Monday, November 14, 2022

Communication Nation

Guest Blogger

Nick Frisch 

One of the more elusive words in Mandarin is jiaotong. It means, roughly, “communications,” both in the sense of moving physical objects, and also the flow of information—think “traffic,” “connectivity,” “transport,” and “infrastructure.” In the names of Chinese institutions, the word occurs in contexts that an English-speaker might find puzzling. China has several dedicated jiaotong universities, and a behemoth jiaotong bank. Today, Beijing’s official department for jiaotong translates its name as the Ministry of Transport. This huge bureau reflects the Chinese state’s obsession with managing flows of people, products, information, and capital: the Ministry has a heritage that dates back to imperial China, older than either the People’s Republic (founded 1949) or the Communist Party (founded 1921) its bureaucrats now serve.

In the 21st century, in places like Silicon Valley, we have come to see the spread of modern communications and logistics infrastructure across borders as an unalloyed good. China has not always viewed jiaotong with such enthusiasm. China’s jiaotong institutions have roots in a painful history that inverts the West’s narrative of borderless techno-optimism. During Europe’s colonial expansions, China learned hard lessons about jiaotong—and what happens when you don’t control it on your own sovereign territory. These lessons guide the Communist Party’s current decisions on access to, and control over, the traffic of both physical goods and information flows.

In the mid-19th century, foreign gunboats forced China to open to international commerce, diplomacy, and religion. “Barbarian” missionaries, merchants, and soldiers poured into China’s ports and hinterland. New treaties ceded colonial concessions to European colonial powers and Japan. At strategic hubs like Shanghai, foreign powers carved out de jure enclaves of extraterritoriality, operating their own police forces, courts of law, and customs offices. Foreign banks financed the building of railways and telegraphs, reaching from treaty ports deep into China’s upriver hinterlands. Parallel railroads and telegraph lines were built together along the same routes, transmitting messages in foreign scripts, manned by foreign personnel and patrolled by foreign troops.  In telegraphy, Morse Code was designed to be most efficient for European languages. China was slow to adapt: even for a telegraph sent between Beijing and Shanghai, it was quicker and faster to send in English or French than in Chinese.

China’s populace, and eventually its rulers, came to understand jiaotong — communications technology—as a tool of imperialists to project power into the Middle Kingdom. 

The imperial court in Beijing was slow to realize the strategic importance of foreigners’ jiaotong technologies. When a British businessman built a sample rail track outside Beijing, in 1865, the court dismissed the contraption as a quaint curiosity; the line was dismantled on the grounds of bad feng shui. In 1906, after decades of dithering, the Guangxu emperor founded the predecessor to today’s Jiaotong Bu (Ministry of Transport), the Ministry of Posts and Communications, which also oversaw China’s rail network. Its founding signaled a belated acknowledgement of the importance of mastering European logistics and communications technology—a modernizing reform that came too late to save the tottering dynasty. A generation of Chinese engineers went abroad to study roads, railways, and telecommunications, but found their efforts back home stymied by corruption, war, and political dysfunction.

That lesson stays with Chinese leaders today, and explains their skepticism of giving foreign entities any systemic access or control to critical markets, infrastructure, and information systems. The political and economic significance of the internet dawned slowly on the Communist Party. Until around 2010, foreign platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter were tolerated in China, and accessible to anyone with an internet connection. In its early years, the Chinese internet was a niche curiosity used by coastal elites, not a society-wide platform of potential influence. Domestic Chinese tech firms often started by cloning the products of their Western counterparts, but soon evolved in other directions as their consumer base grew. China’s newly affluent middle classes, many of whom had never owned a P.C., bought affordable smartphones and created new markets for goods and services. Chinese tech firms—equivalents to Amazon, Uber, Grubhub, and Taskrabbit—grew through fierce competition in a billion-plus consumer market. As the Chinese government grew suspicious of foreign corporations’ potential influence over China’s jiaotong, it suited companies like Baidu and Tencent to kneecap foreign rivals where possible, while consolidating their own positions against domestic competitors. Platforms like Twitter or YouTube, whose products are mostly online software, lost access to Chinese markets; some foreign firms selling hardware, like Apple’s iPhones, have retained access on condition that they domesticate their Chinese operations. This means submitting to the type of oversight, surveillance, and censorship measures expected from local firms as well. China’s leaders believe they have captured the benefits of modern jiaotong technologies, without surrendering control.

History has taught Communist Party that roads and railways equal power—the power to develop a region on your own terms. China’s high speed rail network, patched together with IP from Germany and Japan, and indigenous innovation, first started operations over a decade ago, between affluent coastal cities like Shanghai and Guangzhou. The bullet trains now extend to Tibet and Xinjiang. Rail lines have facilitated migration and opened up markets, bringing the power of the state closer to local populations previously ruled only at an arm’s length, or with crude methods. Today, Chinese yuppies can vacation in distant corners of the People’s Republic, and order extra tents and sleeping bags for speedy delivery to even remote towns. In the far reaches of Xinjiang, villages bordering Central Asian nations have better cellular service than the Amtrak route from Boston to Washington, D.C.

Beijing is proud of China’s advances in  jiaotong, and rejects Western criticisms about coercive uses of logistics and communication infrastructure. WeChat, the all-in-one app that facilitates ubiquitous communication, commerce, and surveillance, has become indispensable for everyday life. It has also become a cudgel: social undesirables and dissidents have had their WeChat accounts permanently disabled, equivalent to being digitally disappeared.

During the pandemic, China pulled up its drawbridges further, restricting its own population’s ability to circulate abroad and barring most foreigners from entry. Chinese state propaganda hails a new model of “dual circulation”—developing robust internal markets in goods and services, to counterbalance perceived overreliance on international flows of products, capital, and information. The slogans are a latter-day echo of nineteenth-century anxieties over foreign control of infrastructure on Chinese soil. In the last decade, as China’s domestic jiaotong infrastructure has strengthened, its leaders have embarked on an ideological quest to diminish the influence of foreign corporations, ideas, and capital. Simultaneously, China’s investments of jiaotong mean it can now project influence abroad. Overseas infrastructure projects, both communications and transportation, are funded by Chinese state-backed loans overseas, are built and supervised by Chinese firms like Huawei, or state-run enterprises affiliated with government departments like the Ministry of Transport. China’s most successful cultural and communications export to date is TikTok, the addictive short-video app, whose parent company, ByteDance, is headquartered in Beijing. Now countries like the United States, so accustomed to being rule-makers in global communications, are pondering whether and how to erect walls to keep out TikTok, Huawei’s 5G infrastructure, and other jiaotong exports. American, European, and Japanese policymakers are attempting to offer alternatives to China’s offers to build roads and rails across the developing world. China’s obsession with controlling and developing its own domestic jiaotong may become a victim of its own success.

Nick Frisch is a Resident Fellow of Yale's Information Society Project. You can reach him by e-mail at



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