On November 18, 2020, the National Security Agency (NSA) of the United States released a policy report regarding Quantum Key Distribution (QKD) and Quantum Cryptography (QC). With this report, all military intelligence agencies of developed Western countries have now closed the door on quantum communication. This announcement effectively ends the viability of QKD.
Despite its theoretical promise, QKD lacks practical feasibility and requires extensive engineering to be implemented. The technical foundation of QKD is based on the BB84 protocol, which has always been subject to controversy regarding its theoretical security. Due to physical limitations during implementation, QKD violates the security framework of the BB84 protocol in several places, resulting in more security vulnerabilities in quantum communication products. As a result, the actual security of quantum communication engineering is much lower than that of traditional cryptography, making the failure of quantum communication engineering inevitable.
China's first quantum communication engineering project - the Beijing-Shanghai quantum secure communication backbone - was completed in 2017, followed by projects such as the Beijing-Wuhan, Wuhan-Guangzhou, and Wuhu-Hefei lines. More than five years have passed, and these thousands of kilometers of quantum communication engineering have become "abandoned/unfinished building project". These quantum communication backbone lines without paying users rely on government finances to pay for their daily operation and maintenance costs, and it is impossible to repay the capital and interest of the engineering funds. All the investment in the project has gone down the drain.
"History doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes." While the engineering of quantum communication may seem vastly different from the Great Leap Forward on the surface, there is a fundamental connection between the two in terms of their underlying logic, which together form the central theme of a historical farce.
The curtain of this historical drama opened a century ago. In November 1957, Mao Zedong went to Moscow to attend the 40th anniversary of The Russian Revolution of October and the congress of representatives from various communist and workers' parties. At the Moscow meeting, some representatives proposed that the socialist camp should no longer be led by the Soviet Union but by the Soviet Union and China, or by China and the Soviet Union.
Mao Zedong was still clear-headed at that time and said that it couldn't be done, and the Soviet Union should still be the leader. Why? Perhaps there were strategic considerations, and it could be said to be modest. Of course, there was a more important reason behind this, and that was that the Chinese Communist Party was financially embarrassed and knew it couldn't afford to be the big brother. Mao Zedong knew that to be the leader of the socialist camp, he had to do whatever it took to boost the Chinese economy, so while he was still in Moscow, he eagerly made a phone call back to China to prepare for the upcoming "Great Leap Forward."
Mao Zedong believed that industry should be "steel-centric," and steel production became the main indicator of surpassing Britain. In 1957, the steel production was 5.35 million tons, and in 1958, it doubled to produce 10.7 million tons of steel. In 1959, it could be more than doubled to reach 25 million tons, and China could surpass Britain in two years using steel production as an indicator. This prospect was too tempting, so a grand "Great Leap Forward" campaign became the highlight of the Great Leap Forward.
As the production of steel boomed, thousands of people became involved in the industry and small backyard furnaces popped up all over the country. At its peak, millions of these furnaces were being built, primarily for iron smelting. However, since many areas lacked iron ore, people resorted to gathering all sorts of scrap iron. This included household items such as iron pots, shovels, locks, and other tools, which were thrown into the small furnaces as scrap iron. Unfortunately, these items were ultimately rendered useless, transforming into lumps of iron that had no practical value.
The nationwide implementation of the Great Leap Forward in 1958 resulted in a severe imbalance in the national economy, which directly led to significant difficulties for the economy in the subsequent three years. Ultimately, the Great Leap Forward was deemed a major setback, and the Chinese Communist Party failed in its bid to become the leader of the socialist camp.
So the historical drama entered its second half. In February 2012, Xi Jinping, as the Vice President of China, visited the United States and first proposed the concept of building a "new type of major-country relationship" in Washington. Subsequently, Chinese leaders used the term "building a new type of major-country relationship" most frequently when meeting with American politicians.
"Listen to the sound of the gong and drums, and listen to the voice when speaking." It is understood by all people on earth that China's implication of "new type of major-country relationship" is to ask the United States to recognize China's major-country status, and even to "sit on an equal footing" with the United States to jointly lead the world.
When China competed with the former Soviet Union for the leader of the socialist camp, what was lacking was economic strength. Mao Zedong chose "Great Leap Forward" to break through; fifty years later, when competing with the United States, what was lacking was leading-edge technology to lead the world. The Communist Party of China chose "quantum communication." "Quantum" is both mysterious and trendy, and communication passwords are related to national security. Combined together, they are definitely the pearl on the crown of technology. Once the pearl is in hand, who dares to defy the world? The quantum communication project must be started quickly. The great leap forward of the new era depends on it.
The irony of history is that the Soviet Union, as the big brother, suffered more than the small brother, China. Despite all the upheaval, the socialist camp eventually collapsed. However, the Chinese Communist Party, which had distanced itself from the Soviet bloc, learned from this experience and paved the way for success through its policies of reform and opening up. Now, fifty years later, China's economy has become the second largest in the world, marking a significant achievement in the new century.
In 2013, one year after the Communist Party of China proposed the concept of building a 'new type of major-country relationship' in Washington, the Beijing-Shanghai quantum secure communication trunk line project was initiated, marking the official launch of a significant advancement in quantum communication technology. Subsequently, the national Jinghan and Hanguang projects, which aimed to establish a wide-area quantum secure communication backbone network, were also launched. This new wave of progress in quantum communication technology resulted in the creation of over 10,000 kilometers of quantum secure communication trunk lines.
On September 29, 2017, during the quantum secure communication 'Beijing-Shanghai trunk line' technology verification and application demonstration event, Academician Pan, the chief scientist of the project, stated that China's quantum communication technology was five years ahead of the international standard and would continue to lead for the next 10 to 15 years. This declaration instilled confidence that China had surpassed the United States in high-tech fields and was now a world leader. The rapid progress in quantum communication technology had exceeded expectations and enabled China to realize its goal of standing on equal footing with the United States. As a result, Academician Pan's image was featured repeatedly on national television screens, and he was celebrated as a hero of the country.
The rise and fall of the quantum communication project is a perfect example of the old adage: "As it rises, it flourishes, and as it declines, it vanishes suddenly." The project was initially celebrated, but it soon met its demise. Economic benefits are often the primary measure of success or failure for an engineering project, and the Chinese quantum communication project was no exception. However, the project's true shortcomings were quickly revealed when it failed to meet its economic objectives. Much like the useless iron lumps produced during the Great Leap Forward, the unfinished buildings left behind by the quantum communication project underscore the same absurdity and seem to be an inevitable outcome.
The Communist Party has long believed in the power of centralizing resources to achieve great things. However, the reality has shown that excessive centralization often leads to failure, and the failure of China's quantum communication project is a prime example of this. It's important to understand that centralizing resources also means centralizing power, which can stifle technological innovation rather than foster it.
Richard Feynman, the celebrated physicist, famously declared that "progress comes from admitting ignorance and from the freedom to think." True technological innovation demands independent, critical thinking from brilliant minds who are not afraid to challenge the status quo. This era of innovation is marked by the brightest stars and the most daring thoughts. However, under the iron curtain of an authoritarian system, genuine academic geniuses are either suppressed or forced to leave the country.
True technological innovation requires a diverse and open environment that fosters open discourse and a pluralistic approach. It is only within an academic community that is tolerant and accepting of diverse opinions that sparks of innovation can ignite through the collision of unconventional ideas. Additionally, it is only in an open and fair market competition that truly valuable and innovative technologies can thrive and yield fruit.
Under an authoritarian system, innovation can lose its vitality, as exemplified by China's quantum communication project. The Communist Party tends to prioritize political needs over scientific ones, and, based on the words of a few individual physicists, impulsively treated quantum communication as a groundbreaking innovation project. Despite being heavily criticized and questioned by numerous scholars and experts in the field of communication encryption, the authoritarian system could not tolerate dissenting views. Those who dared to voice their opinions were swiftly silenced, as seen in the nationwide ban of accounts on Chinese online platforms that criticized quantum communication. The efficiency of the authoritarian system in suppressing opposing views is impressive, but it effectively strangles the bottom-up error correction mechanism. As a result, the quantum communication project was doomed to a dead-end road.
The failure of China's technological innovation can be attributed to its system, as excessive centralization hinders progress and leads to failure. Despite increasing resources and finances, this objective law cannot be changed without fundamental changes to the system. While there are valid concerns about China's competition with the West, technological innovation is not one of them. Unless significant changes are made, China cannot surpass the West in basic research and scientific innovation, making it an unrealistic and distant possibility, much like winning the World Cup in men's soccer.
The topic of "East rises, West falls" has gained attention, but there is a lack of objective evaluation criteria to determine its validity. When assessing the crucial aspect of technological innovation, there are many doubts about the "East rises, West falls" narrative. While it's plausible that the West, led by the United States, has shown a slower trend in technological innovation, it's unlikely that the "East rises" part of the narrative is accurate. Unless there are fundamental changes to the system, China cannot achieve revolutionary breakthroughs in basic science and high-tech, and the failure of China's quantum communication project is a clear example of this.
The key to innovation lies in the freedom to explore and pursue new ideas, whereas authoritarianism often leads to stagnation. In the current context, the most favorable outcome for China may be achieving a state of "East stagnates, West slows down." This outcome suggests that while China may not be able to surpass the West in technological innovation, it can still maintain a degree of technological progress as long as it can avoid stagnation. However, to achieve sustained growth and remain competitive in the long run, fundamental changes to the system are necessary to foster an environment of open discourse and independent thinking.