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Is the Global Computing Community Irrevocably Divided?

By Andrew A. Chien

Communications of the ACM, Vol. 65 No. 1, Page 5
10.1145/3502906

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We have all seen powerful forces pulling the global computing community apart.a With computing's critical importance as both a commercial and military technology, the community cannot avoid this tension.

Three years of overt technological, trade, military and geopolitical competition between China and the U.S. have been marked with trade war, spying, state-sponsored technology theft,b criminal warrants, export bans, territorial ocean claims, and incendiary national leadership rhetoric. Atop these is the stark undermining of Hong Kong's basic law, and the violent suppression of its free press, political opposition, and peaceful democratic protests in Hong Kong. Scenes of the violent assault of HK Polytechnic University and suppression of all HK opposition press have extinguished any hope China might evolve to tolerate diverse political thought and multiparty politics.c In China, the people in their entirety are subordinate to the Communist Party and government.

To drive home its absolute supremacy, in 2021, the PRC government undertook the systematic emasculation of tech-entrepreneur heroes, leading tech companies (Tencent, Alibaba, Meituan), and recently forced upon them controlling investments.d The clear messages in social media and official Chinese government channels are "no quarter given to opposition" and "foreign ties are no longer assets, but now liabilities."

The situation is not one-sided; the U.S. government has taken actions that discourage collaboration with Chinese institutions and researchers.e Companies have been put on the entity list, blocking contact, and universities labeled as having military ties, limiting their students' study in the U.S. With increased reporting of U.S. researcher affiliations, collaboration, or contacts, there is growing doubt about what is proper and trepidation about collaboration.

Is the global computing community irrevocably divided?

Further signs of division include Yahoo! China's closing, and Microsoft's decision to close LinkedIn in China, a key international professional social network.f The latter is particularly discouraging given Microsoft's long history of engagement with China's tech community through with MSR Asia in Beijing, long a taproot of the Chinese tech community.

Now stark, the growing division is technological, economic (companies and markets), and geopolitical (surveillance, cyber-attacks, and military capability). Corporate and government communities are rapidly codifying division and controlled information sharing.

What is the academic and research community to do?

  • What are the implications for widespread, open technical information sharing? Open source that has driven rapid scientific and technological advance.
  • What are the implications for professors and students (graduate and undergraduate) in both China and the U.S. whose ties and loyalties straddle these worlds?
  • What are the implications for Chinese students who study at universities around the world? Following a road trod by Japan, Taiwan, and Korea, a growing majority return to a career and their family in China.g These international students will be critical in bridging the divide.

An increasing schism may produce decreased collaboration and increasingly circumspect technical information (publications, talks, open source software) and technology (chips, open source software) sharing. With time, it will increase pressure on those with personal ties that straddle these two worlds. The divide has broad implications for the community on all seven continents, not just in the U.S. and China. The actions of these parties will be pivotal; neutrality is impossible, they must seriously consider where they stand and where it is worthwhile to put a thumb on the scales.

The computing community's growing divide is shaping technology, community, and even the larger society. These momentous times call on each of us and the community to think and act professionally.

Andrew A. Chien, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF

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Author

Andrew A. Chien is the William Eckhardt Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Chicago, Director of the CERES Center for Unstoppable Computing, and a Senior Scientist at Argonne National Laboratory.

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Footnotes

a. A.A. Chien, Open collaboration in an age of distrust. Commun. ACM (Jan. 2019).

b. The spectral game: State-sponsored hacking. Economist (Nov. 13, 2021).

c. L. Kuo, Hong Kong riot police carry out dawn raid on university after battle with protesters. The Guardian (Nov. 17, 2019). A. Ramzy and T. May, Hong Kong cracks down on a pro-democracy newspaper. NY Times (June 26, 2021).

d. China's communist authorities are tightening their grip on the private sector. Economist (Nov. 20, 2021).

e. E. Barry, A scientist is arrested, and academics push back. NY Times (Jan. 26, 2021).

f. Microsoft shutting down LinkedIn in China. BBC News (Oct. 14, 2021).

g. Y. Zhou, Chinese students increasingly return home after studying abroad. Quartz (July 29, 2018).


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