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Communications of the ACM

Editor's Letter

Computing Divided: How Wide the Chasm?

Andrew A. Chien, past Editor-in-Chief of CACM

In January 2019, I described the computing community on the cusp of a new era of growing division.2 The prognostication proved accurate. Four years have seen accelerating division and growing real fissures, driven by international geopolitics, dramatic spy cases—incarceration and increasing technology and trade restrictions. Examples include:

  1. Trade restrictions,3
  2. China's crackdown on tech and covert suppression of opinion abroad,1,4 and
  3. China's threatened invasion of Taiwan and bullying of Lithuania.6

If you are not concerned yet, in February 2022 we saw an outbreak of a regional conflict akin to that which caused World War I;7 Russia invaded Ukraine with no justification. The invasion created overt alignment of warring alliances: China in a no-limits partnership with Russia, Iran, Belarus, and Syria, and the U.S., Europe, and the West joining to support Ukraine. China, the economic leader of Asia and major regional military power, spread a chill across Asia by siding with an imperialist "might makes right" alliance. All nations are now rethinking defense, investment, trade, and technology policies toward China.

The world is at an inflection point. These are indeed times for caution and careful reflection on where are we going. There are three major possibilities:

Catastrophe! (Future #1). Open hostility, fully separate trade (and travel and technology) partitions. Unthinkable? Recall this was the world order from 1950–1980 (Soviet Block—USSR and Eastern Europe, the Western Alliance—U.S and Europe, and China), disjointed ecosystems with little trade or travel. This isolation was self-imposed by both the Soviet Block and China, out of weakness to maintain control over their citizenry. Such division would be a terrible outcome. Tragic individually for billions of citizens of the closed systems, a painful quandary for those with ties spanning, and it would impoverish all culturally.

It is undeniable that Russia has gone into such isolation in just 12 months (trade and travel have stopped). China's no-limits alliance, actions against its tech companies, and overt international belligerence, suggest little commitment to a rules-based international order. Is China ready to undertake isolation? Unthinkable? Such isolation might make China's rulers feel more secure.

The Dream (Future #2). Since 1972, the West has worked on integrating China as an open trade partner into the world's ecosystem. This dream persists despite violent actions by China signaling different intent—the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, construction of the Great Firewall, and violent crushing of Hong Kong's open society. To a realist, the dream is impossible. China's government continues a policy of "victimhood," demanding favorable treatment as a developing country, despite being the world's second-largest economy and a technology leader. It continues to undermine open trade via spying, government-led industrial espionage, global intimidation, and military threats. China appears interested in power—to control its people and nations around it, not in mutual prosperity. The only hope for an open, globalized China is a radical change in its foreign and domestic policy. The chances of that? You can make your own assessment.

The Muddle in the Middle (Future #3). As an optimist, I am hoping for this outcome. The Muddle means a continued devolution of the current system with export bans and creative work-arounds resulting in growing friction in trade (for example, controls on GPU chips of certain speed and bandwidth5); regionalization of supply chains for critical technologies (chips, electric vehicles, batteries, rare earths, …); and the rise of digital sovereignty for services and data. This future world of computing is one of increasing balkanization.

What should ACM do?

  1. Fight for Future #2, trying to hold the world together despite power-ful geopolitical forces fracturing the world?
  2. Lean into Future #3, circle the wagons amongst friendly parties and build leading technologies to win the competition of ecosystems?

Remember that China treats ACM as an NGO, a threat to national sovereignty, restricting its activities in China.

What do you think? What will you do?


Back to Top


1. Burgess, M. China operates secret 'police stations' in other countries. Wired (Oct. 29, 2022:

2. Chien, A.A. Open collaboration in an age of distrust. Commun. ACM 62, 1 (Jan. 2019).

3. de Chant, T. Chinese chipmakers, U.S. suppliers caught in crosshairs of new export restrictions. Techcrunch, Oct. 17, 2022;

4. He, L. China's 'unprecedented' crackdown … CNN, Nov. 3, 2021;

5. Humphries, M. Nvidia cripples A100 GPU performance for Chinese market. PC Mag. (Nov. 9, 2022);

6. Kuo, L. With beer, rum and chocolate, Taiwan rallies behind Lithuania in spat with China. Washington Post, Jan. 6, 2022;

7. Wikipedia. Community, Causes of World War I;

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David Tonhofer

Dear Editor,

As we all all know, "ex falso quodlibet".

It is asked "what should ACM do". The answer is that ACM should start by getting its geo-political information straight. Peering beyond the US-centric media sphere, so thoroughly infiltrated and managed - to the point that we are now finding out that even Twitter was running infowar ops on its own users at the behest of government, helps in providing perspective, replacing a US-centric universe with a more Copernican, international one.

I will not go into the points raised concerning China's alleged misbehaviour. I will just say that those points are being looked at from the wrong side, so to speak. Or so it seems to me. Let us immediately move on to the paragraph concerning Russia:

It is said that "Russia invaded Ukraine with no justification."

Now, if one has been following events that unfolded since the 2014 "Maidan coup" (about which I can recommend Richard Sakwa's "Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands", 2015. as refresher), this is obviously wrong. One might as well say that Imperial Japan attacked Pearl Harbor unexpectedly and for no good reason in 1941, although let it be stated that I do not want to equate modern Russia with Imperial Japan in any way or form. In both cases, however, the attacking nations felt threatened and wronged and decided that they would have to make a move to in order to ensure their continued survival.

I can name the following reasons for a Russian intervention from memory alone: "muscular" discrimination, by Ukraine, against the ethnically Russian part of Ukraine's population Continual shelling of the civilian population of the "contested" parts of Donbas by Ukraine's military and paramilitary groups. Ukraine fostering a resurgence of toxic nationalism of the kind prevalent in Germany during the 30s and 40s, a fact that has been memoryholed out of western media since February. Definitely not an ideology that Russia is inclined to accept seeing in its near abroad. More importantly, continual refusal of NATO to take Russian security concerns about NATO expansion seriously and refusal to give assurances as to Ukraine's neutrality status. This in spite of multiple months of attempts by Russia to start earnest negotations. Furthermore, an ongoing weaponization of Ukraine and, pre-February, even talk of possible nuclear weapon deployment, however far-fetched. Also, continual refusal of the Collective West to take the Minsk accords for Donbas autonomy seriously, going so far as to use them as delaying tactic to arm Ukraine, as recently admitted by ex-Chancellor Merkel. Last but not least, although unconfirmed, rumors that Ukraine would have attempted to re-take the contested Donabs areas in a March offensive, which would have made a belated Russian intervention extremely costly, while putting the Russian-speaking civilian population into extreme danger of reprisals. The Cambodian-Vietnamese war comes to mind.

The above are definitely much more reasonable grounds for intervention than those the US provided for attacking, say, Iraq, at the other side of the world. It is said that the big advantage of the "rules-based international order" (so-called) is that nations on the business end of said order can never be exactly sure what the rules are today. And so it is in this case.

To the information-hungry, I can only recommended certain easily accessible YouTube Channels - Alexander Mercouris from "The Duran" working from London, for political discussion, or, for a short take of the military aspects, Colonel Douglas McGregor (US, ret.) spring to mind.

I would however, like to know more about how China treats ACM as an NGO (the correct word would be a foreign influence organization) and restricts its activities in China. This seems to be a subject of some interest.


-- David Tonhofer

Andrew Chien

Comments above address the characterization "Russia invaded Ukraine with no justification", not the consequent division and the challenge that presents to the ACM -- which is the primary point of the editorlal.

The characterization is based on the position of the European Union on Russia's actions in Ukraine:

1. "War of Aggression" (see
2. "Willful undermining of International Order" (see

and the United Nations General Assembly votes

3. "Aggression against Ukraine" (

4. "Demands Russia reverse course on attempted illegal annexation " (see

I've asked and hope that the ACM executive leadership will characterize ACM's ability to operate in China, and that compares to other regions of the world such as the EU and North America.

Best wishes for peace and safety to all in this holiday season! -Andrew

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