The case for collaborating with China on tech and AI

AI Safety Summit China China's cice minister of ministry of science and technology, Professor Wu Zhaohui speaks at the AI Summit. Image credit: Marcel Grabowski / UK government

With the AI Safety Summit and the chancellor’s Autumn Statement bookending last month, November provided plenty to dissect for the UK tech industry.

China’s role at the AI summit dominated the headlines, with former Prime Minister Liz Truss among the most vocal critics. With 28 countries in attendance as well as heads of the world’s most valuable and influential tech companies, including Meta, Google, and X / Twitter in town, the event exemplified the magnitude of an issue which has welded itself to the public consciousness in the past year.

It was encouraging to see many of these leaders set aside past preconceptions and geopolitical differences. AI transcends borders and excluding a country comprising 17% of the world’s population would have been an extraordinary omission.

In the very same month, President Xi and President Biden came together to try to address some of their differences, too.

International collaboration is fundamental to progress

Collaboration between nations was identified at the summit as crucial to AI’s future. It therefore followed that involving a nation central to international AI research was a sensible decision. A global issue such as AI safety will inevitably need an international solution. The agreement of the Bletchley Declaration – of which China was a signatory – at the AI summit represented a major step towards this.

Nonetheless, despite fairly limited involvement in discussions, the very attendance of a Chinese delegation drew criticism from certain quarters.

Indeed, Liz Truss’ open letter to the government summarised the wedge that exists around this contentious issue, writing that she was “deeply disturbed” by Rishi Sunak’s invitation to China and warning of a “cavalier attitude to international law.”

The current prime minister’s response was in direct contrast to his predecessor’s, however. The extension of a tentative olive branch would not have happened had the summit taken place a year earlier, which would have left a large hole in the discussions.

Serious progress on the issue of AI regulation could not have claimed to be made without the involvement of the world’s second-largest economy and key international tech hub.

China’s tech ecosystem – the UK Tech Advocates view

In November, UK Tech Advocates and Tech West England Advocates led the first tech-focused trade mission to Hong Kong since the post-pandemic opening. Over a week, the delegation toured the Hong Kong Science & Technology Park as well as Hong Kong Cyberport. Our community also launched Tech Hong Kong Advocates at Preface, an important Edtech business in Hong Kong expanding to the UK.

I then travelled with our Tech China Advocates leads to Chongqing, Wuxi and Shanghai. While the latter will be well-known by most, the first two will likely be less familiar. For context, Chongqing is a municipality with a population roughly three times the size of London. Wuxi’s population is also significant – 7.5 million at last estimate. I visited Innovation Zones in all three cities.

Concerns around China will likely always exist, and there are no doubt fundamental political differences which are challenging to look past. However – given the size and scale of China’s market and influence – it’s important to have some level of engagement to understand what is happening in these key hubs.

How can the West learn from China when it comes to tech?

China has become a very innovative nation, and some of its technology is surpassing many Western countries. For example, it has become the largest and most significant market for electric vehicles (EVs). In Shanghai, The National Eastern Tech-Transfer Centre is a national-level regional technology transfer platform – the scale of its corporate and government innovation programmes as well as its focus on university spinouts is significant.

China’s tech success story is in part due to its commitment to science-based education. There were 22 Chinese universities featured in the Academic Ranking of World Universities, behind only the United States in terms of overall representation.

Tuition fees are far lower in China, with many courses in the region of £2,600 per year, compared to more than £9,000 for domestic students in the UK. This makes accessing the technological knowledge in China more attainable. Cultivating the next generation of tech leaders starts with the availability to learn, and China is investing in this approach.

Clearly, there is work to be done to overcome the challenging differences which have created chasms between China and the rest of the world. Technology can be an important way to collaborate, and addressing some tensions over AI in Bletchley was undoubtedly an important step.

Although it may not be an easy journey, tech may well hold the key to unlocking a trade pathway of mutual benefit. Chinese and British tech businesses may be able to find ways to expand to each other’s market, especially in areas like climate tech, healthcare and energy transition, where both markets are addressing common issues and challenges.

Russ Shaw CBE is the founder of Tech London Advocates & Global Tech Advocates, and a regular UKTN columnist.