As a growing number of Indians consume their news and content online, there are high chances that you are accessing this op-ed on a device with components manufactured in China. This long-standing dominance in computer hardware has now tipped over towards software deployment. Today, there are a growing number of online platforms with roots in China. This trend has not gone unnoticed. Local technology entrepreneurs have been visiting these technology companies in China to understand their growing scale and adoption in global markets, including India. There is a sense of admiration tinged with a hurt sense of national pride.
This insecurity has been growing in recent months as public opinion and commentary have focused on the growing dominance by China-centred companies. It has become an issue policy makers are engaged with. Critics point to the spread of disinformation as well as content and business models that appeal to the base instincts of users. There are also concerns around national cyber security due to the proximity of large Chinese tech companies to the Communist Party of China. Tangibly, this is demonstrated in growing demands towards data localisation or onerous compliances on not only Chinese but even other large foreign social media companies. These arguments reached a tipping point recently when following the skirmishes on the India-China border, Indian social media users mounted a large-scale campaign to remove “Chinese apps” from their smartphones.
These public responses and policy conversations are here to stay. At their very root is the unexamined premise of protectionism. Such prescriptions are often made on the basis of the policies which were adopted in China through barriers for foreign firms that were possible due to the unique and complex features of its nation-state at a specific time. Replicating it from the pure standpoint of imitating similar outcomes is a strategy prone to failure. For instance, one complication is that Chinese companies are among the biggest investors in local technology start-ups. Hence, to discern what is “Indian” and what is “foreign” is a moot issue as a natural consequence of globalisation.
Another consideration is such that prescriptions for protectionism have adverse ecological impacts towards broader innovation, which benefit for local firms and end users. This has been demonstrated by economic studies, but also the fundamental political beliefs of the public internet. The internet, as much as it becomes a walled garden controlled by large corporations, is still at its root a technology which permits cross-border data flows and collaboration agnostic of physical jurisdictions, enabling functionality & value for each participant.