Apple's futuristic data center in Guizhou. Image: Twitter

China is proactively pursuing digital transformation, and the demand for data processing, computing, and storage is increasing tremendously. China’s “East Data West Computation Project” aims to achieve a lot, from green energy goals to pushing for development in the underdeveloped region of western China. It will contribute to the goal of “Digital China” and has the potential to build high-tech military modernization infrastructure.

The National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) in February approved the building of eight national computing hubs and 10 national data-center clusters. China’s “National Computing Network” is being implemented as the “East Data West Computing” project (also referred to as “East Data West Calculation”).

The announcement was jointly released by the Central Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), and the National Energy Administration (NEA).

Under the East Data West Computing project, eight national computing hubs will be built, in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region, the Yangtze River Delta, the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Greater Bay Area, the Chengdu-Chongqing economic circle, the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, southwestern China’s Guizhou province, northwestern China’s Gansu province, and Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region.

This is in line with the goals of the 14th Five-Year Plan, which aims to speed up the execution of its east-to-west computing resource transfer initiative.

Why is this project critical?

The importance of this project is evident from the stated goals. First, it is expected to boost the integrated computing power in China. Second, it is designed to contribute toward green energy goals.

Third, the project is important for China’s National Digital Economy Plan. The project is expected to boost development in the underdeveloped western region of the country.

Finally, it has unstated benefits that will likely contribute to the Chinese military’s vision to build a high-tech force.

Let’s examine these four goals one by one.

China’s computing demands are increasing with increasing digitization. The NDRC data suggest China’s combined computing power has reached 130EFLOPS (1.3 trillion floating-point operations per second). The demand for computing power in China is expected to grow by more than 20% yearly. Hence this plan is expected to boost the integrated and coordinated development of computing power in China.

Second, there is an imbalance between the number of computing network hubs in the eastern and western regions, with most hubs located in the east. Because of more population and concentration of industries, eastern coastal areas consume more data and have a great demand for computing power.

However, the western region is rich in renewable resources and has the potential to serve the computing needs of the east by building data centers. This project aims to shift the load from east to west.

Related to the second point is the next one. Moving data centers to the west, focusing on renewable energy, will also contribute to China’s carbon-neutrality goals. This is a result of computing demand and their massive energy consumption.

At the 2020 UN Climate Ambition Summit, President Xi Jinping announced that China’s carbon-dioxide emissions will peak before 2030, and China aims to achieve carbon neutrality before 2060. The project is a step toward achieving sustainable development without compromising the energy requirements of the computing needs.

Fourth, the National Computation Network Project will supplement Beijing’s five-year Digital Economy Plan. This plan was released on January 12 this year. According to the plan, efforts would be made to expedite establishing information network software and a national-level integrated extensive data-center system coordinating computing power, encryptions, and data. The National Computation Plan lays the groundwork for the Digital Economy Plan to achieve its objectives.

Finally, the project will be beneficial for the military’s long-term goals of high-tech modernization as well. As the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) aims to prepare for future “intelligent warfare,” the emphasis on integrated and enhanced computing abilities will increase.

Military emphasis on the importance of computing power is evident in the writings of PLA scholars. For example, an article published by PLA Daily emphasizes that in the future, “algorithmic warfare” will shift from the “human brain level to the machine brain-like level.” In such a case, fast computing power, machine-learning solid ability, and faster decision-making ability will become a top priority.

These capabilities are essential for the intelligent warfare being envisaged by PLA scholars. Hence the integration of computing power, and projects like “East Data and West Computation,” are likely to contribute to the national-level infrastructure needed to achieve PLA’s modernization goals.

The East Data West Calculation initiative is a massive infrastructural project that will open up new prospects for companies in the field. However, the project’s implementation will be costly and necessitate major technological innovation to make data centers and transmission functional and as practical as possible.

The goals of the project are ambitious, but so far there has been little practical evidence of dedicated implementation, with exception of a few announcements this year.

Still, if everything goes as planned, the project will ensure a low-cost, environmentally friendly, and highly efficient computing solution. The project will likely aid Beijing’s vision for digital and technological evolution and military modernization ambitions.

Swayamsiddha Samal is a research assistant in the China Studies Program at the Takshashila Institution. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Mandarin language from Jawaharlal Nehru University. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree from Pondicherry University.

Megha Pardhi is a research analyst at the Takshashila Institution. Her research focuses on the People’s Liberation Army and the role of emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and quantum computing in the Chinese military. She has a master’s degree in politics and international relations from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. She tweets @pardhimegha21.