China and global telecommunication standards

Image credit: Carlos de Souza,

China Standards 2035

Chinese government is working towards a standards master plan — China Standards 2035, a blueprint for China’s government bodies and leading technology companies to set global standards for emerging technologies like 5G internet, IoT, artificial intelligence, e-commerce traceability, smart and green manufacturing, and clean energy, among other areas. China is also trying to persuade multilateral standards agencies to recognize its growing clout.

Standards-setting institutions

Little-noticed work being conducted at standards-setting institutions such as the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) will play an outsized role in determining global technology leadership.

The International Telecommunication Union is a specialized agency of the United Nations responsible for all matters related to information and communication technologies. Houlin Zhao was elected as ITU Secretary-General on 1 November 2018. He began his second ​four-year term on 1 January 2019. Although he was sworn into his ITU role with a pledge to act “with the interest of the union only in view” while avoiding influence from any one country, he regularly celebrates China’s growing presence in the telecoms and internet industries.

Chinese telecommunications and other technology companies are sending increasing numbers of engineers to the international standards organizations (ISOs0). They often engage in bloc voting in standards meetings, which is in some cases coordinated by Chinese Communist Party officials. These tactics reinforce their drive to establish important standards for 5G systems and related products favorable to their domestic producers. They also try to leverage their growing political and economic strength around the world to win support from engineers from countries under their influence.

At a meeting of the Third Generation Partnership Project (the global organization that sets 5G standards) the chairman admonished Chinese representatives not to take phones into the voting booths— a practice of Chinese delegations at some United nation meetings. The suspicion, confirmed by Chinese delegates from other companies, was that they all had to show proof they voted with the Huawei candidate, said a person familiar with the vote.

Integrity of standards organizations

In the past international standards organizations (ISOs) have operated on a good faith, consensus of interested parties process in which experts debate and decide the strength of competing technologies. Chinese firms’ alarming use of bloc voting and dubious claims of patent strength to win acceptance of their standards proposals slowly sap the integrity of ISOs in the most egregious cases.

In recent years, Chinese firms, led by Huawei and state-owned ZTE, have moved aggressively to win acceptance of their 5G standards (based on their own patents in many cases) in relevant international standards organizations (ISOs).  These include the 3GPP organization for mobile broadband standards, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) organization for electronics standards, and the 5G Automobile Association for communications standards enabling autonomous and connected vehicles.

It has been a similar story at the 88-member International Electrotechnical Commission, an organization that publishes standards on all electronic items. China’s influence at the IEC has grown steadily, culminating in the appointment in January of Shu Yinbiao — who is also chairman of the State Grid Corporation of China — as president of the IEC. Zhao completes the picture as head of the ITU, which he is due to lead until 2023.

China’s standards-setting clout

The increased representation has had a marked effect on China’s standards-setting clout. As of March 2019, for instance, China had proposed 11 standards for the internet of things within the ISO/IEC framework, of which five had been adopted and published and six were still pending review

State Grid Corporation of China has also pulled off a coup. The IEC has agreed to take on co-ordinating standards for a concept called Global Energy Interconnection, which essentially aims to create huge grids of power cables that run between countries and continents. If the idea gets off the ground it could directly benefit State Grid, which is the global leader in making ultra-high voltage transmission lines.

The build-up of such institutional firepower in these standards-setting bodies is a sure sign that China is set to wield much more influence over global technological standards.

“Smart” and “safe”cities

The Belt and Road Initiative is generally seen as a huge Chinese program to build roads, railways, ports, airports and other forms of infrastructure in mostly developing countries. But the BRI is also a means of diffusing Chinese technologies — and the standards they operate on — across the developing world by constructing what Beijing calls a “digital silk road.”

According to research by RWR Advisory, a Washington-based consultancy, Chinese companies have done 116 deals to install smart city and “safe city” packages around the world since 2013, with 70 of these taking place in countries that also participate in the Belt and Road Initiative. The main difference between “smart” and “safe” city equipment is that the latter is intended primarily to surveil and monitor the population, while the former is primarily aimed at automating municipal functions while also incorporating surveillance functions.

As of 2019, some 85 standardization co-operation agreements with 49 countries and regions had been signed, though scant literature exists on the depth and specific contents of such agreements.

China’s standards plan stems from a clear, deliberate strategic progression. Beijing has spent the past two decades establishing influential footholds in multilateral bodies and targeted industrial areas. Now, it is using those footholds to set their rules – with them, to define the infrastructure of the future world.

Global standards in next generation sectors such as 5G, AI, and the architecture of the internet itself, will increasingly be Chinese or heavily China-influenced.


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