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Research Questions

  1. How have AI exports financed by the Chinese government changed between 2000 and 2017 (the latest year for which data were available)?
  2. What factors make China's AI exports competitive in the developing world?
  3. Which countries, industry sectors, and social domains are the most affected by China's AI exports?
  4. How does the public in recipient countries perceive China's AI exports?

In recent years, China's aspiration for global technology leadership has driven its significant investments in artificial intelligence (AI) for national security, economic growth, and societal well-being. Although there is increasing research and analysis on China's domestic AI development ecosystems and drivers, the details of China's development-financed AI exports remain elusive. Despite being the single-largest provider of foreign development assistance, Beijing does not participate in aid or debt transparency initiatives.

To address this gap, researchers from the RAND Corporation and AidData jointly built a new database on China's AI export projects that are funded with official development financing: China's AI Exports Database (CAIED). CAIED uses data from multiple public databases and indexes related to China's global financing and recipient countries' electoral democracy, freedom, and data protection and privacy status. In this report, the authors analyze this quantitative dataset — adding qualitative country case studies based on interviews and social media analysis — to examine the distribution, technology, financing, and data safety aspects of China's AI exports.

Key Findings

Between 2000 and 2017, China's AI exports showed significant growth

  • China's development-financed AI exports increased by three- to fourfold from 2005 to 2012.
  • Following this ascent, the numbers remained relatively stable after 2012, indicating a sustained plateau in growth.

There are three key factors underlying China's competitiveness in AI exports

  • China uses an integrated approach to technology exports by providing both AI application and AI infrastructure projects.
  • Chinese AI products are affordable, which appeals to the younger generation in the recipient countries and opens the door for a larger demographic.
  • China has a high degree of flexibility in operations; its projects are often tailored to the recipient countries' requirements.

China's AI exports are concentrated in low- and middle-income countries that are China's Belt and Road Initiative partner countries across Asia, Africa, and Latin America

  • Most of these countries fall under non-liberal democratic categories: electoral democracy, electoral autocracy, or closed autocracy.
  • The sectoral allocation of AI technologies includes Safe City or Smart City, e government–dominated exports, and medical imaging.
  • There is no clear preference toward specific political regimes.

The perception of China's AI exports is multifaceted

  • Top administrators in developing countries often favor China's AI exports, viewing them as well suited to their national needs.
  • The public's sentiment toward AI exports tends to be more negative, stemming from concerns over the lack of transparency on procurement processes, concerns over governments' lack of capability for effectively using AI technologies, and worries over data privacy and safety.

Recommendations

  • Policymakers and civil society in recipient countries should ensure transparency with AI imports, particularly for those imports used in governance and communication projects.
  • Host governments' regulatory branches should aim to continue building data safety policies and implementation processes. To support such policies, civil society's capacity to support data safety measures needs to be strengthened.
  • Donor countries should help build local AI literacy and prepare to provide ancillary support for the AI application ecosystem.

The research reported here was funded by RAND-initiated research and conducted within the Acquisition and Technology Policy Program of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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