From Lightbulbs to 5G, China Battles West for Control of Vital Technology Standards

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Nearly every product in American homes, from lightbulbs to couches, windows and Wi-Fi routers, conforms to standards and measurements of a global system established to ensure quality and seamless operation.

Industrial standards, created by the U.S. and its allies over decades, form an invisible matrix of rules that underpin the global marketplace. Mundane though it may sound, this uniformity is critical to international trade in how it guarantees that bolts, USB plugs and shipping containers can all be used interchangeably world-wide. The standards reflect the consensus of international panels long dominated by Western technical experts.

China now wants to take the lead in fields of the future. To the consternation of many Western countries, Beijing is employing state funding and political influence to try to define the norms for all manner of cutting-edge technologies that span telecommunications, electricity transmission and artificial intelligence.

“Dominance of technical standards underpinning information and communications technologies and other emerging fields is integral to Beijing’s ambitions,” said Congress’s U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission in its annual report in December.

China’s efforts are driven by the desire to outdo the West, as well as amass profits. Standards based on patented technologies often require users to pay licensing fees. Nokia Corp. and Qualcomm Inc., for instance, earn billions of dollars annually from patents that underpin cellphone systems made by rivals. China would rather earn that kind of money by designing standards to match technologies developed by its own companies.

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