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Griffin on Tech: China flexes its tech muscle at the Olympics

Peter Griffin, Editor. 18 February 2022, 11:00 am

Our 15 young athletes who have been competing in the Winter Olympics, including gold and silver medal-winning superstar Zoi Sadowski-Synnott, are getting intimately acquainted with the best technology China has to offer.

The apartments they stay in are equipped with smart beds that can monitor their breathing and heart rate, the mattresses capable of registering body signatures that can be sent to their coaches. Daily Covid test results and vaccine passport information is held in an app that needs to be scanned as people move around the Olympic village.

In the cafeterias, robotic serving staff deliver food to athletes' tables and admonish those they detect are not wearing the mandated face mask. More robots are out back in the kitchen cooking the food and delivery bots courier parcels around the Olympic villages. 

China has also made its digital yuan available to visitors, encouraging them to download the app and load up on the currency, touting the Chinese central bank's leadership among governments in the digital currency space.

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Every venue has 5G mobile access on tap, courtesy of Chinese mobile equipment giant Huawei no doubt, and clean energy has been wired in from wind and solar plants in the Zhangbei region north of Beijing to power the Olympic facilities. Cars and buses running on emission-free hydrogen ferry athletes and officials between venues.

It's all in service of promoting what the Beijing Winter Olympics Organizing Committee has dubbed the "Science and Technology Winter Olympics". But it is also making a point to the United States and the other wealthy nations that have sent their athletes to compete - China has become a technology powerhouse and it wants the world to know it.

Summer turns to winter

That's in stark contrast to the 2008 Summer Olympics, when the Chinese were still largely regarded as the low-cost electronics manufacturing centre for a host of US technology companies, Apple among them. That was before the rise of Alibaba, Xiaomi, Tencent, and iFlytek., the Chinese tech giants, who last year faced a crackdown from their own government as president Xi sought to excerpt tighter control over them.

Today, China and the US are locked in a stalemate over trade tariffs and have blacklisted each other's tech companies over alleged national security concerns. In reality, the two superpowers are exerting their dominance and jealously guarding advances in next-generation wireless networks, artificial intelligence and quantum computing, to maintain a competitive edge over the other. 

I witnessed this in 2019 on a visit to Beijing, months before the emergence of Covid-19 from Wuhan in China signalled the beginning of a pandemic that has now claimed over five million lives globally.  By the time I arrived in China, interviews I'd lined up months earlier with technologists and academics had been cancelled due to the escalating trade and geopolitical tensions between China and the US. 

Since then, an uneasy peace has settled in. China needs the US and other wealthy nations as trading partners to grow its vast economy, so the factories still churn out phones, computers and components destined for the US. But it is investing heavily in emerging technologies with the aim of becoming self-sufficient in critical areas, such as semiconductor production.

Surveillance society

The display of technological prowess at the Olympics which end this weekend, where tens of thousands of athletes, staff, media and officials reside and work in one massive closed loop that extends from the airport to the Olympic village, has a darker less visible side.

The surveillance society that has accompanied the technological development of China is in full operation at the Olympics, complete with facial recognition cameras and government monitoring of the apps downloaded and used by visitors. The closed bubble is like a microcosm of China itself, where everything is closely observed and controlled. 

Athletes may get served up burgers by robots, but they'll hit the great firewall of China trying to log onto Gmail or many western news websites. There's also the looming cloud over the games caused by the ongoing persecution of the Uyghur population in the Xinjiang province, which saw the US and other nations refuse to send diplomats to the games. 

It's hard not to admire what China has achieved in 20 years in its tech industry. Shenzhen, for instance, used to be a small fishing village, now it is a powerhouse of innovation and one of the biggest electronics manufacturing centres in the world, with a fully-electric fleet of buses. 

But technology will also increasingly serve as a tool for China's Communist Party to exert more control over its population. Beyond the pristine ski slopes and shiny innovations of Beijing's Olympic village, China's tech revolution serves as a warning against the misuse of technology in the service of authoritarianism. 


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