The U.S. trade war with China is focused on products ranging from agricultural goods to household appliances, but the United States and other democracies should worry about a different type of Chinese export: digital authoritarianism.
Officials in Beijing are providing governments around the world with technology and training that enable them to control their own citizens. As Chinese companies compete with their international counterparts in crucial fields such as artificial intelligence and 5G mobile service, the democratic norms that long governed the global internet are falling by the wayside. When it comes to internet freedom, many governments are eager to buy the restrictive model that China is selling.
The Chinese Communist Party leadership is quite open about its intention to replace the liberal international order with its own authoritarian vision, a project that clearly extends to the digital sphere.
The “Belt and Road Initiative,” an ambitious bid to project Chinese influence around the world through bilateral loans and infrastructure projects, includes a major emphasis on information technology. Of the 65 countries examined by “Freedom on the Net,” Freedom House’s global assessment of internet freedom published Thursday, 38 were found to have installed large-scale telecommunications equipment from leading Chinese companies such as Huawei, ZTE or the state-owned China Telecom.
As these firms build a “digital Silk Road” linking host nations through fiber-optic cables, experts have warned that the equipment may facilitate surveillance by Chinese intelligence services. In January, it was reported that the Chinese-built IT network of the African Union headquarters in Ethiopia had been transmitting confidential data to Shanghai daily for five years.
Some Chinese companies are focused explicitly on exporting surveillance technology. In 18 of the 65 countries assessed by Freedom House — including Zimbabwe, Singapore and several Eurasian countries — enterprises such as Yitu, CloudWalk and the partly state-owned Hikvision are combining advances in artificial intelligence and facial recognition to create “Smart Cities” and sophisticated surveillance systems. This allows authoritarian-leaning governments to identify and track citizens’ everyday movements.
Beijing is not only transferring its repressive technology to like-minded governments abroad, but is also inviting those governments’ officials and media elites to China for training on how to control dissent and manipulate online opinion.
Democracies need to take immediate action to slow China’s techno-dystopian expansionism. Governments should impose sanctions on companies that knowingly provide technology designed for repressive crackdowns. Legislators in the United States should reintroduce and pass the Global Online Freedom Act, which would direct the secretary of state to designate internet-freedom-restricting countries and prohibit the export to those countries of any items that could be used to carry out censorship or repressive surveillance. The law would also require tech companies operating in repressive environments to release annual reports on what they are doing to protect human rights and freedom of information.
But the best way for democracies to stem the rise of digital authoritarianism is to prove that there is a better model for managing the internet.
Policymakers should undertake serious efforts to protect critical infrastructure and citizens’ personal data from misuse by governments, companies and criminals. Tech companies should dramatically scale up their work with civil-society experts to maximize their own transparency and ensure that their platforms are not being misused to spread disinformation.
Beijing is working hard to propagate its system around the world. If democracies fail to advance their own principles and interests with equal determination, digital authoritarianism threatens to become the new reality for all of us.
Michael Abramowitz is the president of Freedom House. Michael Chertoff is the chairman of Freedom House, former homeland security secretary and chief executive of the Chertoff Group, which advises corporations on cyber and physical security.