Chinese Involvement in International Technical Standards: A DigiChina Forum

What's the big deal, and what isn't, with Chinese standards efforts


December 6, 2021

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December 6, 2021

Interest in and concerns around Chinese participation in international standards-setting in technological fields have risen in recent months, especially as the Chinese government has released ever more detail around its efforts to promote standards-setting work at home and abroad.

DigiChina has covered these issues in different ways. Personal data protection was for several years covered in greatest detail by China's Personal Information Security Specification. A 2018 "White Paper on Artificial Intelligence Standardization" (analysis, translation) provided insight into the ways policymakers viewed AI.

Last month, the Communist Party Central Committee and the State Council published the "National Standardization Development Outline," available in translation from Georgetown CSET, laying out some of the top-down goals for Chinese standards development out to 2035—an effort often discussed under the banner of "China Standards 2035."

DigiChina asked several specialists to offer their views on Chinese standards efforts. A simple prompt follows, and their responses will be added as they come in. –Graham Webster, DigiChina Editor-in-Chief

These responses reflect the views of the respondents and do not represent DigiChina as a project or its other contributors, who often disagree.

Prompt: What's the big deal, and what isn't, with China and technical standards

Chinese involvement in international technological standards-setting has are backed by official ambition and rhetoric and have caught the attention of a wide variety of international actors. Yet the world of technical standards is large and diverse, with commensurately varied implications when Chinese or other actors are involved. Viewed from the perspective of China’s place in the world and Chinese influences on international interests, what specific standards-setting activities have implications for what outcomes? How do different intersections of Chinese actors and international standards challenge or serve international security, commercial, or human rights interests? What deserves attention but has not received it; or what preoccupies decision-makers when it should not?


Patrick Lozada, Director of Global Policy, Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA)

At the core of most global standards is the promise of facilitating interoperability between systems, lowering barriers to trade, and decreasing costs to companies and consumers. This should be at the forefront of discussions about China’s participation in and adoption of global standards. 

It is also important to keep in mind that the vast majority of standards-setting activities pose little to no concern with respect to human rights or security. The activities of ISO/TC 23 —a committee convened under the International Organization for Standardization that among other things sets minimum performance and information requirements for machines that milk livestock—are unlikely to impact America’s strategic interests or human rights priorities. 

Even in areas related to emerging technology, it is important to consider that the development of standards takes place in the context of a consensus-driven, rules-based environment with significant public visibility. On a structural level, no single party can determine the trajectory of a particular standard. And if a standard is not in their commercial interest, then companies will not adopt that standard.

There are particular standards that are of concern to information and communications technology (ICT) industry stakeholders. For example, the New IP proposal initially advanced by Huawei and other Chinese stakeholders in the context of ITU-T SG13, a study group under the UN’s International Telecommunications Union, is of concern to a broad array of companies and governments and has security and human rights implications because of how it pushes the architecture of the internet toward state control. The response to standards of concern should be robust participation by global stakeholders for the advancement of common interests in security, rights, and economic prosperity.

What won’t work is having the U.S. government take over the private sector’s traditional leadership role in setting standards for emerging technology or excluding China from the conversations. A government takeover would hurt—not help—American technology leadership; and excluding China from these conversations would only lead it to develop its own problematic standards internally and limit shared benefits in terms of interoperability, reduced barriers to trade, and cost reduction. 

Dr. Tim Rühlig, Research Fellow, German Council on Foreign Relations

Technical standards are omnipresent and shape our daily lives. We profit from the fact that standards create basic safety and interoperability. Technical standards are effective when they receive broad market acceptance based on consensus and when they are accessible to everyone. How come such a cooperative practice has turned into a central battlefield of geopolitical tensions? 

That China’s influence in international technical standard setting is increasing is natural. Innovativeness alongside market power have always been decisive for the ability to shape technical standards. However, technical standards are not simply a public good; they also carry enormous power. Central is that the political implications are not always obvious, since these standards are very technical in nature. Apart from economic distributive effects that can have enormous influence on our competitiveness, technical standards carry normative and security implications as well as creating dependencies: 

Technology is not value-neutral. Whether an innovation is developed in a democratic or autocratic ecosystem can shape the way it is designed—often unintentionally. Only a tiny share of technical standards developed in China reflects authoritarian values, but if they turn into international standards, they carry transformative potential, because once a technical standard is set, accepted, and used for the development of products and services, the standard is normally taken for granted. 

In theory, the transparency and openness of technical standardization should create security. However, the more complex important technical standards get the more difficult it gets to properly review them all. If a country succeeds in establishing a technical standard with vulnerabilities as a global one, it could exploit the resultant backdoor. Technical standards can increase security, but they can also spread vulnerabilities. 

Finally, technical standards create markets. If standards are applied globally, they facilitate trade and fair competition. However, when incompatible standards are established in different parts of the world recipients rely on suppliers that produce according to the technical standards established in their country. If China strategically spreads its own technical standards for critical infrastructure in package deals along the Belt and Road, it creates one of the most effective forms of technological lock-in that turns into political dependency. 

In light of these challenges, the west should acknowledge the strategic nature of standard setting and carefully consider China’s activities. China’s standardization power is not illegitimate as such, and it is not going to go away any time soon. The United States, the European Union, and their like-minded partners need to strengthen their own standardization capabilities and walk a fine line between preserving the privately driven approach that has made us strong and not falling victim to China’s political strategies.

See also Dr. Rühlig’s Dec. 2021 report, “The Shape of Things to Come: The Race to Control Technical Standardisation,” jointly released by the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China, the Swedish Institute of International Affairs and the Swedish National China Centre.

Helen Toner, Director of Strategy at Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET)

The development of fifth-generation (5G) wireless standards looms large in international perceptions of Chinese engagement in standards setting. But an excessive focus on 5G may lead us astray, given how unusual a case it represents. First, telecommunications is an area where global interoperability is nigh essential. To avoid costly duplication of production lines and major cross-border operational headaches, the world must settle on a single set of protocols, meaning that although the standards are voluntary in theory, it's difficult in practice for any given country or company to opt out. Second, 5G—per its name—was the latest in a series of rollouts, so there were clear precedents for how and where the standards would be developed. Third, 5G standards had to be developed and implemented in one coherent package, not piecemeal, in order to function at all. Fourth—and perhaps most importantly—Chinese companies came into the discussions with a clear technological advantage.

These four factors make 5G the exception, not the rule. Compare, for instance, USB standards: Consumers prefer interoperability, but since it is not essential, the iPhone continues to use Apple's proprietary Lightning cable even as most other smartphones switch to USB-C. In other, more emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), no clear precedents exist to dictate which organizations' standards—if any—will be adopted widely. This gives market participants in emerging fields leeway to undermine or simply ignore standards processes whose contributions they do not find valuable. AI also contrasts with 5G in that it encompasses a wide array of disparate technologies, incorporating innumerable technical approaches, tools, and applications. Accordingly, there is no reason to expect that a single, coherent set of standards will be adopted for AI writ large; more likely, specific aspects of AI will be standardized in a range of venues on an ad-hoc basis, limiting the strategic value of interfering with any specific process. Lastly, it is rare for Chinese companies to lead as decisively in a technology as they did in 5G. In most cases, companies from the United States and allied countries will be in at least as strong of a technical position as Chinese companies coming into standards discussions.

This is not to say that there will never be other cases like 5G—there may well be. But we should not think of 5G as representative. Far from creating a meaningful geopolitical advantage, most Chinese state-driven involvement in standards discussions will likely result simply in processes being degraded, producing standards of lower quality. 

A prudent U.S. response to valid concerns about Chinese involvement in standards setting could be, first, to support the industry-led functioning of these processes, including pushing back on Chinese interference and facilitating the engagement of U.S. firms. Second, the United States could monitor ongoing standards processes to identify the small minority of cases where Chinese interference could meaningfully harm U.S. interests (i.e., cases more similar to 5G than to USB-C). Improved situational awareness could enable Washington to take action where warranted, without interfering unduly in the vast majority of standards discussions. Finally, policy that strengthens the underlying U.S. science and technology ecosystem will help bolster U.S. firms in standards discussions of all kinds.

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