CSR Volume 7: Interview with Yilin Wang

By Ava Shen

Yilin Wang’s article, “China’s Techno-Nationalism: A New Path Towards Authoritarian Resilience?,” is featured in Volume 7 of the SAIS China Studies Review. Below she talks with Editor-in-Chief Ava Shen about her background, her piece in the CSR, and shares her thoughts on Chinese and American tech policies. 

Questions about the Author 

AS: Tell us a bit about your background and your journey studying US-China relations. How did you get to where you are today? 

YW: I first became interested in US-China relations when I was doing some work for the Blue Net China, a student media group that I co-founded during my undergraduate years at Johns Hopkins University (JHU). Through the club, I interviewed individuals within the JHU community who have a China background. Some of them were alumni, others were China Studies professors at SAIS, including Professors David Lampton, David Brown, and Natalie Lichtenstein. These conversations were interesting. I got to hear what projects the professors were working on, like the AIIB, the BRI, Taiwan issues, etc. They gave me an idea of what it is like to work in the realm of US-China relations. 

My internship at the US-China Policy Foundation was another experience that brought me closer to where I am today. I worked closely with Chairman Dr. Wang Chi, who has been closely observing the evolution of US-China relations for more than seven decades. He was part of the delegation that visited China in preparation of Nixon’s visit in 1972. I found his work in promoting Sino-US cultural and educational exchanges inspiring. Dr. Wang was the one who encouraged me to apply to SAIS. 

AS: What are your current research interests? 

YW: Currently, I’m interested in international economics and development issues. This is actually something that I picked up at SAIS, outside of my China Studies classes. I took classes from the international economics program, such as development and urban economics, and found them very intriguing

AS: What do you like to do in your free time? 

YW: Before Covid, I liked to travel and take photos. I actually pursued a minor in visual arts in undergrad. I also like documentary making. Now, I like to watch movies. I also love writing and student journalism work. I used to contribute to the SAIS Observer. It’s fun to interview other people. 

Questions about the Piece

AS: How did you decide to research this topic? 

YW: This paper was originally a final project for a class. I read the book The State Strikes Back  written by Nicolas Lardy, where he talked about how the state sector had been advancing in recent years, and that the private sector was taking a back seat. I felt confused by this description. Based on the prominence of private companies such as Huawei and Tencent, I thought that the private sector was getting more attention and private firms weren’t really “taking a back seat” like Lardy said in his article. This is what motivated my research. I didn’t end up finding solid evidence about the advancement of the private sector as a whole, but instead observed the changing dynamics between private tech companies like Huawei and the Chinese government.  

AS: If you have to summarize your article in under five sentences, what would it be? 

YW: My main argument is that the US-China tech war since the Trump administration accelerated S&T development in China, which in turn has consolidated China’s authoritarian resilience. I began my article by reviewing China’s S&T development trajectory, which took a hit in 2015-16. China was quick to respond with subsidies to tech firms, but this made tech companies more dependent on the government. Concurrently, consumer patriotism has also emerged from US-China tech competition. Both of these trends have helped strengthen China’s authoritarian resilience. 

AS: What do you see as the main challenges in China’s S&T industrial policies? Do you think the current direction and specific policies can boost Chinese economic growth and turn China into an innovation-driven economy? 

YW: One main challenge China faces is the lack of high-skilled talent. There are a lot of people in China, but there are few tech talents. This can be attributed to a variety of factors: China’s education system encourages rote learning rather than creativity; China has strict immigration policies, which makes it hard to attract foreign talents. I see this as the main bottleneck in China’s S&T industrial policies. 

Ideally, these policies would push China to upgrade to an innovation-driven economy, but their effectiveness is too early to tell. Thus far, there are only two main policy documents that have defined the strategic direction of technology development. One is the October 2020 communiqué from the 5th plenary session of the 19th CCP Central Committee, the other is the 14th Five-Year Plan for 2021-25. In terms of specific policies that intended to encourage innovation in the past, I think they were mainly financial incentives and subsidies. Those incentives could be helpful, but you would still need to tackle the fundamental issue of real talents to achieve actual technological breakthroughs. 

AS: In your article, you focused on the response of the Trump administration to China’s tech drive. How would you evaluate the efficacy of Trump-era tech policies toward China? 

YW: To evaluate the efficacy of something, we need to identify its goal. However, the Trump administration lacked a clear goal in its tech policies. Through my research of Trump-era policies (which are enumerated in the CSR article), I found them to be rather decentralized, with different US government agencies (e.g., Dept of Commerce, USTR, Dept of Treasury) doing their own thing. I did not really see a coherent goal in their policies. 

Thus, it is hard to say whether these policies were effective or ineffective, because the US government under Trump didn’t appear to have a clear goal in mind. Maybe these policies were tailored to score political points, since there is a bipartisan consensus on competition against China. If the goal was to hurt these Chinese companies, then the record is rather mixed. Huawei is not bankrupt yet, but its overseas sales have taken a hit. In the short term, yes, investment to Chinese tech companies was curtailed, but these companies benefited instead from Chinese state subsidies. 

Follow-up Questions 

AS: What do you make of Biden’s and the current Congress’s approach to tech competition with China? Do you think the US government needs its own industrial policy to compete with China in tech? If not, what should the US government focus on instead?  

YW: Currently, the Biden administration is trying to conduct comprehensive evaluations of US supply chains, to figure out which part the US is overly reliant on China and which part  is not. This approach is definitely more reasonable than the random measures issued by the Trump administration. 

However, it would still be difficult for Biden to shield these evaluations from the anti-China political sentiment in the US. Thus, going forward, we will continue to see political distortions in US tech policies. 

What the US should focus on is to encourage more creativity, through education and/or more federal funding in R&D, etc, rather than trying to curtail others’ tech development. 

AS: What would you like to see in future research that will build upon your research findings?

YW: A future project could conduct a systematic comparison between private companies and state-owned enterprises to explore how they are affected by China’s tech policies. It could be a direct response to Lardy’s “state strikes back” argument, to explore how the private sector has advanced since the Trump administration, in relation to the US-China tech competition. It is true that in the early years of Xi’s term, the State took on a more important role, but we should also ask the question whether or not this phenomenon has changed, or maybe there is more nuance to the picture. 

Yilin Wang is a second-year M.A. student concentrating in China Studies. Her research interest lies at the intersection of development economics, macroeconomics and political economy. Yilin received her B.A. in Economics and International Studies from the Johns Hopkins University. Previously, she interned with multiple think tanks in China and the United States such as the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the US-China Policy Foundation. Yilin can be reached at wangyilin1997@outlook.com. Visit wang-yi-lin.com to see more of Yilin’s work in research, journalism, and photography.

Ava Shen is a first-year M.A. candidate with a concentration in China Studies. Her research interests include cross-strait relations, US-China relations, and Chinese Foreign Policy. She is the Editor-in-Chief of SAIS China Studies Review Volume 7. She interned at the Center for Advanced China Research and is an incoming summer intern at the Stimson Center China Program. Ava can be reached at avashen1998@gmail.com.

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