The importance of local AI policy
Provincial and local governments play an outsized role – one only increasing in significance – in implementing innovation policy. Their proportion of China’s overall fiscal expenditures on science and technology rose from 48 per cent during 2007–2011 to 59 per cent in 2015–2016. With respect to implementing China’s national science and technology initiatives, provinces and localities have significant autonomy in experimenting with different approaches.
China’s AI approach does not deviate from this trend. In one sense, the central government's release of the AIDP served as a ‘lead geese effect’ (头雁效应) of sorts, spurring more than 20 provinces to issue at least 30 specific policies to support AI development by the end of 2018. In another sense, many forward-thinking local governments implemented AI-related policies that preceded national government action, such as Hangzhou and Hefei – the two cases covered in detail in this essay.
Irrespective of the order, when the targeted benchmarks from the subnational plans that outline specific figures are aggregated, the combined target – a core AI industry worth 429 billion RMB by 2020 – far exceeds the AIDP’s target of 150 billion RMB. On their own, these figures are difficult to interpret as the line between core AI and AI-related industries is fuzzy. However, the ratio reveals the scale of local ambition.