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Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

The West has a blind spot when it comes to China’s technological advances.

What's happening: Again and again, the West has shown that it misunderstands China's true competence in the technologies of the future — artificial intelligence, quantum science, robotics, and more. Alternatively under- and over-estimating China's progress, the U.S. and Europe are left simply unmoored in terms of tracking their primary geopolitical competition.

What it looks like: Whiplash.

  • In an utterly unexpected announcement last month, a Chinese scientist said he had produced a genetically edited embryo.
  • In recent years, there has been a headline-grabbing explosion of AI papers from Chinese researchers, followed by analyses suggesting that Chinese research lags significantly behind American and European work when accounting for impact.
  • Over the last year, major advances have been announced by Chinese companies that most in the West have never heard of — like MiningLamp, a big data company that’s attracted big-name investors.

Several factors contribute to the trans-Pacific information gap:

  • Unlike military hardware that can be publicly demonstrated, virtual technology like AI and quantum computing is difficult to scrutinize, especially because they are at their core difficult to understand.
  • The Chinese government deliberately sows confusion in official announcements and state-controlled media. The aim is sometimes to send rivals scrambling toward a dead end, says Elsa Kania, an adjunct fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
  • A narrow focus on major cities — Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen — that leaves out major universities and data-annotation outfits that contribute to China’s AI rise, says Jeffrey Ding, a researcher at Oxford's Future of Humanity Institute.

Combined, these factors and others have often left the West in the dark. MiningLamp, for example, is barely mentioned in English literature but is well known in China, says Joy Ma, a researcher at UChicago's Paulson Institute. As a result, U.S. and European companies and officials don't know how to respond appropriately.

  • Now, the West has swung from discounting Chinese innovation to panicking, depicting an unstoppable tech juggernaut. Against this framing, the U.S. is considering ways to preserve the American tech advantage, like imposing export controls. But sanctions can be overkill, too.
  • The reality, says Kania, is somewhere in the middle.

Axios science editor Andrew Freedman writes: Policy decisions made now will determine whether the U.S. successfully competes with China for the lead in scientific and engineering research, or squanders it through a mix of underfunding and poorly crafted legislation.

  • It's conceivable that China, not the U.S., will be the next country to land a human on the Moon, while also rivaling the U.S. and the E.U. in weather prediction in as little as a decade from now — a field with many military applications.

Go deeper

Updated 3 hours ago - Politics & Policy

U.S. sounds alarm on Ukraine

Conscripts line up at a Russian railway station yesterday before departing for Army service. Photo: Sergei Malgavko/TASS via Getty Images

The Biden administration is "deeply concerned" by new intelligence — detailed for Axios and other outlets — showing Russia stepping up preparations to invade Ukraine as soon as early 2022.

Why it matters: Most of this was known from public sources and satellite imagery, but the administration is sending a stronger signal by releasing specific details from the intelligence community.

CNN fires Chris Cuomo

Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for CNN

CNN said Saturday evening it has fired one of its star anchors, Chris Cuomo, following new revelations from a legal review made by the company into Cuomo's involvement in the management of his brother's sexual harassment scandal.

Why it matters: Saturday's firing speaks to how much pressure CNN was under by employees and critics to address Cuomo's behavior.

Updated 6 hours ago - Energy & Environment

Electric car prices could go up before they come down

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The secret to affordable electric vehicles is cheaper batteries. But after years of falling prices, battery costs are now headed in the wrong direction.

Why it matters: Costlier batteries could drive up the price of electric vehicles — threatening the auto industry's transition away from fossil fuels, and, in turn, society's fight against climate change.