a dark side behind the gilded facade,” Lei said.
—Staff writer Cam E. Kettles can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cam_kettles.