Xiao Qiang, University of California at Berkeley
The Rise of Chinese Digital Authoritarianism
A 2019 report by the Brookings Institution defines digital authoritarianism as “the use of digital information technology by authoritarian regimes to surveil, repress, and manipulate domestic and foreign populations.” Under Xi Jinping’s leadership, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been building digital authoritarianism in China through censorship, propaganda and AI-driven population-wide surveillance. Under the CCP’s massive propaganda apparatus, a wide array of other organizations – including internet service providers, data analytics companies, and social media websites – also contribute to internet censorship and digital control of citizens in China. This comprehensive, full spectrum nature of the Chinese digital surveillance state is in many ways a goal for autocratic Arab regimes, one which the wealthier and high-capacity states such as the UAE have been actively pursuing. Understanding the Chinese model for digital authoritarianism can therefore shed light on potential futures of MENA states.
Since the early 1990s, China’s Ministry of Public Security (MPS) has carried out the National Public Security Work Informational Project, also called the “Golden Shield Project.” This project includes a security management information system, a criminal information system, and a national adult citizen database (including fingerprints) among others. MPS has also established the Public Information Network Security Supervision Bureau to monitor, intercept and censor the online activities of Chinese citizens, from Bluetooth transmission to wireless networks.
In 2010, the penetration rate of Internet users reached about one-third of the 1.4 billion Chinese population. By 2016, more than half of the Chinese population was online. With the continuous growth of the number of Internet users in China, the Chinese government began to build the “Great Firewall” (GFW) in 2001, a collection of software and hardware systems used to monitor and filter communications on national internet gateways. The GFW surveils, intercepts, and blocks internet transmissions according to the official requirements of the CCP. It also blocks foreign internet tools and mobile apps, and forces foreign companies to adapt to domestic regulations.
After Xi Jinping took office as the top leader of the Chinese Communist Party in 2012, he vigorously concentrated power by purging political opponents, promoting the CCP’s ideology and his own personality cult, and strengthening the Party’s complete control over society.
The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) is the central internet regulator, censor, oversight, and control agency for the Chinese government. The CAC answers to the Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission, which is headed by Xi himself. CAC has established a series of branches, including the Internet Commentary Work Bureau, the Mobile Network Management Bureau, the Cyber Security Coordination Bureau, and Internet Public Opinion Center. Starting from 2018, CAC directly manages the National Computer Network and Information Security Management Center (aka the GFW). (Prior to this, GFW was managed by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology).
Growing Surveillance State
Another component of digital authoritarianism under Xi Jinping is an intensification of the mass retrieval, collection, and processing of individual information through online activities ranging from social media behavior to purchasing habits. This, combined with a vast and rapidly expanding constellation of cameras equipped with facial recognition systems, and crowdsourced reporting regimes, have enabled an unprecedented granularity of surveillance that enables individual behavioral manipulation. In the hands of CCP, the new wave of digital technology is becoming a powerful, oppressive tool for surveillance and control of society as a whole.
In 2017, the Chinese government outlined its roadmap to become a “major AI innovation center in the world” by 2030.The government selected Baidu, Tencent, e-commerce giant Alibaba and speech recognition software company iFLYTEK as the national champions in the AI field. These powerful companies are increasingly shaping reality as people’s lives are becoming ever more dependent on their technologies—from intelligent voice assistants to various sensors, which collect data about people’s living conditions and then analyze these data to improve people’s quality of life.
The Chinese state works with tech companies to strengthen the large-scale retrieval, collection and processing of personal information through online activities ranging from social media behaviors to buying habits,. With no other choice, more than one billion Chinese use a handful of phone applications. Although these phone applications are extremely convenient, users’ communications, transactions, and behavior are disclosed to large technology companies such as Ant Group and Tencent that are obliged to share this data with the Chinese government.
Chinese people have become accustomed to having their personal hobbies, education and health, academic qualifications, economic status, eating and consumption habits, social interactions, and even reading hobbies all in the vision of the big tech-companies and the state. This, combined with a large and rapidly expanding camera group equipped with a facial recognition system and a crowdsourced reporting system, achieves unprecedented monitoring granularity and allows individual behavior manipulation. For example, in China’s north-west region Xinjiang, apart from the ubiquitous cameras, most residents are required to download apps on their phones that allow the authorities to monitor what they look at and track their movements. In 2019, data leaks revealed that Chinese authorities were closely tracking the locations of almost 2.6m people in real time through a facial-recognition company and police contractor called SenseNets.
Skynet and Sharp Eyes
“Skynet Project” is a video surveillance project invested and established by the Chinese government in 2003. The government installs video surveillance equipment in public gathering places such as traffic junctions and security checkpoints, and uses GIS maps, image collection, transmission and other technologies to monitor and record information in different areas in real time. The Skynet system connects the surveillance cameras of different places (such as railway stations, restaurants, shopping malls, theaters and other public places, buses, subways, taxis and other transportation tools), and can identify a large number of people in a very short time. Chinese companies Hikvision, SenseTime, Huawei, and ZTE have all participated in the construction of the Skynet project. As of 2019, the Skynet system has 200 million public surveillance probes throughout mainland China.
In 2015, China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, MPS, and six other government agencies launched the Sharp Eyes Project. This project’s main goal is to provide complete real-time rural surveillance coverage by building high-definition cameras at main road entrances and crowd gathering places in rural areas. Sharp Eyes also places surveillance capabilities in citizens’ hands and encourages their direct participation. The project uses existing rural TV networks to connect public safety video surveillance information to digital TV terminals of rural households. It aims to achieve “full range coverage, full network sharing, available at all times and fully controllable” from the perspective of police.
Chinese authorities are thus integrating old and state-of-the-art technologies (phone scanners, facial recognition cameras, face and fingerprint databases, and many other technologies) into a wide range of tools for authoritarian control. For example, the “Skynet Project” face recognition system includes a series of application systems such as a face capture and comparison system, a face retrieval system, and a video post-retrieval system. These systems mainly use face detection algorithms, face tracking algorithms, face quality scoring algorithms, and face recognition algorithms, as well as personnel monitoring and motion tracking. Chinese police can access and search the face capture database into the face recognition server, and the server performs modeling and analysis on the face image. Chinese police can also deploy and install cameras at key monitoring locations to capture the faces of people passing through the Skynet.
Censorship, Propaganda and Disinformation
The CCP has always tried to enhance the legitimacy of the regime by shaping public discourse, mobilizing its support base and suppressing any political and social protest movements. The party-state proactively subverts and co-opts social media for their own purposes. Now it also uses algorithms, automation, and human curation to purposefully distribute misleading information to further enhance the effectiveness of its propaganda machine.
There are many types of “sensitive information” on the Chinese Internet, including so-called “internal information” such as propaganda prohibitions and inside stories of high-level political struggles, as well as social topics such as corruption, housing prices, medical reform, wages, and environmental pollution. The most censored topics include the Hong Kong protests, the anniversaries of the Tiananmen Square incident, and the detention of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.
Mainstream applications such as Sina Weibo, Toutiao, and Kuaishou employ as many as thousands of people engaged in manual censorship to remove “illegal” content. Many companies have outsourced content removal work to “censorship workshops” – a company called Beyondsoft has employed more than 8,000 workers. The Citizen Lab of the University of Toronto in Canada disclosed in August 2019 that WeChat already has image filtering capabilities. If users try to avoid text censorship and post sensitive content in images, they will also be discovered.
The CCP also uses high-tech censorship systems and official media reports, as well as social media platforms such as Weibo, WeChat, and LeTV, to increase internal and external ideological propaganda, especially manipulation of nationalism. The methods used include censoring information, distorting facts, changing narratives, and deliberately guiding people to forget history. As in the Gulf cases documented in this collection by Marc Owen Jones, a large number of social media accounts are supported or directly set up by government departments, and widely used deceptive digital tools, such as bots, botnets, and trolls.
For example, according to a New York Times report, about 4,600 Twitter accounts reposted posts from Chinese diplomatic envoys and official news organizations in the first week of June 2020. During the Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill Movement in Hong Kong in 2019, Twitter suspended more than 200,000 fake accounts controlled by the Chinese government. These users have widely disseminated and created disputes about Hong Kong protests and deliberately “smeared the actions of Hong Kong demonstrators.”
For China’s rulers, the advance of censorship and surveillance technology can solve two fundamental problems: greatly reduce the cost of social coercion and suppression, and target the smallest resistance with the exact amount of force needed. COVID-19 has been a great gift to the digital authoritarian state.
The Covid-19 pandemic originated in China. One of the reasons why this pandemic spread so widely is directly related to the Chinese Communist Party’s internet control. Before his death, Dr. Li Wenliang, known as the “whistleblower” of the Wuhan epidemic, was admonished by authorities for “spreading rumors.” The death of Li Wenliang triggered great grief and anger among the Chinese people, and calls for freedom of speech flared online for a period afterwards.
But this has not diminished the actual success of China’s tight surveillance strategy. The Chinese government has been using various surveillance technologies during the COVID-19 pandemic, including tracking applications, drone surveillance, and cameras. Indoor and outdoor, remote temperature scanning and upgraded facial recognition can identify people wearing masks. A mobile application called “Health Code” has brought good news to public health and threats to privacy at the same time. As people scan and board a bus or enter a restaurant, they can be stopped if they have a poor rating or have trouble using their smartphones. The “health code” has rapidly spread throughout China. Chinese people are very willing to enter their information into the health code program every morning. The epidemic has become a long-term pass for the CCP’s digital authoritarianism.
Digital Silk Road
Beijing’s experience in using digital tools for home inspection and surveillance has made it the preferred supplier of illiberal governments wishing to deploy their own surveillance system. In the 65 countries assessed by the “Internet Freedom Report” by Freedom House in 2020, Chinese officials have organized training courses and seminars for representatives from 36 countries in terms of new media and information management. Chinese state-owned and private companies are developing telecommunications infrastructure in 38 countries, and surveillance companies such as Hikvision and CloudWalk are selling facial recognition technology, using artificial intelligence, to 18 countries including Egypt and Qatar.
The Chinese government has been aggressively promoting its “Digital Silk Road” which is the code name for fiber optic cables, mobile networks, satellite relay stations, data centers 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; it reportedly has signed Digital Silk Road memoranda of understanding with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates.
Here are some latest examples from the “White Paper” published by official China Academy of Information and Communications Technology (CAICT) in April 2021:
- Alibaba has expanded its expansion plans to Southeast Asia. It has acquired Pakistani e-commerce company Daraz and launched a digital free trade zone with the support of the Malaysian and Thai governments, which will simplify customs inspections, provide logistical support for companies and promote exports of small and medium-sized companies in Malaysia and Thailand to China.
- ZTE is currently operating in more than 50 of 64 countries on the route of the “One Belt, One Road” initiative. In addition to laying fiber optic cables and establishing mobile networks, the company has been providing surveillance, mapping, cloud storage and data analysis services to cities in Ethiopia, Nigeria, Laos, Sri Lanka, Sudan and Turkey.
- Guan’an Information cooperated with the United Nations Asia-Pacific Region Economic and Information Technology Talent Training Center to establish the first domestic training base to provide professional safety training for countries along the “Belt and Road,” with more than 200 annual training participants.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a US think tank, issued a report on May 17, 2021, stating that between 2006 and April 2021, Huawei had concluded 70 cloud infrastructure and e-government transactions with 41 governments or their state-owned enterprises. Most of these countries are classified by Freedom House as “non-free (34%)” or “partially free” (43%), concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa (36%) or Asia (20%), mostly low- and middle-income countries. Compared with advanced economies, these developing countries have “strong demand, lower barriers to entry and fewer scrutiny.”
Huawei processes a large amount of sensitive data related to citizens’ health, taxation and legal records in the contracting countries. Huawei Cloud Services also operates important infrastructure, such as oil production and fuel distribution in Brazil, and power plant operations in Saudi Arabia. This enables Chinese companies to collect, control, and store data from other countries, and access the data as needed. China is also very interested in analyzing huge amounts of data, trying to use it for artificial intelligence to help them improve their calculation and control models.
The Chinese government hopes that these companies can exert political influence throughout the region. In the short term, the arrival of Chinese engineers, managers and diplomats will strengthen the tendency of developing countries, especially those with authoritarian governments, to embrace the concept of China’s closed Internet.
“The Great Digital Contest”
As Laura Rosenberger wrote in Foreign Affairs in 2020: “Democratic countries view information as an empowering force in the hands of people: the free and open flow of ideas, news, and opinion fuels deliberative democracy. Authoritarian systems see this model as a threat, viewing information as a danger to their regimes and something the state must control and shape.” Now the world is entering the era of artificial intelligence. As a technology that currently relies on the centralization of massive data, AI tends to empower centralized autocratic government rather than decentralized democratic governance.
China is already the richest, most powerful, and most technologically advanced dictatorship.
Using surveillance, censorship, and the manipulation of information, the Chinese Communist Party shores up its power at home while weakening democratic competitors abroad. In a Pew report published in 2020, a western Internet pioneer, technology developer and manager predicted: “By 2030, artificial intelligence-based surveillance systems that China will develop and export to the world will enslave 75% of the world’s population. These systems will be 7 days a week. Every citizen is monitored 24 hours a day to monitor their every action.”
The rise and global expansion of Chinese digital authoritarianism is reshaping the balance of power between democracies and authoritarian states in what I call “The Great Digital Contest.” China has provided the world with a blueprint for the establishment of a digital totalitarian state. The Middle East, as this collection shows, is already a central battlefield in this global struggle. All democratic states and civil society actors must work in solidarity to counter the global expansion of Chinese digital authoritarianism to defend and preserve freedom and dignity in the 21st century.
 Research Scientist, Director of Counter-Power Lab, School of Information, University of California at Berkeley; Founder and Editor-in-Chief, China Digital Times, (https//chinadigitaltimes.net)
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