AI Reigns and Blockchain Rises in Chinese State Media

As tech fever swept across China over the past decade, the Chinese government itself has been a tireless cheerleader of various technologies. One way to gauge the relative enthusiasm Beijing has for these technologies is to track their mentions in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) mouthpiece newspaper People’s Daily.

The data here focus on references of five foundational technologies from 2011 to 2020: artificial intelligence, semiconductors, blockchain, quantum computing, and 5G (see Figure 1). This isn’t meant to fully reflect CCP thinking, but tracking these terms over time can serve as indicators of what is preoccupying the CCP’s attention and the industries it is hyping up.

Figure 1. Mentions of Foundational Technologies in People’s Daily, 2011-2020Note: See brief methodology at the bottom for the search terms used, caveats, and further details.
Source: Author.

It’s clear that references to “AI” saw an astronomical rise from 2015 to 2018, before largely plateauing through 2020. The term skyrocketed from just 11 mentions in 2011 to 1,302 in 2020. What’s notable is that AI mentions had been growing by more than 100% annually in the two years before the release of the AI plan that put the world on notice about China’s ambitions.

But that intense focus on AI obscured the attention the CCP also lavished on other technologies. Over the same 2015-2018 period, articles referencing semiconductors doubled to over 500 per year, while those mentioning quantum computing and related technologies quadrupled to 200 annually (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Zooming in on Technologies Beyond AI, 2011-2020Source: Author.

References to semiconductors dipped in 2020, which may be a response to intense US attention on the sector. It was a year in which China’s access to advanced chips came under threat and technological self-reliance was named a “strategic pillar” of national development. Downplaying strategic initiatives in Party press when they become the target of foreign scrutiny is a tactic that Beijing has used with its “Made in China 2025” plan.

Perhaps the most striking trend in recent years has been the rise of “blockchain.” Between 2017 and 2020, blockchain references multiplied by a factor of seven from just 40 to over 280 per year. That explosive growth is similar to AI’s trajectory in the run-up to the release of the 2017 AI plan, but it isn’t as clear if blockchain references will see sustained growth.

That’s because unlike AI, which have seen fundamental progress and many real-world applications, the jury is still out on blockchain’s applications and benefits. It is possible, then, that the Chinese government start to lose interest in hyping blockchain technology, similar to how mentions of quantum fell after 2018.

Despite much Western media attention on 5G, that term gets the fewest references of the five technologies in People’s Daily. However, if looking only at headlines referencing these technologies (as opposed to the full text of articles), 5G does much better comparatively. Over the past two years, 44 articles had “5G” in their headline, making it second only to AI with 112 headlines (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. “5G” Garners the Second Most Headlines in 2019-2020Source: Author.

This dissonance between headline and body text references is peculiar and warrants further investigation. One possible explanation is that the higher headline count for “5G” represents a concentrated emphasis on deployment of 5G technology itself, but the relatively few total references highlight its limited immediate applications across adjacent industries, meaning 5G gets mentioned less often in articles on other technology subjects.

The above data present an initial, and imperfect, snapshot of which foundational technologies the CCP’s official mouthpiece press deemed most worthy of attention over the past decade. These insights could be further enriched through deeper analysis of the texts and of the relationship between these trends and corresponding Chinese government policy.

Brief Methodology:

To construct this dataset, I compiled a list of relevant Chinese terms for these foundational technologies and scraped the People’s Daily website for articles referencing those terms. In some cases, multiple terms are used to reference a single technology (e.g. semiconductors), and so the results for multiple Chinese terms were combined for a single technology. In other cases, terms were left out because they garnered so few references, or turned up too many false positives.

I employed frequent spot checks and occasional sanity checks when navigating these decisions. On balance, these limitations may have led to a slight undercounting of AI references and a slight overcounting of semiconductors and quantum technology.

Terms employed for searches:

AI: 人工智能, 机器学习

Semiconductors: 半导体,芯片,集成电路

Quantum: 量子

Blockchain: 区块链

5G: 5G, 第五代移动通信

Matt Sheehan is a Fellow at MacroPolo. You can find his work on tech policy, AI, and Silicon Valley here.

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