China’s digital dictatorship goes global

China is the world’s salesman when it comes to information technology. It exports the most cameras, laptop computers, and TV screens. Nearly every smartphone that’s sold around the world was produced in the factories of China.  Nine out of the world’s top 12 smartphone makers are headquartered in the Middle Kingdom.

Increasingly, however, China is not just exporting ICT goods. It’s exporting digital authoritarianism.

The Chinese leadership has used digital technologies to cement its grip on power. Surveillance cameras, autonomous drones, citizens’ data – all are used to advance the communist party’s interests and stifle any opposition. Big data meets Big Brother. George Orwell’s nightmare vision is coming true, and it’s coming from China, the world’s first digital totalitarian state. Now an increasing cohort of authoritarian states is interested in learning from China. And Beijing is happy to teach them.

It has held seminars with representatives from more than 30 different countries on regulating the digital space. It has provided capacity-buildings on how to regulate the digital realm to Uganda and Tanzania, both of which have afterwards introduced Chinese-style internet controls and cybersecurity laws. It has hosted officials from North Africa training them in “cyberspace management” and introducing them to its system of surveillance and censorship. And its companies are happy to provide the digital backbone for authoritarian leaders to exercise their control. ZTE and Huawei are building the internet infrastructure for many African states, while companies such as Guangzhou-based Cloudwalk Technology have inked deals with Zimbabwe to provide it with a massive facial recognition infrastructure. China’s big brother is coming to Africa.

With China’s digital authoritarianism going global, it is no wonder that this year’s Freedom on the Net report highlights the decline of internet freedom and democracy for the eighth consecutive year. According to the report from US-based think tank Freedom House, almost a third of the 65 countries assessed, have come up with new laws to restrict online media. 18 governments have increased surveillance and 26 in total have constricted online freedom.

We are facing a struggle between liberal democracy and authoritarianism in the digital realm. Humanity is “on the highway to digital dictatorship” says Israeli historian Yuval Harari.  Massive surveillance, big data coupled with artificial intelligence is making it ever easier to monitor and control billions of people. AI could allow authoritarian centralised systems to become much more efficient than democratic decentralised systems. Writing in The Atlantic, Harari points out how “the main handicap of authoritarian regimes in the 20th century – the desire to concentrate all information and power in one place – may become their decisive advantage in the 21st century”.

By exporting digital technologies China is not only exporting its digital authoritarianism, it is also establishing a digital sphere of influence run from Beijing. Xi Jinping has called for the creation of a “community with a common future in cyberspace” and wants to create a “digital Silk Road”, establishing fibre optic networks across the developing world, setting technological standards, and cordoning off the digital realm of other countries. Beijing is playing digital Wei Qi, the strategy board game better known as Go, in which one has to encircle territory and control empty spaces.

Controlling the digital infrastructure of other nations, China is able to make use of that strategic position for intelligence operations, electronic surveillance and geopolitical influence. After all, these digital infrastructures usually come with “backdoor mechanisms” allowing China access to crucial data. It wasn’t that long ago that reports uncovered, how Beijing bugged the Chinese-built African Union headquarters, which led to significant data transfers. Most recently, intelligence reports highlight how China’s secret service used the Chinese telecoms giant Huawei to pursue cyber espionage.

It is time for the West to make a comeback in the digital realm and halt the spread of digital authoritarianism. The European Union has recently launched a counter-strategy to China’s One Belt One Road Initiative and put forth a strategy entitled Digital4Development designed to mainstream digital technologies in its development policy. Likewise, the United States is massively increasing development finance and establishing a new development investment agency to counter China’s long arm in the developing world. Yet, both actors need to come together and have a coordinated approach when it comes to advancing liberal democracy in the digital realm. Contours of such cooperation are already emerging. Together with Japan, the European Union and United States have recently formed an alliance to create an international framework on data protection, which could halt China’s unbridled access of international data. Setting international rules on data protection is an important, welcome start. But it is only a beginning. More must be done to halt the digital authoritarian advance.

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