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China's abroad technical expertise is torn when it comes dwelling

May 16, 2021, 6:00 a.m.

When Liu Chen (who asked for a pseudonym), a senior engineer on TensorFlow's Google Artificial Intelligence (AI) team, decided to leave the company to return to Beijing, his friends back home were confused. Chinese students flock to California's universities and technology firms by the thousands to embark on a technical career. Nine out of ten Chinese AI graduates stay in the United States five years after graduation. On the brink of this digital frontier, however, an emerging generation of Chinese experts trained and educated in the United States are responding to the call to join the National Home Rejuvenation Project, where their Silicon Valley pedigree gives them intoxicating power to transform organizations , Industry and culture.

As China's tech industry has matured, big firms like Baidu, Tencent, Alibaba, and ByteDance have set up satellite offices in the San Francisco Bay Area, where recruiters compete with firms like Google, Apple, and Facebook for Chinese talent. They offer a work culture in which their mother tongue is spoken regularly and cafeterias on campus serve Chinese cuisine. For many it is a stage before they return to managerial positions on the mainland. Chinese engineers and scientists drive many US company innovations, but are less likely to rise to management than their Indian or European counterparts, adding to the appeal of returning home.

Back with Chinese technology giants like ByteDance, Baidu or Tencent, they are a sought-after talent group. "I've been interviewed a lot in-house … about Google's software engineering and engineering culture," said Liu of his arrival at Tencent. "ByteDance is copying Google's engineering culture and some best practices," he said of the TikTok developer. "Baidu has always copied Google." Tencent, he said, also uses Google's Engineering Style Guide.

The relative adolescence of China's tech sector means that companies have focused more on fast iteration at the expense of long-term product stability – a kind of start-up mentality that is widespread across the industry. “A lot of my friends don't have adequate technical aesthetics. They're just trying to finish the job, but they don't care if it's done nicely, ”Liu said. This delayed digital maintenance results in brittle code bases, security holes, or dependencies on outdated third-party software that are difficult and frustrating to resolve. Veterans like Liu understand the methods required to address these systemic problems. "I think with more and more people like me returning to China, we will change the technical culture in China."

The size and power of Chinese companies make up a large part of their appeal to engineers. Tencent's WeChat has more than 1.2 billion users and has become a de facto digital profile for Chinese citizens, facilitating everything from identification to mobile banking to healthcare and grocery delivery. ByteDance's TikTok short video app has become a hit in the US and Europe. Behind these giants are a number of medium to large companies that are often unknown in western markets. Many of them count Chinese local and regional governments as well as state financial institutions among their main customers. This has fueled the growth of a domestic AI industry that grew to a market of more than $ 75 billion in 2018. The party intends to double that advance by pouring $ 400 million into the sector in hopes of establishing China as the leader of AI by 2030.

Associated with this tremendous growth is a demand for skilled engineers, with Chinese firms sometimes outperforming their counterparts in the US by offering greater leverage and better compensation packages. Many developers of these technologies may work to refine certain parts of a model or algorithm without knowing how their source code will be used in third-party applications or even in-house products. The combination of powerful open source toolkits and the harvest of massive amounts of data from an internet-connected population of 8 million citizens is fueling Chinese innovation in AI and deep learning – technologies that rely on huge amounts of data to improve accuracy and innovation.

For example, midsize companies like CloudWalk Technology can process tens of millions of video recordings to enhance the facial recognition software they sell to more than a thousand customers, from banks to law enforcement agencies to intelligence services. Their technology has been used by local and federal governments in China in controversial efforts to identify ethnic minority Uyghurs both inside and outside their home province of Xinjiang, deeply intertwined with a mass attack recently classified as "genocide" by several foreign governments is the use of police technologies.

These stories are dystopian. But within China and within its global digital ecosystem abroad, these technologies also ensure a noticeable increase in living standards and strengthen trust in the nation and its culture as a global superpower. Advanced technologies in classrooms, hospitals, and online services are making life easier, communicating easier, and opening up new career paths.

Chinese technology is also dominated by private companies, although, like all companies in China, they exist because of the suffering of Chinese power. Especially in areas where giants favored by the government have not yet emerged, it is a highly competitive and innovative industry that has its own appeal. Chinese AI expert and investor Kai-Fu Lee sees Chinese technology entrepreneurs as brave gladiators who bravely fight for survival. American tech entrepreneurship, on the other hand, is "too gentlemanly". While Silicon Valley prides itself on its commitment to protecting and respecting intellectual property, Chinese companies cannot count on such respect from their competitors. "If they can make a product that people want, they can't explain victory," Lee said. "You have to declare war."

This leverage of competitors' technology is a competitive advantage that enables Chinese companies to move through new features faster and potentially even get ahead of their competitors in the United States. "In less than two weeks, my hard-working colleagues can reimplement a state-of-the-art model from a paper and adapt it to our own purpose in a weekend," said Liu. "That's terrible power. I don't personally encourage this, but everyone in a Chinese tech company does."

While the country's technological growth has been incredibly rapid, some job dynamics are proving less malleable. The flatter corporate structures and more egalitarian innovation models of Western companies represent a far-reaching change in leadership style in a society in which strategy is directed from above and dissent in both business and government is often discouraged or banned outright.

In contrast, the ever-evolving business and management models of the U.S. technology sector often focus on further empowering engineers to define their work lives and the direction of the products they make. Google is known to encourage employees to spend up to 20 percent of their time on company-related passion projects. With Spotify, its engineers can join any “guild” – small, cross-functional teams focused on specific areas of business or technology – and refuse to work on projects they consider boring, unimportant, or unethical.

Raising doubts, as expressed by Google engineers about Dragonfly (a censored search engine for the Chinese market) or working with the US Department of Defense, is far more difficult – and often almost impossible – in China. However, there are issues that can and will be discussed, most notably privacy. In 2018, the China Consumers Association reported that the data protection guidelines of more than 90 percent of the 100 companies surveyed had not reached a "basic threshold". In response, the government set up an ongoing special working group on data protection, which recently resulted in some drafts being incorporated into the law. In March 2020, Tsinghua University law professor Lao Dongyan took a rare public stance against the integration of facial recognition into the Beijing subway, saying it was "time to say enough on safety issues." Although the party is ready to allow a debate on data protection and security policy, it is always at the discretion of the party which issues are not open to debate.

It's a vector that Lee understands well. He was the founder of Google China and a veteran of Apple, Microsoft, and Google. He once spoke about freedom of speech and censorship on Twitter and its Chinese equivalent, Weibo. "Is there hope", he asked in 2013, "for a search engine that is being developed without any obligation to exchange information openly?" He also suggested social media as a possible tool for citizens to hold the government accountable.

His behavior brought him into conflict with state censorship, resulting in dozens of short-term account suspensions. Since then, Lee has become more circumspect of the Chinese Communist Party through interviews, social media, and public speaking. In his book AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order, he describes many vectors of US and China competitiveness in AI, including government policy, but does not mention any of the issues related to freedom of information.

A more authoritarian stance by the Chinese Communist Party, led by Chinese President Xi Jinping, has frighteningly influenced this type of dissent not only for those living in the country but also for an enormous Chinese diaspora living abroad. Loud opposition to government policies endangers families and friends back home. This expectation of silence is a sacrifice for return to the mainland that many are willing to accept. "The moment I decided to come back," said Liu, "I decided to give up my privacy and some of my freedom of expression."

The Chinese diaspora often speaks of the perception gap formed abroad.

"It's very different now," said Zhang Chao (who asked for a pseudonym), a process engineer for an industry leader in Silicon Valley that manufactures semiconductor etching technology. After more than a decade in the United States, "my mother and I have (a) completely different point of view" about what is going on in China. “People from China are blocked to a certain extent. They don't know a lot of things like us because … we can read a lot and most of those things … have been censored in China. "

Part of this divide is exacerbated by companies like Toutiao, ByteDance's news app, which scans the web for content, processes the voice, and then uses AI to rewrite headlines to interact with more than 120 million daily active users to promote. For Liu, this is just another example of the myopia of recommendation algorithms, a specific application of AI that he doesn't want to work on. And while U.S. platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have led the way in this technology, its design has been the subject of constant debate in the U.S. and Europe, especially regarding its relationship with governments and censorship, a conversation that implicitly doesn't come about at borders in China.

Outside of China, the Chinese Communist Party has used Western social media platforms to distinguish itself as a benevolent and competent global leader. Party propaganda officials have gone to Twitter with provocative statements to sow doubts about US political leadership and the origin of COVID-19, while a flood of bot accounts nicknamed "Wumao Army" with pro-Chinese messages hit the platform came. The response of US social media companies to these official and unofficial tactics has been sluggish and confused, so the platforms continue to be important tools in the party's international propaganda efforts.

For the more global class of Chinese citizens, however, the Chinese Communist Party's PR campaign is just a transparent lie. "I don't trust the Chinese government," said Liu. And while much of the country's less mobile citizens see through these efforts, returning home is a stark reminder of how effective this rhetoric has actually been in some corners of Chinese society. "I always hear friends argue that most people don't even need the right to vote."

The dialogue in the United States is not easy for some to forget. "I've inherited a lot of American culture," Zhang said, "so I think some of the things I wouldn't think were right if I didn't study here in the US … I'd look at things." otherwise I was not here. "These unspoken shared values ​​are an incentive to move abroad and stay there, and contribute to the ongoing brain drain of some of China's most discerning minds. Many become pioneers in their fields, take US citizenship, and, like Zhang, have no plans to follow To return to China.

In addition to the pursuit of STEM careers by Chinese emigrants, many are also drawn to studying political science in the USA. "In both of the Stanford classes I teach, I use offensive hacking, censorship and disinformation from (China) as real-life examples," said Alex Stamos, professor of secure technology at Stanford Internet Observatory and former chief information security officer at Facebook . “My students, who were born in China, have always dealt thoughtfully and openly with the difficult issues in their country of origin. Privately, many of these students realize that their goal is to stay in the United States (usually Silicon Valley) and allow themselves and their families a new life. Those who are likely to return to China talk about making it a more open and democratic society. "

But few Chinese students or professionals have the confidence to speak publicly or even privately about these issues. According to Liu, "the only people interested in arts and politics are either people from wealthy families or people with foreign education / professional backgrounds." There are practical problems of everyday life that science and technology can and cannot address Involve collision with the government, even if they often involve unconscious negotiations with political boundaries.

"I have a louder voice (in China)," said Liu. He attributes much of this to an ex-Googler and a Silicon Valley vet. For him and his returning colleagues, these elite references are a potential ticket to a good life in China. But he knows that some problems are now off the table. When I asked about human rights in Xinjiang or political freedoms in Hong Kong, he refused. Maybe, he said, we can discuss it when he's back in the US.

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