Global digital divide worsening as US and China continue zero-sum competitions – Community News
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Global digital divide worsening as US and China continue zero-sum competitions

The COVID-19 crisis has disrupted everyday life and business routines around the world, causing massive loss of millions of lives and exacerbating economic inequalities within and between countries. COVID-19 has also exposed fundamental challenges in the international order. As Kissinger has claimed, “the world will never be the same after the coronavirus.” It is reasonable to expect that cynicism about regional and global integration, as well as radical populism, racism, ultranationalism and xenophobia, is likely to continue to grow worldwide.

At this critical juncture, it has become even more important to examine the pressing challenges facing the world and to engage in global cooperation rather than falling into constant strife and confrontation. One of the most urgent tasks for the international community is bridging the growing digital divide.

Digital divides in Least Developed Countries (LDCs) have been particularly striking, as the digitally disconnected populations have further lagged during the pandemic. The US and China, two superpowers in the digital age, must work together with the international community to fight the digital divide and COVID-19 together.

Expanding the digital divide in the least developed countries

Despite the global growth of digital technologies, a 2021 United Nations report noted that nearly half of the world’s population, 3.7 billion people, do not have internet access. Lack of digital connectivity is especially prevalent in LDCs, where over 80% of the population is still offline. In comparison, the disconnected population in developed and developing countries is 13% and 53%, respectively.

LDCs make up about 14% of the world’s population, and they make up more than half of the world’s extremely poor. Digital divides reflect and amplify socio-economic differences. The pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities, often resulting in an ever widening gap in digital skills.

As a result of economic difficulties caused by COVID-19, the population of the extremely poor in the least developed countries grew by 32 million, and the number of people living in poverty in the least developed countries grew to 36% in 2020, 3% more than in previous years. More specifically, LDCs lag further behind in the following three areas.

digital economy

In 2018, before the COVID-19 crisis, more than 70% of the population in developed countries bought goods and services online, while only 2% in the least developed countries did the same. The digital divide deprives workers and consumers in the least developed countries of the opportunity to take advantage of e-commerce on both the demand and supply sides.

Public health and vaccine distribution

People in the least developed countries had no access to vital health care information during the pandemic. In addition, the LDCs in Africa are particularly disadvantaged in terms of obtaining vaccines. By mid-September 2021, of the nearly six billion doses of vaccines distributed worldwide, only 2% have been injected into Africans. According to a recent United Nations report, Africa will face a shortage of 470 million doses of vaccine by 2021.

Online education

About 1.6 billion students around the world experienced disrupted education in 2020. As online education and digital learning filled the gap during the COVID-19 lockdown, more than half of the world’s youth are “on the wrong side of the digital divide”. About 826 million students do not have access to a computer at home. The difference is especially large in the least developed countries. In sub-Saharan Africa, 89% of students do not have access to computers at home and 82% do not have access to the Internet.

These growing digital divides and economic inequalities in the COVID-19 era highlight the fact that technological revolution by itself cannot bring inclusive economic growth or distributional justice. On the contrary, technology often amplifies tension and animosity between the haves and have-nots, both locally and globally.

The urgent need for concerted action between the US and China to fight digital divides and Covid-19

The priorities and perspectives of major powers vary widely when it comes to cyber issues. But this shouldn’t stop the US, China and others from tackling common challenges like digital divides. Major countries have the power to convene to adopt and strengthen international rules, norms, standards, principles and codes of conduct. They also have increased financial and human resources to enable the fight against digital divides at a global level.

According to the Digital Economy Report 2019 published by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, the US and China accounted for 90% of the market capitalization of the world’s 70 largest digital platforms before the COVID-19 pandemic. Europe’s share was 4%, while the combined share of Africa and Latin America was only 1%. Seven “super platforms” in the US and China – namely Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook, Tencent and Alibaba – represent two-thirds of the total market value worldwide.

This could explain why there is so much resentment against these “tech hegemons”. Probably for the same reason, about 50,000 Americans signed an online petition saying that Jeff Bezos should not return to Earth after his space trip.

But unfortunately, we’ve hardly seen any significant concerted effort or “healthy competition” between the US and China, both governmental and industrial, to help fight the digital divides in the least developed countries. In addition, as the pandemic enters its third year, there has been a notable absence of US-China governmental cooperation on COVID-19. Instead, some people in both countries have been blaming, fighting propaganda wars and promoting conspiracy theories.

Geopolitical rifts are beginning to form, with technology being a central domain of competition and conflict. As former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and leading Chinese political scientist Yan Xuetong have noted, there would be a “split between a China-led Internet and a non-Chinese Internet led by America”, and the US and China would not have a “joint global leadership for the emerging digital world.” Instead, the two countries are shaping what Yan calls ‘a duopolistic digital world’ with two separate and competing centers.

These zero-sum competitions are extremely dangerous at a time of unprecedented technological revolution, especially with the rapid advance of artificial intelligence. In the digital age, neither America nor China, Russia or the EU can prevent a catastrophic cyber-attack, which may not come from a great power, but from a marginalized group, a radical extremist or even a “machine”.

Feasibility of US-China cooperation

For now, international concerted efforts to fight COVID-19 – particularly in least developed countries – should be a top priority. Policymakers in both Washington and Beijing should focus on the future rather than dwell on the past.

The US (with generous contributions from the private sector, NGOs, civil society and individuals) has already donated $4 billion to COVAX for the distribution of vaccines in other countries most in need. China, as President Xi Jinping pledged in his recent UN meeting address, will provide 2 billion doses of vaccine abroad this year. At an international conference recently held in China, Chinese Vice Premier Liu He called for “overcoming digital divides to achieve inclusive growth”.

The US and China can complement each other in this regard. The US has an extensive network of global health programs – through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and other agencies – with a legacy of medical and public health support to the developing world. China has a strong capacity for production and logistics. Data sharing and transparency remain necessary to combat emerging variants and determine the efficacy and safety of vaccines and drug development, especially for countries that are digitally disconnected.

It is time for both countries to make a common cause to ensure that the digital and increasingly interconnected world is built on a strong foundation of international dialogue, engagement, respect, distributional justice, humanitarianism and a sense of shared destiny .