China’s Role in Global Digital Repression
Xiao Qiang provides the fourth chapter to Global Policy e-book on 'Digital Repression: Causes, Consequences and Policy Responses'. The e-book's chapters will be serialised on Global Policy over the course of 2023. Please find the other chapter's here.
Chinese Digital Authoritarianism
China is the largest and most powerful one-party state in human history, and it also has some of the most developed and sophisticated digital technologies in the world. It contributes to global digital repression through its domestic censorship and control of tech companies, exporting surveillance technologies and efforts to shape the international order and international rules.
The Chinese government uses digital technology, especially artificial intelligence, to establish a mass surveillance system in the country in the name of building a “safe society”, “smart cities”, and “smart policing”. Government agencies use facial recognition, biometrics, surveillance cameras, and big data analytics to quickly profile and classify individuals, track activity, predict activity, and take preemptive action against any perceived threats to state power (Hillman and McCalpin 2019).
China’s technology companies are among the world’s largest and most innovative and can exert increasing levels of influence over industries and governments around the world. China’s tech giants, whatever their ownership structure, are domestic monopolies that are tightly integrated with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Over 70% of private enterprises in China have party organizations and branches (Martina 2017). These companies also often pursue commercial interests that align with Chinese diplomatic goals.
Internationally, China has promoted the concept of “cyber sovereignty” to legitimize censorship, surveillance and localized control of data (Mok 2022). In the name of “cyber sovereignty,” CCP has used the national “Cross-Border Data Security Gateway” (aka “Great Firewall”) (Yang 2021) to massively block foreign social media platforms that offer unfiltered services in China. Exclude foreign tech companies, including Google, Twitter, Facebook, etc; replace them with local versions of search (Baidu), entertainment (Tencent), e-commerce (Alibaba), social media (Weibo) and text messaging (WeChat). It provides a market platform for Chinese digital companies to compete unfairly against foreign tech companies (Shirk et al. 2016).
The Cyberspace Administration of China has continuously expanded the list of banned websites using strict cybersecurity laws. Companies must abide by stringent censorship regulations and need to conduct self-censorship to avoid government penalties. At the same time, all companies operating in China, including foreign companies, are required to store information, including personal data, in data centers or servers in China (Wagner 2017).
Exportation of Surveillance Technology
China has become a leading exporter of surveillance technology, including closed-circuit television (CCTV) systems, facial recognition technology, and data analytics software (Romaniuk and Burgers 2018). These technologies are being used by governments around the world to monitor their citizens, including countries with a history of human rights abuses. Chinese companies exported surveillance technology to at least 63 countries. (Feldstein 2019) Chinese security monitoring equipment companies Hikvision, Dahua, and Meiya Pico, all of which have close ties to the Chinese government, have expanded their databases and improved their systems due to overseas development.
China has formed alliances with other authoritarian regimes around the world, including Russia, Iran, and North Korea, to advance its digital repression efforts. For example, China and Russia have signed agreements to cooperate on the development of their respective digital monitoring and censorship systems and to share information on online censorship and surveillance (Tsydenova and Balmforth 2019). China regularly conducts large-scale training programs for foreign officials to respond to public opinion, control civil society, and enforce Chinese-style internet surveillance policies. (Cook et al. 2022).
Investment in Digital Infrastructure
China has invested heavily in the development of digital infrastructure in other countries, including telecommunications networks and data centres. This has enabled the country to expand its influence and presence in the digital world, and to increase its ability to monitor and control online content in other countries.
In recent years, China has been aggressively promoting its “Digital Silk Road”, which is the code name for fiber optic cables, mobile networks, satellite relay stations, data centres and smart cities built by global Chinese technology companies. This effort has accumulated more than $17 billion in loans and investments, including funding for global telecom networks, e-commerce, mobile payment systems, and big data projects. China has specifically courted North Africa and the Middle East as part of its technology push (Xiao 2021).
The International Cyber Policy Center of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute has created a public database (ASPI 2021) to map the global expansion of 12 major Chinese technology companies. The surveying map of the project shows that 12 Chinese high-tech companies are involved in: 75 “smart city” or “public safety solutions” projects, most of which are in Europe, South America and Africa; 52 5G plans, covering 34 countries; 56 submarine optical cables, 31 leased optical cables and 17 terrestrial optical cables; 202 data centres and 305 telecommunications and information communication technology (ICT) projects are spread all over the world. These infrastructure constructions not only bring huge economic opportunities for Chinese high-tech companies, but also provide opportunities for China to obtain huge overseas data, and even provide technical means for some illiberal regime to monitor their own people.
Influence on International Organizations
China has also been working to shape international norms and standards related to the regulation of the internet, including through international organizations such as the United Nations. Chinese diplomats, along with companies, have also been using their influence at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) to advance their own interests in the digital economy. This includes promoting the adoption of Chinese-made technologies in developing countries, such as Huawei’s 5G equipment, and advocating for these technologies to be included in international standards (Ryugen and Akiyama 2020).
In recent years, China has become more and more aggressive in order to improve its influence in international technical standards. In 2021, the telecoms group Huawei, together with state-run companies China Unicom and China Telecom, and the country’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), jointly proposed a new standard for core network technology called “New IP” at the UN’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU) (Gross and Murgia 2020). While the proposal claims to enable cutting-edge technologies such as holograms and self-driving cars, in reality, the proposal to reshape the internet also embeds digital repression into the very fabric that underpins the web. This enables the state to have far greater control over internet services than in the past.
Now the world is entering the era of artificial intelligence. This technology can be a force for good as a predictive tool, analytical tool, or automated decision-making tool; it can also be used for surveillance, censorship and information manipulation (Xiao 2019). The rise and global expansion of digital repression in China is reshaping the balance of power between democracies and autocracies. The international community must work together to address China’s digital repression and promote greater online freedom and privacy.
A theoretical physicist by training, Xiao Qiang studied at the University of Science and Technology of China and entered the PhD program (1986-1989) in Astrophysics at the University of Notre Dame. He became a full time human rights activist after the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989. Xiao was the Executive Director of the New York-based NGO Human Rights in China from 1991 to 2002. Since 2003, Xiao has taught classes Digital Activism, Internet Freedom and Blogging in China at both the School of Information and the Graduate School of Journalism, University of California at Berkeley. His current research focuses on state censorship, propaganda and disinformation, as well as emerging AI-driven mass surveillance and social control in China.
Xiao is a recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship in 2001. In January 2015, Xiao was named to Foreign Policy magazine's Pacific Power Index, a list of "50 people shaping the future of the U.S.-China relationship." He was named on the list “for taking on China's Great Firewall of censorship."
Photo by Junior Teixeira
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