China’s Great Firewall has long been the most sophisticated digital censorship apparatus in the world. It has the ability to restrict access to large swathes of the internet, immediately censor politically sensitive material, and employ thousands of people to trawl the internet and manually remove potentially subversive content.
With drastic limits on content, pervasive obstacles to access and harsh violations of user rights, China has been labeled “the worst abuser of internet freedom” for four years in a row by the international watchdog Freedom House.
In the past two years, China has not only continued to develop its internal censorship network but has also begun exporting the model across the world.
In 2017, President Xi Jinping outlined his ambition of transforming China into a “cyber superpower” and presented the country as “a new option for other countries and nations that want to speed up their development while preserving their independence.”
By providing a mixture of training, technological infrastructure, and applying pressure to international companies, China is extending its control of information beyond its national borders.
The results have been far-reaching and, with a dramatic reduction in digital freedoms across the continent, several emerging democracies have been placed under threat.
The Growth of AI and Facial Recognition Technologies
As part of the trillion-dollar international development strategy, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Chinese companies have been instrumental in providing artificial intelligence and facial recognition systems to African governments.
In 18 out of the 65 countries assessed by Freedom house, Chinese companies including CloudWalk, Hikvision, and Yitsu had provided technological assistance to governments in creating systems able to identify threats to “public order.”
In Zimbabwe, for example, the Guangzhou-based startup CloudWalk reached an agreement with the government to build a national facial recognition and monitoring system to be placed throughout cities and public transport stations.
There was no vote on the issue in Zimbabwe and, given the rise of China’s invasive social credit system, there are fears that the technology could be used to significantly intervene into the lives of Zimbabwe’s citizens in the future.
Though auspiciously designed to help battle crime, some are concerned that the technology could be used to stifle opposition. In the words of Zimbabwean journalist Garikai Dzoma, “African autocrats […] will no doubt use it to enhance their political positions by hounding opponents.”
Such anxieties have been exacerbated by the recent internet shutdowns in the country — though there is no proof that China was linked to that specific activity.
Nevertheless, arming an autocratic government with technologies capable of tracking the movements of their population certainly raises concerns about the democratic future of the state.
For China, the deal meant that the ability to create a comprehensive facial recognition database that includes greater ethnic diversity. As different ethnicities can thwart facial recognition software, the sharing of this data is crucial for China to become a world leader in the field.
That thousands of these biometric records will be shared with the Chinese startup without consulting Zimbabwe’s population marks a significant reduction in the digital rights of its citizens. However, this is just one aspect of a far broader relationship between the two countries.
As the CEO of CloudWalk, Yao Zhiqiang, told China’s Global Times, “The Zimbabwean government did not come to Guangzhou purely for AI of facial ID technology; rather it had a comprehensive package plan for such areas as infrastructure, technology and biology.”
These packages are often advertised at China’s popular international seminars, conferences and forums.
Internet Sovereignty and the Rise of a Walled Internet
A central way that China has been able to disperse its knowledge, influence, and technologies throughout the African continent is by hosting events with interested parties.
The World Internet Conference, which is the most famous of these, has welcomed influential attendees from across the world; in 2017, it included Apple CEO Tim Cook and Google chief Sundar Pichai as speakers.
However, since the inaugural event the World Internet Conference has been primarily interested with promoting one thing: China’s notion of “internet sovereignty.”
According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, during the first World Internet Conference in 2014, a draft declaration was slipped under attendees’ doors before the event started that outlined the central concern; namely, that “Beijing should have sovereignty over the internet in China and must keep it under tight control.”
The term “internet sovereignty” was catapulted into public discourse in June 2010 with the publication of a white paper entitled The Internet in China in which China reaffirmed its right to govern the internet within its national boundaries.
“Within Chinese territory the internet is under the jurisdiction of Chinese sovereignty. The internet sovereignty of China should be respected and protected,” it says.
Since at least 2010, China has mounted a significant challenge to the dominant view held in the West that the internet represents a singular, highly-interconnected web that traverses national borders.
Unsurprisingly, the notion of “internet sovereignty” has been an enticing one for governments around the world looking to restrict freedom of expression and reduce the potentially destabilizing effects of an open internet.
Besides the influential soft power that surrounds China’s open demands for internet sovereignty, the Chinese have also provided direct advice to African countries on how to enact similar policies.
In Tanzania — whose largest trade partner is China — the increasingly close relationship has resulted in several laws that mimic those found in China.
Speaking at an event co-sponsored by the Tanzanian government and the Cyberspace Administration of China, the Tanzanian deputy minister for communications said: “Our Chinese friends have managed to block such media in their country and replaced them with their homegrown sites that are safe, constructive and popular. We aren’t there yet, but while we are still using these platforms we should guard against their misuse.”
He added that the government “must find ways to make sure that while a person is free to say anything there are mechanisms to hold them accountable for what they say.”
This tension between freedom of speech and accountability is one that runs through the heart of discussions of internet sovereignty.
In the eyes of those who support it, internet sovereignty allows for freedom of expression, as long as it is constrained by the limits of the law. Its critics, on the other hand, argue that it represents the antithesis of freedom of expression, particularly if the law strictly determines what can and cannot be said.
In Tanzania, the leader of the opposition party was arrested in October 2018 for accusing security forces of killing dozens of herders during a clash in his province. In this landscape, it is easy to interpret internet sovereignty as a political tool for preventing critics of the government from being heard.
In this way, growing Chinese influence in the world of internet regulation has the potential to bolster governments that are seeking to prevent democratic processes and maintain a firm grip of power.
Such relationships are not unique to Tanzania. China’s deep trade partnerships with countries including Ethiopia, Sudan, Nigeria, and Egypt also include the sharing of technologies and knowledge to help bolster their content control mechanisms.
However, the relationships are not solely based around controlling information and assisting in the fight against “public threats.” China also provides cheap, reliable and advanced technological infrastructure to these growing economies.
Infrastructural Development and Fears of Data Harvesting
In a time of growing fears about the accessibility of global data, China has positioned itself as one of the largest providers of technological infrastructures in the world.
As a central part of the Belt and Road Initiative, China is in the process of creating a “digital silk road” that connects China with the rest of the world. The plan includes providing upgraded underwater cables connecting east and west, and introducing new broadband connections to countries with underdeveloped telecommunications infrastructures.
According to Freedom House, at least 38 countries have installed Chinese-made telecommunications systems. A Chinese company has won important contracts for the construction of telecommunications networks in all of Nigeria’s airports.
Through providing critical telecommunications equipment across Africa, there is a growing fear that Chinese intelligence agencies will now be able to access data from around the world.
There is the potential, however, of overstating this risk. Although Chinese companies are pivotal to the growth of the telecommunications industry throughout the African continent, this does not necessarily equate to the Chinese state having direct access to global data.
With fears that all companies in China are in direct communication with the state and willing to gather data for them, Freedom House — which is funded by the American government — may be prone to overstating the often complex relationships between corporations and the government in China.
Unsurprisingly, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said the report was “unprofessional and irresponsible” and the accusations had “no foundation in fact.”
Nevertheless, some recent cases have provided ample reason for concern.
In January 2018, for example, African Union officials accused China of hacking its headquarter’ computers every night for five years. Beijing had funded the building in Ethiopia and a Chinese state-owned company built it.
That one of the most prominent political organizations in the continent had been unknowingly sending all of their confidential data directly to the Chinese state certainly raises concerns about the implications of China’s growing influence in the technological infrastructure of Africa.
There have also been growing concerns that consumer applications may be used by China to harvest data from their users throughout the world.
As a recent letter penned by U.S. Senators Marco Rubio and Ron Wyden made clear, Chinese ownership of many of the most popular free Virtual Private Network applications may represent a “risk to national security” due to their potential to harvest the data of their users.
Given that these applications are often used at times of political instability, such as the recent Zimbabwe internet shutdown, there is also the potential of Chinese interference in democratic processes.
This dynamic is made even more striking by the recent pressure applied to international companies by China, which demonstrates its growing ability to control commercial content online.
International Corporations Bowing to Chinese Pressure
With the growing acceptance of a walled internet, China has been able to demand that large multinational companies abide by Chinese rules.
Though their censorship apparatus has often forced companies to leave the state entirely, there is now a growing trend in which companies are willing to abide by China’s strict rules.
This trend is best epitomized by Google’s departure from China in 2010. Despite leaving due to concerns over the censorship laws, last year plans by Google to create a search engine specifically for China were unearthed. Google’s so-called Project Dragonfly embodies the growing number of corporations willing to bend to China’s demands over content control. Despite Project Dragonfly allegedly now being on hold, other companies have been forced to concede to China’s demands.
Acceding to Chinese demands, U.S. aviation giants Delta, American Airlines, and United all now list Taiwan as part of China on their websites despite the complex relationship between the two.
Similarly, the hotel company Marriott had their website blocked after it listed Hong Kong, Tibet, and Macau as separate countries on a customer satisfaction questionnaire. The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) agency wrote that it had “seriously violated national laws and hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.”
Although this may not represent an attack on democracy at large, it does highlight how the notion of internet sovereignty has now gained currency to such an extent that commercial actors are being forced to abide by their rules. Other regimes will be bolstered by China’s success in controlling content produced by international actors within their national borders.
“Techno-Dystopian Expansionism” or Standard Practice?
Despite growing fears of Chinese influence throughout the African continent and its impact on digital freedoms and democracy, it’s worth noting that this is not a wholly unique development.
Providing technological assistance to governments with a poor track record in regard to freedom of expression and human rights is nothing new. As the continued U.S. and U.K. relationships with Saudi Arabia shows, criticizing China as a uniquely malignant actor may have the potential of concealing how this activity occurs across the globe.
Perhaps the most striking difference, however, is the way in which China has managed to capitalize on its notion of internet sovereignty and to promote an idea that could impact on how the internet is regulated throughout the world.
With Chinese understandings of internet regulation quickly spreading throughout the world, the coming years could witness a broadscale change in which the world wide web quickly becomes a series of state-wide webs — the impact of which is likely to be unparalleled.
Samuel Woodhams is a Senior Researcher at Top10VPN, an independent cybersecurity research group and the world’s largest virtual private network review service. Top10VPN has been recognized by leading publications around the world for its advocacy of digital privacy and security rights.