ChinAI #91: Introducing Taihe (China's mini Defense One?) - Let's Read it Together

Plus, the "new SOEs" of the "new infrastructure"

Greetings from a land where words like these exist, from Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West: “and when she went out it seemed to her that she too had migrated, that everyone migrates, even if we stay in the same houses our whole lives, because we can’t help it. We are all migrants through time…”

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Browsing Taihe (a mini Defense One?) Together

Today, we’re kicking off a new series on “Taihe Industry Observer” (钛禾产业观察). Note: they don’t have a website, as it’s all through a Wechat public account, so you have to search those characters in Wechat to find it. Other content aggregators regularly push out their posts, so you can also search those characters on the web and find the aggregator sites.

In issue #60, we did a similar exercise for Leiphone (which I compared to China’s MIT Tech Review), a new media platform founded in 2011 that is now a leading portal for general science & tech coverage. We’ll hit some key points on what browsing Taihe looks like and then dive into a recent article in the feature translation. Next week, we’ll go through another article — if anyone wants to help out translating or adding expertise/context to translations, especially folks with a much better sense of China’s defense industry than me, hit me up!

  • Taihe (钛禾) mashes the character for Titanium and the character for grain (esp. rice) together, which gives the English name Titanium Rice. Not gonna lie, that’s pretty badass. Maybe Titanium Rice is trying to convey this sense of “high-tech” industries being essential to China’s economic and defense system, which is a main theme of Taihe’s coverage.

  • Taihe describes themselves as a “冷门号” (a platform that focuses on relatively uncovered/unpopular field) that mainly writes about the defense industry and the high-end manufacturing industry (军工和高端制造行业). I’m uncertain when they first launched, but I think in just the last few years. I first started tracking them back in January 2019 when we featured their article on 8 future applications of AI in Chinese public security bureaus in a previous issue of ChinAI. At the time, they published 20 original articles; fast forward a year and a bit later, and they have 41 original articles — all seem to be relatively well-researched longform analyses. They brand themselves as a "new-model think tank of national strategic core S&T industries.”

  • Interesting backstory from these two screenshots above: Apparently Taihe’s 2018 year in review post was completely scrubbed from the web — it had racked up over a million views because a couple of influencers (Big Vs -- people with “verified” status on Weibo [China’s Twitter]) had shared it, and the post had generated a lot of discussion. Taihe doesn’t disclose why it was censored (其中原因就不多讲了) -- My guess is that it was a pretty critical take on either state-owned enterprises, Chinese military, or the party? Taihe claims their article was mainly framed in a constructive wayand commit to being a 正能量媒体 (positive media). Thus, when reading it’s important to have a critical view to decipher when the “positivity” slips too far into propaganda.

  • Below is what Taihe’s “homepage” looks like (home screen of the Wechat public account). At the bottom left corner, I’ve clicked to open the tab for Taihe’s main services, which includes think tank services but also investing services and supply-demand linkage services. Apparently they advise aerospace, AI, new materials, etc. companies in the A-round to Pre-IPO stage. Here’s where it gets really interesting. Under “supply-demand linkage services,” they welcome folks who want have tech or products that that have “对接方面的需求” (which I interpret as they connect buyers and suppliers of tech). The connections feature some heavy hitters, as they claim to have a tight cooperative relationship with a lot of heavy hitters: Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, the State Administration for Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense, the Equipment Development Department of the Central Military Commission, etc.

  • Now let’s take a look at the second tab, their past articles; the third tab is just contact info. There are five categories for their articles: 1) Industry-Finance Think Tank; 2) Great/Major Power Industries; 3) Transformers (first screenshot below gives the five recent articles); 4) City Dynamism; 5) Taihe Defense (second screenshot below gives the five recent articles). This week’s feature translation is the 11th in the Transformers series. Here’s the series description the editor wrote: *In 2020, Taihe will continue to write its series of posts on "Transformers - Seeking the Pioneers of Great Power Science and Technology for the Next Twenty Years.” We will continue to search for representative industry sample cases for in-depth research, tracking and reporting (including but not limited to companies, funds, technology incubators, etc.). We welcome everyone to recommend industry materials and research topics. If your topic is adopted, gifts will be awarded.

Here’s the reason I wanted to throw out Defense One as a possible analogue for sites like Taihe. I think if I wanted to get a good sense of what people in the U.S. military and defense industry were thinking, I would read readouts and articles in Defense One as opposed to the 300+ page reports of government defense strategies. I wonder if Taihe and other sites like it could fill a similar role. Defense One launched in 2013, so it’s been around for 7 years; in that time, how many other sites like Taihe have sprouted up? Obviously discussing military modernization and other issues is much more sensitive in China (as Taihe has encountered firsthand), and mirror-imaging bias is a thing, but I’m just curious.

I’m a newbie to this subfield of China’s defense industry, so this take may be completely off-base. I also know we have some regular readers who are much more equipped to make these comparisons, so I welcome everyone’s feedback. Maybe I’ll come back after a couple weeks and reflect on how I’m overselling Taihe’s importance. Anyways, regardless of its overall significance, the content so far has been interesting, so let’s keep reading:

Feature Translation: Who can become the "new SOEs" for this new digital infrastructure?

I’m not going to go too much into the content of the piece — those interested can read the full translation linked above. What interests me more is how the piece is written:

  • It’s just written in a very accessible way. The piece starts with: “Skinnydippers are not allowed to enter the water” and ends by closing the loop on the analogy. There’s a nice reference to “A well-known saying in the age of Internet entrepreneurship: It is only when the tide recedes that we know who was swimming naked.” If you scroll down to the bottom of some of Taihe’s posts you’ll see they get a lot of reads and I think the style of writing influences that.

  • They seem to have access to a lot of high-profile people from defense, industry, strategic investors, and academia. The piece gets quotes from Fortune VC managing director, the chairman of CASIC (key part of military-industrial complex), Beida Prof Lu Feng. It also cites data from the government procurement center of central state organs: as of March 31 (2020), Alibaba Cloud ranked first in the central state organs cloud computing procurement market, with a market share of more than 50%.

  • Length and quality — It’s 3000+ words in the English translation — a lot of good figures and jam-packed with stats throughout, though I had some pushback on some of the claims and research (in the comments of the full translation doc)

  • Interesting anecdote: Apparently, on Single’s Day (11/11) in 2014, Jack Ma defined Alibaba as a "national enterprise" in an interview on the prestigious CCTV show "Dialogue.” Usually SOE is translated as 国有企业 -- Jack used the term 国家企业 according to Taihe. I think 国家企业 can still be translated as SOE, but I use national enterprise as the context of Jack Ma was saying was that he was comparing Alibaba to Apple in the US and Benz in Germay -- so maybe like a national flagbearer company?

ChinAI Links (Four to Forward)

Must-read: Ideas and Ideologies Competing for China’s Political Future

2017 report from Kristin Shi-Kupfer, Mareike Ohlberg, Simon Lang, and Bertram Lang of MERICS that provides a really fantastic breakdown of online pluralism in China. I see Taihe and other platforms we’ve covered in the past (e.g. Saidong) as fitting under the “Industrialists” bucket that they identify. According to MERICS, industrialists are sometimes called the Industry Party (工业党), and they see technological advancement as key to global leadership. They put forward a very techno-nationalist view of the world.

Must-read: Maintenance and Care — by Shannon Mattern for Places Journal

“In many academic disciplines and professional practices — architecture, urban studies, labor history, development economics, and the information sciences, just to name a few — maintenance has taken on new resonance as a theoretical framework, an ethos, a methodology, and a political cause…

This is necessarily a collective endeavor. In 2016, the historians of technology Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel roused a research network called The Maintainers. Playing off Walter Isaacson’s book, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, the Maintainers adopted a humorous tagline: “how a group of bureaucrats, standards engineers, and introverts made digital infrastructures that kind of work most of the time.”

We previously recommended Shannon’s piece as a must-read: Networked Dream Worlds: Is 5G solving real, pressing problems or merely creating new ones?

Should-read: Understanding AI Technology

By Greg Allen of the DoD’s JAIC (Joint Artificial Intelligence Center) — this primer aims to be “A concise, practical, and readable overview of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning technology designed for non-technical managers, officers, and executives” — I think it’s really important to have efforts like these that widen the knowledge base as it relates to AI.

Should-read: American Mandarin Society newsletters, syllabi, etc.

For those looking to brush up on Mandarin in this time, AMS has a really wonderful array of resources. Their recent newsletter has some cool reading recs on China’s cybersecurity law as well as a link to a short 5-min video by The Paper 澎湃新闻 (in Chinese with subtitles), which introduces the two Chinese PhD students behind the development and maintenance of John Hopkins University's COVID19 tracking maps. Maybe Sen. Tom Cotton should find the time to watch this one.

Thank you for reading and engaging.

These are Jeff Ding's (sometimes) weekly translations of Chinese-language musings on AI and related topics. Jeff is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the University of Oxford and a researcher at the Center for the Governance of AI at Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute.

Check out the archive of all past issues here & please subscribe here to support ChinAI under a Guardian/Wikipedia-style tipping model (everyone gets the same content but those who can pay for a subscription will support access for all).

Any suggestions or feedback? Let me know at chinainewsletter@gmail.com or on Twitter at @jjding99