In October 2021, China’s State Council released its national strategy for technical standards, a long-awaited document about an often-misunderstood aspect of the technology landscape. Such standards are the technical specifications that shape the products, services, and processes consumers rely on every day, including everything from the dimensions of a cargo container to the protocols for routing internet traffic. These specifications are often highly influential: they allow products from different companies and countries to work seamlessly together, and they also help customers find and compare products or have confidence in the safety and performance of those products.
Technical standards are set by an alphabet soup of national and international standards development organizations (SDOs) drawing from focused expert committees usually populated by industry, government, and academic representatives. Some SDOs are formal and cover a wide range of areas; others are ad hoc, formed to address one or two specific problems. SDOs are intended to be politically and commercially neutral institutions. Companies often push for their own patented technologies to be adopted as standards, but SDOs place great value on, and work hard to maintain, impartiality in the standardization process.
International concerns over China’s approach to standards setting have been growing in recent years, due to both the growing role of Chinese participants in international SDOs and reports of distortionary practices. One such practice involves forcing Chinese participants to vote for proposals put forth by the major Chinese technology company Huawei—a major violation of the let-the-best-technology-win norm of these institutions. The prevalence of these incidents and the ability of SDOs to combat them internally remain open questions.
The recent standards strategy is the Chinese central government’s attempt to guide the country’s sprawling bureaucracy on how it should approach standards at home and abroad. Much of the impact of the strategy will be determined by how that bureaucracy implements the new strategy, but from the document alone three key takeaways for China’s approach to standardization can be teased out.
Inching Toward Industry
China has always employed a far more state-centric approach to standardization than the United States and Europe have. But within the bounds of that approach, Beijing’s new strategy provides a nudge toward a greater role for industry actors in the development of technical standards.
Beginning in 2014, China initiated a series of reforms that began to shift the country away from a purely state-driven standards system. Those reforms allowed organizations outside the government to create what are termed association standards (tuanti biaozhun), which more closely resemble the voluntary, industry-driven standards prevalent in the United States and Europe. This reform process has continued in recent years under the banner of China Standards 2035, a multiyear research project on the country’s standardization work led by the Standardization Administration of China. But those recommendations encountered fierce resistance within China’s bureaucracy, particularly from other ministries and local standardization bureaus that saw the plan as stripping them of their standards-setting power.
The State Council’s newly released standards strategy can be seen as the central government’s attempt to provide clear guidance to the Standardization Administration of China and other relevant agencies. The document does not call for a break with China’s state-driven approach, but it does explicitly call for elevating the role of industry players in standards setting and for increasing the proportion of standards developed by market actors.
Longtime observers of China’s pledges of market-driven reforms will look on this claim with deep skepticism. But in the case of technical standards, there are reasons to take seriously China’s push for industry actors to play a larger role.
Most importantly, the shift toward greater industry involvement is simply an acknowledgment of reality: no government has the in-house technical capacity to develop the dizzying array of technical standards needed to operate a modern economy. If the Chinese government wants its standards to be a useful tool of domestic policymaking and international statecraft, as well as export growth, it has no choice but to give corporate actors greater agency.
This growing role for industry players must be placed in the context of a Chinese party-state that is asserting greater control over Chinese companies, particularly technology companies. In that context, this greater role for industry actors should be seen not as a shift away from the state, but rather as a way of bolstering the capabilities of the state-centered standards system.
Striving to Improve Competitiveness
China’s strategy is striking for the breadth of issues that it seeks to tackle using standards and for how different this approach is from how most countries and companies think about the utility of standards.
Elsewhere in the world, standards are seen as serving an important but narrow purpose: increasing interoperability, comparability, and compatibility between products. By doing that, standards act as the grease in the wheels of the global economy, reducing friction, facilitating trade, and laying the groundwork for globalized technology networks like the World Wide Web.
In China, standards are often seen as a lever for upgrading the country’s industrial base. The Chinese government’s plan focuses heavily on creating standards for emerging industries such as intelligent manufacturing, describing them as a tool to “promote industry optimization and upgrading.” The idea is to set technical standards high, essentially forcing manufacturers to upgrade their processes whether they want to or not.
This strategy reflects an abiding belief within the Chinese government that economic and technological progress requires constant (and often mandated) upgrading of production capacities. As one Chinese standards official described it to scholar Tim Rühlig, “Our situation is very different from yours. We need better quality and therefore higher technical standards. It is a national requirement and not a matter of company decisions.”
This is a markedly different vision of what standards are used for, and one that creates major potential pitfalls for China’s innovation ecosystem. Premature standardization, for example, can stifle innovative processes, locking in the use of certain technologies in rapidly changing fields. When it comes to quickly evolving technologies, Western companies have benefited from competing standards that can evolve to meet different and changing needs. In trying to tease out the long-term impact of China’s new approach to the full range of technologies it produces and uses, one question stands out. Does China have more to gain from a brute-force upgrading of the technologies in its industrial base, or does it have more to lose from an overly rigid and prescriptive approach to technology adoption?
Seeking International Alignment, for Better or Worse
On the most controversial aspect of Chinese standards-setting activities—the interactions between Chinese efforts and international SDOs—the new plan presents a double-edged sword. One of the few specific targets in the plan is for China to align 85 percent of its domestic standards with international standards. Little weight should be put on that specific number—because what counts as an international standard and what counts as alignment can be easily manipulated—but the figure does indicate a general push toward greater synchronization.
In the past, the international standards community would have welcomed a move like this. In the 1990s and early 2000s, China intentionally created domestic standards that differed from prevailing international ones as a way of keeping out foreign technology products. But today, other countries will likely view this type of alignment with suspicion, portending efforts by China to force its own standards on the rest of the world.
The mechanisms for that foisting could be both direct and indirect. On the direct side, the Chinese document calls for advancing standards alignment within countries that are participating in the Belt and Road Initiative and for ramping up standards-related dialogues with members of the BRIC grouping (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. It specifically mentions the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), which sits at the apex of a global standards-setting hierarchy, as a key venue for China’s standards-setting push.
But perhaps more impactful than these direct calls for international engagement will be the overall surge in Chinese standards-setting activities likely to result from the strategy. When the Chinese central government issues a document like this, it almost inevitably generates a burst of related activity at all levels of government and in the country’s private sector. Chinese bureaucrats see a chance to prove themselves, Chinese companies see a chance to win subsidies, and both bureaucracies and firms look for some way to claim they are contributing to the national goal at hand.
In the case of standardization, the plan explicitly calls for creating new standardization research institutes, certification centers, and more than fifty “standards innovation bases.” On top of this, there will be new prizes and subsidies given out to researchers and companies for standards work, creating incentives for the types of collusion and pressure campaigns that Chinese SDO participants have been accused of.
This type of activity will have major and uncertain spillover effects beyond China. It could position Beijing to wield greater influence on standards setting across the board, including a vast range of products and processes—anything that might be standardized. This flurry of movement promises to mean that representatives from Chinese companies will be a much more active presence in many more standards-setting venues, from the lowest ranks of professional societies up to the ISO itself.
Responding to China’s New Strategy
What should other countries do about their concerns over these distortions of the neutrality of standardization decisions by major SDOs? The first step is to recognize that much of the Chinese strategy does not require a response. China’s slow shift toward an industry-driven approach is a potentially positive development, while the comprehensive use of standards for industrial upgrading could have unintended consequences, such as introducing new kinds of friction and rigidity within China, with premature standardization locking Chinese producers into using technologies that quickly become outdated.
As for the international dimension of China’s plan, it would be wise to take a targeted approach. SDOs are sprawling and highly international organizations that operate based on a shared interest in the minutiae of technology and the collegiality of fellow professionals (although hidden agendas of industry employers are also understood to be at play). Heavy-handed interventions seeking to exclude researchers or companies from China would backfire, given their credentials and affiliations, and such attempts could potentially upend ongoing work at crucial standards-setting bodies.
Instead, concerned policymakers in other countries should engage with the leaders and participants of key SDOs to understand exactly where distortionary practices are happening and what the best methods of combating these practices are. These countermoves could include a push for SDOs to tighten their internal voting procedures or for concerned policymakers to pursue proactive domestic policies, such as support for companies to participate in international standards-setting bodies.