Economy, politics, science: the reasons for tension have multiplied. However, the U.S. president may reach an agreement on trade with his Chinese counterpart.
At the Group of 20 summit of industrial and emerging-market nations in Argentina, Donald Trump, whose position in America has been weakened by the developments of an investigation that may lead to his impeachment, flaunts an international outcome in his favor: after having been criticized in the past for denouncing NAFTA, he has signed a new agreement with Mexico and Canada that is more advantageous for the U.S., while tonight, he may reach an agreement on trade with Xi Jinping. Beijing wishes to avoid a trade war in which it has more to lose than the United States, and it will grant concessions in order to achieve this goal. Most importantly, the nationalist president, who seemed isolated at multilateral meetings a year ago, is today at the center of the games between countries that are, by now, in tune with him and others which, despite being on different trajectories, are considering profiting from the demolition of the old international order carried out by the Trump bulldozer.
The Argentine G-20 summit is a collection of evocative bilateral meetings: Is Trump arguing with Theresa May? Is he really ignoring Vladimir Putin? Is he attacking Angela Merkel as usual, even joking about the German government’s jet malfunctioning? And how will things end between the Saudi crown prince and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who revealed and condemned Jamal Khashoggi’s murder? However, this summit is also the death knell for multilateralism and it is being sounded right at a time when international cooperation and shared accountability are needed more than ever. This cooperation and accountability are needed to face today’s economic conflicts and problems, but, above all, the challenges of tomorrow posed by the rapid progress of information technology and genetics, that, without shared ethical rules and criteria, can lead us toward a future of technological authoritarianism.
In China, 9 million citizens who have already ended up on the bad guys list over their low social rating may not fly from one city to another: they may only travel on land. Others are not allowed to board high-speed trains or stay at the best hotels and resorts. It is only the beginning of the enforcement of the universal social credit system the Chinese government has been working on for years, aiming at creating a ranking of all citizens: the deserving ones are to be rewarded with more advanced health services, access for children to the best universities, even widening the chances of finding the right partner on the online dating sites. The ones with the lowest rating instead are supposed to settle for second-rate services and less qualified jobs, along with reduced access to credit. The criteria according to which citizens pass or fail are not yet clear. The rating systems that are currently active are tested by the municipalities of several large cities, whereas the national version is expected to be introduced in 2020. Certainly, breaking the law, paying fines in a timely fashion, school results, behavior in the workplace all play a part in it. Nevertheless, there are already cases in which more questionable ethical parameters are used, such as the amount of time spent playing video games or pursuing other activities deemed frivolous by the authorities.
It does not take much to understand the risk. Similar systems may become attractive to other emerging countries which are drawn by Chinese efficiency but afraid of China’s authoritarianism, which may view social ratings as the solution for ruling their citizens under a type of soft dictatorship. Besides, there is no guarantee that Western democracies will not be infected as well, considering how their social networks also operate through rating mechanisms.
That said, this will not be a topic of discussion between Trump and Xi. Nor will they talk about the risks of genetically manipulating humans after the recent announcement that a scientist in China brought to life the first genetically modified human beings by altering their embryonic DNA. The international scientific community has protested, decrying the crossing of a boundary that up until now had been considered inviolable. The Chinese government condemned the experiment and opened an investigation, but it is clear that in the absence of Draconian rules and close surveillance, there will not be any means to prevent the Pandora’s box of genetic alterations from being opened, making it possible to choose children’s gender, height, eye and hair color, to create stronger and more intelligent women and men (and even soldiers).
The leaders of the two technological superpowers have other matters to discuss. Trump’s calling is real estate and he knows that his adoring voters would rather hear him talk about steel and coal than about genetics and the digital future. This short-sightedness has been fully displayed in the recent clash with Mary Barra’s General Motors, which is reducing the production of sedans, a model no longer in demand in the U.S. market, in order to invest more in electric cars. In his fury over a plant being shut down in Ohio, a key state for the presidential vote, Trump has threatened to retaliate and has demanded that GM shut down its plants in China instead. Moreover, he is now talking about 25 percent tariffs again, to protect the domestic auto market. If he were a little more farsighted, he would be angry at GM for a different reason: By investing in Asia and concentrating on electric vehicles (the new standard for autos chosen by China whereas the Trump administration is still betting on fossil fuels), Barra is certifying that Beijing’s leadership can replace Washington’s even in the automotive industry.