The Chinese company Huawei is the second largest manufacture of mobile technology in the world and presently at the forefront of developing a fully functional 5G mobile network. When contrasted with the fastest 4G signals currently available, 5G is capable of delivering speeds that are up to 100 times faster. This means that one could download information equivalent to that of a full-HD feature film in a matter of seconds over a 5G network using the next generation of smart devices from companies like Huawei. The potential for 5G to transform the nature of information exchange, financial transactions, medical research and software design, education, entertainment and even security is quite simply extraordinary. Furthermore, for developing countries whose internet speeds remain slow due to the prohibitive costs of building a fibreoptic broadband system, 5G will likely make the need for an extensive system of fibreoptic cables largely unnecessary as faster and even more reliable high speeds can be achieved over a wireless network using 5G technology.
At present, multiple companies are engaged in a race to see who can get the first fully functional 5G system online by 2020 and so far China is ahead of the competition. While win-win cooperation between multiple companies across national lines would best serve consumers throughout the world, the United States has turned the 5G race into a neo-Cold War style space race for digital network supremacy due to the protectionist zeal of the current US administration. Matters have now been made all the more complicated as it has been reported that Donald Trump is now trying to personally bully America’s traditional partners in an attempt to dissuade them from working with Huawei on developing national and regional 5G networks.
In spite of this, in terms of the 5G “space race” China has already come out ahead of the United States. Huawei which has infamously been shut out of the US market due to existing protectionist measures unveiled its new Kirin 980 chipset earlier this year which will form a crucial component of new 5G smartphones. By contrast, US manufactures Qualcomm and Apple are not expected to release their 5G ready chipset until 2019.
While the space race of the 1950s and 1960s meant little to the ordinary person beyond creating feelings of national pride, today’s 5G race means the difference between holding the technology of yesterday versus that of tomorrow in one’s hand. As it now seems likely that Huawei will be the first company in the world to manufacture a shelf-ready 5G capable smartphone device, American consumers hungry for the latest in technology may be disappointed unless Washington lifts its protectionist measures against China.
But while this may appear to be merely a consumer issue with few geopolitical or psychological implications, this is far from the case. At the beginning of Deng Xiaoping’s market socialist revolution of 1978, Chinese goods entering major international markets were not known for quality. The same was true at the beginning of Japan’s manufacturing revolution when the tag ‘Made in Japan’ was colloquially referred to with the intentionally insulting slogan “Jap crap” throughout parts of the western world.
As part of Xi Jinping’s plan to transform the concept of “made in China” to “created in China”, entrepreneurs, scientists, and manufactures throughout the country are working on the next generation of Chinese products that will not only be affordable, well made and reliable but will also be technologically trend setting status symbols with both practical superiority and psychological desirability.
In terms of daily transactions, China is already far ahead of the United States as mobile payments are now the most common means of transacting in retail. While the US remains burdened with cash and the presence of long obsolete mag-stripe credit cards which even lag behind the EMV chip-and-pin standard, China is ahead of the entire west when it comes to modern, fast, secure and convenient payment options.
But while few consumers in one country tend to be aware of payment systems abroad unless they are frequent travellers, when it comes to a globally valued product such as smartphones, consumers are generally more aware of global markets. Streets and shopping malls in the United States have long been infamous for people sometimes camping out over night to be the first to get the latest iPhone. Now though that Huawei is ahead of Apple in the race for 5G, those same shoppers will be disappointed to know that their own government is retarding their ability to purchase the phone of their choice with their own money. In a country that prides itself on consumer freedoms, such a reality could rightly be called un-American.
The Hellenic philosopher Plato once wrote of the Allegory of the Cave. Here, Plato recalls an allegory told by Socrates wherein a group of men are chained inside a cave. Their only source of cognitive stimulation was seeing shadows cast on the well in front of them as men behind the prisoners held up objects before a fire which then cast the shadows on the wall. One day, one of the prisoners was freed and ran to the surface. At first the bright sunlight blinded the prisoner but eventually he was able to see the world in all its visible beauty.
After seeing visible objects as opposed to their shadowy representations, he returned to the cave to tell the other prisoners about his discovery. Of course, on returning to the cave, the man’s vision again became temporarily impaired as its common when one’s eyes are adjusting from extreme brightness to extreme darkness. Not wanting to investigate the mans’ claims objectively, Socrates recalls that such a man would be killed by his fellow prisoners rather than being believed.
This is the reality of protectionism. Those who champion protectionism seek to keep one’s domestic consumer base ignorant of the technological advances occurring abroad. Because of this, someone with a slow smartphone, poorly made car or obsolete mag-stripe credit card will not know what he or she is being deprived of. However, when it comes to 5G technology, the internet is already abuzz with discussions of China’s breakthrough. Because of this, many American consumers have been partially freed from the cave but they still will not be able to see the fully sunlight world unless their protectionist shackles are removed.
Free trade would actually encourage US companies to intensify their own 5G technologies as they would not want to lose out on a substantial share of their market to Huawei. But since Huawei has been pushed out of the US market through restrictive government measures, US chip makers can afford to fall behind because the average consumer won’t be able to do anything about it.
A world of free men and women cannot reach their full potential in a modern society without free trade. China’s leadership realises this implicitly. It is high time for the US leadership to realise the same.
The trade war is threatening not only global financial stability but it is now directly prohibiting Americans from exercising their constitutional freedoms to enjoy the products they seek to buy as free men and women. All wars limit human freedom and trade wars are no different. Like all other wars, trade wars have no place in a 21st century where multilateral cooperation ought to have long supplanted the morose economic nationalist mentality.