Features | Security

China’s Digital Silk Road Initiative: A Boon for Developing Countries or a Danger to Freedom?

Some observers worry that it will equip authoritarian governments with next-generation surveillance technologies.

By Joshua Kurlantzick for
China’s Digital Silk Road Initiative: A Boon for Developing Countries or a Danger to Freedom?

A man stands near an advertisement for Huawei’s Honor brand 5G phones in Beijing on February 27, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

As part of China’s massive Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Beijing launched the Digital Silk Road (DSR) in 2015 with a loose mandate. It has since become a significant part of Beijing’s overall BRI strategy, under which China provides aid, political support, and other assistance to recipient states. DSR also offers support to Chinese exporters, including many well-known Chinese technology companies. The DSR assistance goes toward improving recipients’ telecommunications networks, artificial intelligence capabilities, cloud computing, e-commerce and mobile payment systems, surveillance technology, smart cities, and other high-tech areas.

China has already signed agreements on DSR cooperation with, or provided DSR-related investment to, at least sixteen countries. But the true number of agreements and investments is likely much larger, because many of these go unreported: memoranda of understanding (MOUs) do not necessarily show whether China and another country have embarked upon close cooperation in the digital sphere. Some estimates suggest that one-third of the countries participating in BRI — 138 at this point — are cooperating on DSR projects.

Leaders of many developing countries have signed DSR agreements. Although these MOUs are not legally binding, they show the scope of global interest in DSR. Countries in Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Southeast Asia desperately need inexpensive, high-quality technology to expand wireless phone networks and broadband internet coverage. DSR-related investments can help fill that gap and spark growth by providing critical infrastructure. Chinese firms are bringing additional benefits to developing countries by establishing training centers and research and development programs to boost cooperation between scientists and engineers, and to transfer technical knowledge in many areas.

Still, some democracies have raised serious concerns about the Digital Silk Road. They worry that, at a time when Beijing is becoming more assertive globally, China will use DSR to enable recipient countries to adopt its model of technology-enabled authoritarianism. Chinese technology companies have already helped governments in other countries develop surveillance capabilities that could be used against opposition groups, and Beijing has provided training for interested DSR recipient countries on how to monitor and censor the internet. Although some of these Chinese companies are nominally private, even the private firms have drawn global scrutiny for state links as they are required by Chinese cybersecurity legislation to store data on servers in China and submit to checks from authorities.

Moreover, allowing Chinese firms to build countries’ fifth-generation (5G) networks and other infrastructure, and to set technology standards, could risk espionage and coercion of other states’ politics if Beijing used data breaches to blackmail political elites in those states. DSR could also help recipient countries better control their internets through filtering, content moderation, data localization, and surveillance. Doing so might accelerate a fracturing of the global internet, as some countries pursue these policies of internet control while others remain committed to internet freedoms.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Silk Road Surveillance

Looking at examples of countries where the DSR has already progressed can offer clues about both its positive and negative aspects. Take Ecuador, for instance. Ecuador has participated in the Digital Silk Road in several ways. It has worked with China on a smart cities program designed to reduce crime. This system relies on footage from more than four thousand Chinese-made cameras installed throughout the country. Following the system’s installation, the cameras will likely have facial recognition capabilities. In addition, several Ecuadorean hospitals have begun using artificial intelligence-enabled COVID-19 diagnostic tools developed by the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei.

Although the installation of the surveillance cameras coincided with a drop in crime rates across Ecuador, camera footage, initially thought to be sent to the police, is also being sent to the country’s domestic intelligence agency. In the past, the agency has regularly tracked and intimidated political opponents. In addition, Chinese investment in the country has been implicated in multiple high-profile corruption cases, as well as a significant debt to China. Ecuador has sought to renegotiate its debt with Beijing and has also agreed to export 80 percent of its crude oil to China to repay some of its debts.

In other countries, like Egypt, concerns about the DSR are more about the possibility that it will play a role in exporting a controlled type of domestic internet. China has 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. Cooperation has moved quickly with Egypt. In 2019, Egyptian officials visiting China met leaders of ten major Chinese firms to discuss increasing investment in areas including artificial intelligence, high-performance computing, and telecommunications infrastructure. Huawei has built a cloud computing center in Egypt, and China is increasing financing to Egypt’s telecommunications sector.

Egypt desperately needs to upgrade its crumbling infrastructure and gain access to inexpensive 5G. But Chinese technical assistance could enhance the Egyptian government’s ability to crack down on internet freedoms. In recent years, Beijing has held training for Egyptian officials on censorship; such training could have provided an impetus for Egypt to adopt a 2018 cybercrime law that moves the country closer to China’s internet model. The law expands the government’s ability to censor online information and punish those who publish or even access certain information.

Or, the DSR could help authoritarian leaders stay in power in other ways. Zambia has cooperated on Digital Silk Road projects with China, particularly in upgrades to Zambia’s wireless networks. Huawei is building Zambia’s 5G network, as it is in many countries across Africa. Huawei has also built the data center that stores and processes the Zambian government’s data.  But as Zambia, once a democratic success story in southern Africa, slides toward authoritarianism, its technology cooperation with China could further empower Zambia’s rulers. Huawei reportedly has provided technology to help the Zambian government spy on political opponents — a situation reportedly repeated in Uganda, where Huawei has helped the government monitor political rivals. But concerns about China’s influence in Zambia are likely being suppressed; the government of President Edgar Lungu has also worked to censor and discourage criticism of China in Zambian media outlets.

Some democracies also worry that DSR projects could help the Chinese government gain access to sensitive data. While U.S. officials have pressured central and east European states not to use Chinese companies to build telecommunications and other infrastructure, Serbia has tried to balance between the U.S. and China. Although European countries have agreed upon a plan to limit Huawei’s penetration, Serbia has welcomed Huawei’s assistance in upgrading its digital infrastructure.

Both the U.S. government and some European states worry that the Chinese government could obtain backdoor access to data on Huawei networks in Serbia. A secret backdoor for Chinese intelligence, and possibly the Chinese military, would be especially concerning to European states; Serbia has close links with the EU. Probably to assuage the U.S., the Serbian government has committed to Washington that it will prohibit the use of “untrusted” 5G providers, which the White House surely intends to mean Huawei. Yet the Serbian government has given no indication that it actually intends to ban Huawei from its 5G network.

Forging on with the DSR

These existing Digital Silk Road deals are just the start. Beijing is making DSR a bigger foreign policy priority, as the United States, Australia, Japan, and some European states ban Chinese tech firms from their 5G infrastructure and launch broader strategies to limit Chinese tech giants’ expansion. Chinese technology firms therefore need even greater growth in developing markets if they are excluded from wealthier states.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

The coronavirus pandemic, which has led many governments to monitor their populations, has only added to the demand in developing states for Chinese telecommunications and surveillance tools. Beijing has linked DSR to the Health Silk Road, a subset of the BRI that supports health infrastructure.

But as DSR expands, concerns about its influence on recipient states will likely mount as well. Some developing countries, such as India, have expressed similar qualms as the U.S. and Europe about China’s tech offensive. Beijing’s increasingly nationalist diplomacy is also undermining its efforts to assuage policymakers in developing states about the potential downsides of DSR and BRI.

To be sure, China is not the only country whose major tech companies have participated in surveillance, cooperation with their countries’ militaries, and espionage abroad. Some U.S. tech giants have also used their networks to facilitate surveillance, espionage, and defense operations. U.S. companies such as Gatekeeper Systems also have sold facial recognition technology to authoritarian states such as Saudi Arabia. And, regardless of China’s actions, many governments have clear demands for surveillance and artificial intelligence, as well as other technologies that raise privacy concerns.

Despite questions raised about aspects of DSR, Beijing will keep pushing forward. China has already spent an estimated $79 billion on DSR-related projects, and its DSR assistance will likely grow substantially throughout the 2020s. At major China-sponsored international summits such as the World Internet Conference, Beijing has promoted DSR as a priority.

As the Digital Silk Road expands, the conflicts around it — between countries signing up for DSR and those concerned about its downsides and between groups within countries worried about its detrimental effects and some governments that stand to benefit — will only intensify.

Joshua Kurlantzick is Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.

This article is excerpted from a new CFR Interactive on the Digital Silk Road, which can be accessed here.