William Chalk argues that China seeks to change the global internet to suit its authoritarian ends. Its timing couldn’t be better, as more governments are turning to China for direction and support at a time when the global leadership of the U.S. is declining.
Illustration by Anna Vignet
China has been quietly exporting its system of online control — in both technique and proprietary technology — to governments across the world. This proliferation is a key component of China’s geopolitical strategy and represents a sweeping bid to own the infrastructure and ideology supporting the world’s future economic powers.
As of today, 18 of the 65 countries assessed by Freedom House — including Singapore, Malaysia, Pakistan, Egypt, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates — have received Chinese assistance in creating systems able to identify threats to “public order.” This includes mentoring on topics like “public opinion guidance,” which is typically a euphemism for mass censorship.
These systems, including facial recognition software, biometric sensors, AI-driven surveillance equipment, and more, are insidious tools of population control proliferated en masse — often to repressive and illiberal regimes. They have the potential to abet autocratic governments and further upend the shaky relationship between citizen and state. Their export and international sale is contributing to the diffusion of an increasingly consolidated authoritarian model of internet governance that has huge implications for the future of norms across the global network.
According to the report, “China was once again the worst abuser of internet freedom in 2018, and over the past year, its government hosted media officials from dozens of countries for two- and three-week seminars on its sprawling system of censorship and surveillance.”
Developing states like Singapore, Indonesia, India, Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico are of particular interest here. Countries at this stage — termed “digital deciders” by researchers at the think tank New America — have yet to take decisive action in their approach to internet governance and digital freedoms. Their decisions on regulation, therefore, have the capacity to shape the future of the global internet and the formation of international standards.
Early partnership with these states in the sale of infrastructural technology offers China a firm economic foothold in the world’s future mega-economies. Yet the export of this technology is about far more than financial gain — it’s about promoting an authoritarian model for the internet as a whole.
Accordingly, Beijing has taken steps to propagate its model abroad by conducting large-scale training of foreign officials, providing technology to developing nations, and pushing for international companies to abide by its regulations even when operating outside of China. These developments present an existential threat to the future of the open internet and, by extension, greater democracy around the globe.
Having undercut the monopoly of liberal democracies on cutting-edge technology, Chinese companies are building the technological infrastructure of the 21st century, and they’re building it to authoritarian needs.
A multilateral offering
Speaking at the Chinese Communist Party Congress in October 2017, President Xi Jinping publicly outlined his plan to establish China as a “cyber superpower.” He offered up the country’s model of governance — including its management of the internet — as “a new option for other countries and nations that want to speed up their development while preserving their independence,” as paraphrased by Xinhua.
Rather than leading solely by example, Beijing has taken major steps to establish this model around the world, and has organized forums where it can impart its rules and values to authoritarian-leaning governments. These forums are a key vehicle through which China disperses its principles, knowledge, and technology — providing a thin glimpse of the country’s global ambitions.
The World Internet Conference, or Wuzhen Summit, is the largest and most famous of these gatherings, and has welcomed influential attendees from across the world. In 2017, speakers included Apple CEO Tim Cook and Google chief Sundar Pichai. Last year saw several heads of state attend, including the prime ministers of Pakistan, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan.
Now in its sixth year, the conference is designed to highlight domestic innovation and propagate the country’s key organizational principles of internet governance: cyber sovereignty, security, openness, and cyber order. Covering a range of subject matter from artificial intelligence to 5G, these talks often call on countries to improve their models of regulation and promote digital development. The event and those similar to it have been criticized by rights groups including Amnesty International, which has called on technology companies to boycott the conference and reject China’s “Orwellian vision for the internet.”
Spreading internet policies along the Belt and Road
Beijing is also fostering foreign ministers and global elites in order to build a network of countries that will follow its lead on internet policy. Freedom House reports that over the past two years, China has hosted officials from at least 36 countries along the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) for secretive and extended seminars on “Cyberspace Management.” Visiting officials have toured the headquarters of companies involved in “big data public-opinion management systems,” which include systems for “real-time monitoring of negative public opinion” and a “positive energy public-opinion guidance system.”
China has led the campaign for legitimizing the notion of internet sovereignty. This concept attempts to align the notion of state sovereignty with a key authoritarian priority: absolute control over the domestic network and a population’s digital experience.
While it is not always obvious exactly what goes on during these sessions, an April 2017 seminar on “media management” for Vietnamese officials was closely followed by the introduction of a cybersecurity law that imitates China’s own legislation, including its ability to permit access to citizens’ online data and censor content when anti-government sentiment is suspected. Similarly, the growing presence of Chinese companies and officials in Africa preceded the passage of repressive media and cybercrime laws in Uganda and Tanzania.
The Belt and Road Initiative is a key avenue for China’s digital expansionism. A multi-trillion-dollar international development strategy, it focuses on infrastructural projects that will enhance Chinese trade prospects and political influence in up to 65 host countries. The biggest infrastructural investment in history, the BRI includes a “digital Silk Road” of Chinese-built fiber-optic networks that could potentially expose the internet traffic of 62 percent of the world’s population to greater monitoring by local and foreign intelligence groups, and will embed Chinese hardware into the telecommunications foundations servicing almost a third of the globe.
Outside of the BRI, Chinese companies are playing a prominent role in the country’s push for dominance. While some of these firms are private enterprises that may have their own reasons for investment, they are all equally beholden to the government and its strategic goals. Firms including Yitu, CloudWalk, and Hikvision are combining advances in machine learning and facial recognition to create sophisticated tools of surveillance and analysis that, when sold, allow governments to identify and track their citizens’ movements.
In just one example, CloudWalk has signed an agreement with Zimbabwe to build a national facial recognition and monitoring system which will send the biometric data of millions back to China to help train CloudWalk’s AI programs. Huawei is advising the Kenyan government on its “master plan” for information and communication technologies, while ZTE has exported its identity card technology to Venezuela in a bid to aid the government’s “fatherland” database.
Such collaboration and the data it provides not only enhances the Chinese government’s own policing capacity, but also renders the companies’ products more effective and attractive to foreign autocrats.
Promoting a sovereign internet
In the global debate surrounding the norms of digital policy, China has led the campaign for legitimizing the notion of internet sovereignty. This concept attempts to align the notion of state sovereignty with a key authoritarian priority: absolute control over the domestic network and a population’s digital experience. Ultimately, the sovereign model puts individual governments — not companies or NGOs — in charge of the internet.
At its core, the Chinese ideology envisions a global system where governments have absolute power over the internet within their borders and therefore wield heightened power over citizens’ social, political, and economic behavior. Winning adherents to this approach and establishing the concept as an international norm is of critical significance; it offers the prospect of advancing and legitimizing China’s domestic agenda on an international scale. Accordingly, China is dedicating a well-coordinated, strategic, and consistent effort to promote the sovereign model both at home and overseas.
This concept is deeply appealing to autocratic leaders. It helps solve a long-standing problem: nobody is fully responsible for the internet. In its allotment of power, the web pays little regard to the nation-state; governments must administer the internet together with private companies, institutions, scholars, and other groups in an arrangement that severely limits the influence of centralized power.
As Freedom House argues, the most effective way to stem the rise of digital authoritarianism is to “demonstrate that there exists a better model for handling the internet.”
By contrast, liberal democracies tend to operate under the assumption that a global and open internet is best for themselves and the world. It spurs economic growth, assists free speech, and promotes global interconnectivity — or so the logic goes.
The conflict between these two ideologies came to a head seven years ago when China and its allies tried to stage what has since been characterized as a “takeover of the internet.” At a 2012 meeting of the International Telecommunications Union, Russia, China, UAE, Saudi Arabia, and other allied countries united in an attempt to pass a resolution that would have endorsed the principles of cyber-sovereignty and given the UN stronger powers over the internet. The U.S. and majority of Europe submitted strong opposing statements and refused to sign. Without their signatures, the resolution could not come to pass.
After the failure of this international treaty to influence the global consensus from the top down, the cyber-sovereignty debate has shifted to domestic politics. A 2018 report from New America concluded that nations have realized that the “battle today is over how states should model their internets domestically.”
Accordingly, rather than attempting to sway international regulations, China has begun exporting its ideology and proprietary technology on a country-by-country basis, moulding the global internet toward a sovereign foundation from the bottom up. As New America cybersecurity analyst Robert Morgus told CodaStory: “the new international ideological battle is authoritarianism versus liberal democracy. Spreading an authoritarian model for the internet will help spread authoritarian approaches.”
Stemming the rise of authoritarianism
Elise Thomas is a researcher at ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre, whose report called Mapping China’s Tech Giants paints a sobering picture of the country’s infrastructural presence around the world. She told me that China’s international sale of information control technology is inherently part of the country’s global commercial presence. Huawei, Yitu, ZTE, Cloudwalk, and other enterprises offer advanced equipment at heavily subsidized prices. This is tempting for most developing governments, many of whom are inclined to choose affordability over security.
Technological prowess is an equally seductive factor. Huawei boasts a 12- to 18-month advantage over its main competitors, promising its customers the fastest and most advanced systems in the world. Not only is its technology often superior to that of its Western counterparts, it comes at just a fraction of the cost. For many, the choice between Chinese or Western technology is a matter of economics, not geopolitics.
For states without the resources to build proprietary tools, information control and security technology has to be imported from somewhere. Thomas noted that while these countries can buy from other providers, “the complexity of supply chains often makes it difficult to know exactly where each component of any given technology has come from.” Even without directly-sourced equipment, critical systems — both legacy and contemporary — may still rely on software produced in China, making it difficult to entirely eliminate Chinese influence from the digital infrastructure.
Democracies have a range of options for hampering China’s rampant digital expansionism, including tightening trade controls and imposing sanctions on companies that are involved in facilitating human rights abuses. But global internet freedom campaigns have arguably backfired in the past because they have been seen to serve the foreign policy of the enacting country rather than sincerely promote basic best practices. The U.S. and allies have already imposed sanctions on countries buying into Chinese telecoms technology. If Western powers look to extend these threats to additional developing countries considering investment, they may force these nations to make an impossible choice between two economic superpowers, potentially pushing them further into China’s embrace.
As Freedom House argues, the most effective way to stem the rise of digital authoritarianism is to “demonstrate that there exists a better model for handling the internet.” This involves tackling the manipulation of social media and the abuse of citizens’ data in a way that respects human rights, while preserving an internet that is free, global, and secure. Thomas argues that the most effective response “has to be competition rather than coercion — if the U.S. and allies want to limit the use of Chinese technology in the developing world, they need to ensure that they’re offering quality alternatives at affordable prices.”
It’s clear that democratic governments looking to slow down this expansionism will have to devote much greater political and economic resources to countering China’s “charm offensive” on the international stage. As it stands, with a lack of new initiatives from Western countries leading the internet freedom agenda and an unwillingness to reign in their own companies in the provision of information control equipment, freedom of information will only continue to decline.
More governments are turning to China for direction and support at a time when the global leadership of the U.S. is declining. The submission of foreign companies to Beijing’s demands only emboldens the Chinese Communist Party in its bid to rewrite international rules in its favor. If this trend continues, growing international support for internet sovereignty could undermine digital interoperability, transparency, accountability, and human rights on a massive scale. If democracies fail to advance their own interests and principles with equal resolve, digital authoritarianism will become an inevitable reality almost by default.