China has invented a new social "operating system" that combines the integral use of digital technology, a new approach to Marxism and a new deployment of the Chinese Classics.  The Center for the Study of Digital Life (CSDL) believes that this approach is unique and that it needs to be understood in detail by the world at large.  Accordingly, we have organized a three-year research project to analyze what the Chinese are doing so that others can evaluate their plans, incorporate their insights and better grasp their accomplishments and failures. 

COSS Project:

The CDSL will bring together global strategists, computer scientists, economists, sinologists, political scientists and others to form a cross-disciplinary team to study the ongoing development of what we call the China Operating System for Society (COSS). We believe this effort will require three years to complete its first phase, with a total budget of $3 million.  Funding will come from a combination of individuals -- particularly those from the technology industries -- and philanthropic sources.

The results of this initial effort will be multiple papers and research seminars, an open-source journal, a Wiki and a two-day conference, the proceedings of which will be published as a book. 


While digital technology is generally noted as the fundamental "change agent" in society, most modern Western societies struggle to keep up with the "disruption" provoked by technology and, at best, try to study aspects of technological change in isolation from their overall social consequences.  The reasons for this piece-meal approach are multiple, including a general lack of political and strategic coherence, fragmented academic specialization, the general inability of social scientists to incorporate technological effects into their work and economic imperatives that favor competition over co-operation.

We believe that many of these Western inhibitions do not apply to China.  Under the leadership of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and its ability to mobilize academic, economic, political and cultural resources on a massive scale, today's China is uniquely positioned to organize a sweeping approach to what we call "Digital Life."  Looking forward a decade-or-more, China has the capability to harness capabilities that have perhaps never been assembled before in human history.

Since its origins early in the 20th century (when it was known as the Chinese Communist Party or CCP) the CPC's primary goal has been he "creation of a new society."  Today's CPC leadership are, in many cases, the children of those who marched with Mao Zedong and have not forgotten those goals.

Mao specifically departed from the "orthodox" Marxism of his day to declare that the "superstructure" of society (i.e. culture, ideology, religion, etc.) had significant impact on the economic development of a society.  As the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s demonstrated, often with disastrous results, the CPC is collectively organized for social mobilization to achieve such a "new society."  Now, with the addition of the "material" basis of digital technology, unavailable to Mao who governed a society largely based on radio-based communications, these ambitions have taken on new urgency and enthusiasm.

From its close relationship with Apple (helping to make it the world's most valuable company), to its world-leading network technology providers such as Huawei, to its remarkably successful Internet social and commerce sites including Alibaba, China is perhaps the most *strategically* digital country on earth.  Where the corresponding companies in the West are hard-pressed to assert their "independence" from their respective governments over "security" concerns, those in China are publicly committed to the CPC's efforts to protect the Chinese "sphere."

In addition to this remarkable social/political/economic cohesion, China has been deliberately "updating" the basis of its own "superstructure" beginning over a decade ago in a complete revamping of Marxism to give it a "Chinese character" at the research institution at the pinnacle of their system, the Central Party School.  This project, completed in 2011, now appears to have spawned an "academic" counterpart with the recent announcement that Beijing University will construct a new facility dedicated to a thorough analysis of Marxism and its capacity for social organization.

Importantly, in contrast with the West, where rancorous disputes over "secularism vs. religion" and the attendant "culture wars" still animate Presidential debates, Chinese authorities have backed efforts to revive interest in its own multi-millennium cultural heritage.  The "Three Teachings" of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism, along with high-level study of Yiology (i.e. the 3000 year-old "Yi Jing") have become increasingly common.  As Cambridge historian/sinologist Joseph Needham boldly documented, China was in many ways the global center of technological invention long before Europe eventually took up the challenge.  From toilet-paper to movable type and beyond, China's technological legacy is both historically powerful and deserving of significant current cultural pride.

Taken together, these strategic resources of cultural heritage, ideological flexibility in the face of technological change, political/economic leadership and demonstrable commercial/social success with digital technology provide the capability for China to develop a *digital* social operating system unlike any yet imagined elsewhere.

The COSS Project seeks to understand what the Chinese have already learned -- both positive and negative -- and to understand what they now plan to accomplish. 



Mark Stahlman

The Center for the Study of Digital Life (CSDL) is a not-for-profit strategic research group dedicated to understanding the effects of digital technologies on civilizations -- both East and West.

-Mark Stahlman