When China’s State Council published its Next Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan (AIDP) in July 2017, many interpreted the move as China planning its way to AI supremacy from the top down.

‘There’s a tendency to place this AI mobilisation within China’s longstanding tradition of centrally planned engineering achievements that have wowed the world,’ writes Matt Sheehan. However, that China’s approach to AI is defined by its top-down and monolithic nature was one of the myths I sought to debunk in an earlier report on China’s AI landscape.

In this essay, I underscore the importance of provincial and local governments in implementing AI policy in China. Specifically, to spur advances in AI, subnational governments are connecting leading firms, research institutes and networks of small and medium enterprises in order to build ‘hybridised industrial ecosystems’. The AI ecosystems with the most potential are those that are adapted to local conditions. But, while provinces and cities are taking bold action on AI, it is important not to overstate the scale and success of local activity. Additionally, some aspects of China’s locally driven approach to AI development may be counterproductive. Finally, I suggest some lessons that European governments can take from the Chinese experience, including shifting focus to potential clusters beyond major capital cities and the opportunities that lie in specialising in particular AI subdomains.


Jeffrey Ding

DPhil researcher and China lead at the Centre for the Governance of AI, University of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute