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Is China Exporting Digital Authoritarianism to Developing Countries?

By Guest Writer on May 17, 2023

china digital authoritarianism

China has been engaged in digital initiatives such as telecommunications projects in the low- and middle-income countries of the global South since at least the 1980s.

The extent of this activity has increased significantly during the 21st century with, successively, digital components of the country’s “Going Out” globalisation strategy from 1999, the “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) infrastructure investment strategy from 2013, and then the “Information Silk Road” which then became the “Digital Silk Road” component of BRI announced from 2015 onwards.

In parallel, the remarkable growth of China’s own digital economy – forming nine of the world’s 20 largest Internet companies in 2022 – has partly driven, and to some extent been driven by, the overseas digital expansion of Chinese tech firms, including expansion in countries of the global South.

Debate China’s Influence in the Global South on May 24
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The working paper, China’s Digital Expansion in the Global South, is a systematic literature review from the Manchester Centre for Digital Development to explore if China is exporting “digital authoritarianism” to the global South, and the implications of China’s growing digital presence for digital governance at both global and national levels.

Is China Exporting Digital Authoritarianism?

china surveillance projects

Chinese firms have sold digital systems relating to surveillance either explicitly e.g. video surveillance systems, or implicitly e.g. telecommunications management software that can be used to monitor calls and messages. A key vehicle for the explicit route has been various “safe city” projects around the world utilising digital technologies developed in China including – and particularly – in Xinjiang province.

For example, the Lahore safe city system installed by Huawei has a command centre storing big data from sensors around the city and analysing it using artificial intelligence, with the city-wide system involving “some 8000 high-grade CCTV cameras, 4G wireless connectivity, facial recognition, automated vehicle number plate recognition, multiple tracking options, integrated communication platforms, geographic information systems and specialised apps on security personnel’s smartphones”.

These can be understood as part of a more general digital surveillance stack for which China is seen as both role model and supplier: firewalls and other technologies to control and block information flows, identification devices including video cameras and fingerprint scanners, surveillance software (including growing use of artificial intelligence) to recognise and analyse populations’ physical and digital actions, with cloud/telecom infrastructure and legal frameworks to underpin this.

While the explicit surveillance technologies are promoted as systems to support local authorities in fighting crime, there are concerns about more political applications of the technology; for example, the Pakistan government potentially using Chinese-supplied digital infrastructure and systems to strengthen its control including over marginalised groups within the country such as ethnic minorities. Such potential has been seen in practice with instances of use of these systems in Zimbabwe and Zambia and Uganda to block or surveil the communications of political opponents.

Put together, this all crystallises in the concern that China is exporting a “digital authoritarianism” model that threatens rights and freedoms across the global South. This sees China’s digital actions entrenching authoritarian and illiberal regimes, nudging more democratic regimes towards the authoritarian end of the spectrum and, more generally, creating a new undemocratic world order.

3 Cautions on Digital Authoritarianism Exports

First, there are a lot of “coulds”, “mays” and “mights” in the writing.

As with other aspects of China’s digital expansion, the concerns of Western writers sometimes run ahead of hard evidence, with many assumptions being made about China and political use of ICT in the global South and with claims that: “the perception of Chinese surveillance tech as particularly effective and sophisticated is not matched by the actuality of its chaotic implementation”.

In part, this may arise from design-reality gaps: that features of, say, the “Xinjiang model” may not be readily replicable outside China. Evidence on causal links may also be weak. Looking at just one country, van der Lugt (2021) performs a rare forensic analysis of the potential causal mechanisms that could link sale of Chinese ICT in Ethiopia to greater use of digital systems by the Ethiopian government to control its population.

A number of the links – that China is training local officials in surveillance techniques, that the Ethiopian government is requesting surveillance tools specifically from China, that the government is turning to China because other countries will not supply surveillance systems – find little or no evidence. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence but this work is reminder that it is too easy to fill in gaps in a causal chain without proper evidence.

Second, it is important to avoid the trap of Chinese exceptionalism.

In this case, assuming the Chinese state and Chinese firms are the only ones supporting use of surveillance technology in the global South. They are of course not. Rather than a one-to-few picture of China supplying technology to a few dictatorial regimes, the reality is many- to-many with Chinese and Western firms supplying regimes across the political spectrum.

There are examples of firms and agencies from the US, UK, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Israel and other Western nations providing surveillance technology including several examples of it being used for surveillance of political opponents in countries such as Ethiopia and Rwanda. Hence, for example in Ethiopia, it is likely that “the outcome would not be so different if the Ethiopian government did not use Chinese ICT”.

Some Western surveillance companies do also have connections to their national states which gather, analyse and utilise data in their own interests: think of the revelations of Edward Snowden or of the main encryption provider to global South states having been a CIA front for decades during the 20th century.

Third, the Chinese state may not always be the main actor.

“It appears that on the Chinese side it is the commercial interests of Chinese firms, rather than the geopolitical interests of the Chinese government, that is driving involvement in Ethiopia … the main Chinese actor involved in the digitization of Ethiopia does not seem to be the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) or the central state, but commercial and state-owned enterprises. This does not preclude ‘Chinese influence’ (i.e. state influence) but points to the complexity of the reality on the ground” – van der Lugt (2021).

Support for innovation is one commercial interest for Chinese tech companies as technologies such as artificial intelligence can be tested and innovated in a broader range of environments and datasets than available within China. As a specific example, Chinese artificial intelligence (AI) firm, CloudWalk Technology, is seen as a main beneficiary of its installation of facial recognition systems at key entry/exit points and transport hubs in Zimbabwe; building an ability to recognise darker skin tones that could then be exported to other countries.

Debate China’s Influence on Global South Technology on May 24
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Local Actors Invest in Digital Authoritarianism

Local actors and agency must also be recognised: “The focus in Western media on China’s export of surveillance technology to Ethiopia attributes most of the agency to Chinese firms and the Chinese state. However, this study has found that the Ethiopian government has the agency to independently choose what technology it acquires and from where” – van der Lugt (2021).

Others too, see the pull of demand from global South governments having as much or more influence than some concerted attempt to export China’s model of digital authoritarianism. The same recognition of agency should also apply to use of the technology: Chinese firms may have installed systems and shown how to use them, but local agents should be seen as largely responsible for determining how the systems are actually put to use.

One should not swing too far the other way. Assisted by concessionary state finance, Chinese firms are now far and away the biggest suppliers of surveillance technology in the global South, with Hikvision and Dahua producing around 40% of the world’s surveillance cameras, while “Huawei alone is responsible for providing AI surveillance technology to at least fifty countries worldwide” including dozens of BRI countries.

Chinese firms also differ from Western counterparts in more often implementing and managing systems rather than just selling them, in their greater proximity to the state, and in facing no domestic pressures from state or public to limit who they do business with. Nonetheless, overall, the simple formulation that actions and interests of the Chinese state are fomenting a growth in digital authoritarianism in the global South – and certainly the idea that this would not happen in China’s absence – is questionable and remains to be further investigated.

A lightly edited section of China’s Digital Expansion in the Global South – a systematic literature review from the Manchester Centre for Digital Development by Richard Heeks, Angelica V Ospina, Christopher Foster, Ping Gao, Xia Han, Nicholas Jepson, Seth Schindler & Qingna Zhou.

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