How China Is Attempting to Control the ‘Information Pipes’

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How China Is Attempting to Control the ‘Information Pipes’

In addition to beaming out its perspectives via Chinese state media, Beijing is aspiring to control both the structure and norms of global information networks.

How China Is Attempting to Control the ‘Information Pipes’

Attendees walk past a booth advertising 5G telecommunications services at the PT Expo in Beijing, on Sept. 28, 2021.

Credit: AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, File

In the past decade, China’s government has stepped up its efforts to wield powerful tools of information around the globe – in its near neighborhood and, increasingly in more distant places including North America, Africa, Latin America, and Europe. These tools include Beijing’s own major state media outlets, like Xinhua, which have been expanded while China tries to make them credible, palatable alternatives to existing global newswires based in liberal democracies, like The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse, Reuters, Kyodo, and others. It also includes Beijing’s growing efforts to use proxies to control Chinese-language media outlets within other countries around the world, as well as Beijing’s increasingly sophisticated use of disinformation on major social media platforms in its neighborhood and globally.

Yet even as China attempts to use the control over media and information it has amassed, it is also working to dominate the “pipes” through which this information moves. I use the term pipes to mean the broad underpinnings of global information networks, including the actual physical infrastructure and the rules and norms that govern how information flows. More specifically, these pipes include the physical telecommunications networks for wireless and wired data; mobile phones and other devices that display information; tools that create the Internet of Things; tools that allow for surveillance; leading search engines, web browsers, and social media platforms; and the standards that govern the internet.

With greater influence in these areas, China would not have to rely as much on other countries to disseminate Xinhua, CGTN, and CRI, or on media coverage from local Chinese-language outlets controlled by Beijing. Instead, it could use its own pipes to more aggressively, and mostly covertly, spread state media coverage onto internet networks, social media platforms, mobile phones and other devices, browsers, and television conglomerates controlled by or closely linked to the Chinese government, which would deprive news consumers in many countries of independent coverage about China.

If Beijing had more control of the pipes of information, it also could, within foreign countries, more easily censor negative stories and social media conversations, and spread stories, rumors, opinions, accusations, blandishments, and other types of disinformation, obviously types of sharp power. Ultimately, it could use the pipes to help foreign countries copy China’s surveillance strategies and to export China’s vision of a closed and controlled domestic internet, part of Beijing’s overall model of technology-enabled authoritarianism.

Building the Internet

Chinese state companies are laying down many of the new physical or virtual pipes for global information flows in the developing world. The state-controlled China Telecom, for instance, has rolled out the third-biggest mobile phone network in the Philippines, despite concerns raised by security experts and some lawmakers about Beijing dominating a portion of the country’s mobile infrastructure. China Telecom partnered with the tycoon Dennis Uy, a close ally of former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, in obtaining and rolling out its mobile network. This is a strategy Chinese state firms have used in many countries. By partnering with local tycoons, Chinese firms often are able to land contracts to build mobile and fixed internet infrastructure, sometimes without any transparent bidding processes.

In Africa, Beijing has become by far the dominant builder of new physical infrastructure for the transmission of information. China Telecom and ZTE, whose biggest shareholder is a state-owned enterprise, are building the core of new mobile and fiber-optic networks across the African continent, competing largely with Huawei, which is a private Chinese company, but with historic links to the People’s Liberation Army.

In return, they get help. Under China’s Digital Silk Road (DSR) initiative, part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), many Chinese companies that build telecommunications infrastructure in Africa and other regions get loans from Chinese banks on extremely generous terms. Non-Chinese competitors face huge hurdles in corralling the same level of diplomatic support from their own governments or getting anything like the cheap financing, usually from Chinese state banks, that Chinese companies enjoy.

Huawei has signed numerous commercial contracts around the world to build next-generation 5G networks, though it has been shut out of many liberal democracies. Still, it is poised to be the dominant 5G provider in sub-Saharan Africa, with competitors lagging behind. In Southeast Asia, meanwhile, Huawei already has built many of the shorter undersea cables linking the region’s telecommunications networks, and the company has inked deals to develop 5G networks in Cambodia, the Philippines, and Thailand – and possibly in Indonesia. And in the Pacific Islands, Huawei and other Chinese tech giants have competed aggressively with Australian and other companies to make new deals in places like Fiji. Around the world, Huawei is completing thousands of miles of undersea cable, through which most telecommunications traffic travels. In Central Asia, meanwhile, Huawei has already become the dominant provider of new 5G technology, including in the region’s most populous state, Uzbekistan, and its freest, Kyrgyzstan.

Even in some democracies where leaders have significant concerns about allowing Chinese companies to build telecommunications infrastructure, Huawei has made inroads, although some of its efforts are now stalling in richer countries worried about the downsides of being reliant on Huawei and other Chinese tech firms. Yet Huawei’s low costs and high levels of experience with technology often give them a leg up in getting contracts to build infrastructure, particularly in developing countries. Huawei also has become increasingly innovative, becoming one of the biggest investors in research and development of any tech company in the world.

Chinese firms are winning Internet of Things (IoT) contracts as well. Beijing has placed a particular priority on this sector since at least the late 2000s, when then-Premier Wen Jiabao declared it a national priority. Emily de La Bruyère and Nathan Picarsic, formerly of the consulting firm Long Term Strategy Group, have written that Chinese companies have built “a network of sensors [in China] – including but not limited to surveillance cameras, car navigation systems, and smart electricity monitors.” Any information that is gathered is passed along to the China Academy of Sciences (CAS), a leading Chinese research institution. According to de La Bruyère and Picarsic, CAS “explains that the system is a ‘test zone for a global network.’”

Poland and other European states have given IoT contracts to Chinese companies, like the surveillance camera giant Hikvision, which is part of a massive state enterprise.  Chinese-built surveillance camera systems even have been used in official buildings in Europe and North America, including departments of the U.K. government and U.S. military bases, though they now have been banned. In 2019, the U.S. government added Hikvision and several other Chinese firms to an economic blacklist, in part due to their involvement in abuses in Xinjiang. (The Hikvision cameras were being used on U.S. bases right up until the ban.) But even these U.S. actions did not appear to stop the firms’ global expansion.

Apps and Screens

Social media platforms are another kind of information pipe. A decade ago, Chinese companies had virtually no presence on social media. Since then, Chinese firms like WeChat, Weibo, and TikTok have expanded quickly, both at home and abroad.

TikTok, the short-video app, now rivals longer-established social media networks like Twitter and Instagram in terms of its number of new users, and is gaining massive cultural influence among preteens, teens, and young adults around the world. In 2021, it had the most downloads of any app, even though it was only launched globally in 2017.  The app has become omnipresent on the phones of high school and college students, with an estimated 40 percent of its users between the ages of 16 and 24.

TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance Limited, presents itself as a global firm, and TikTok as no different from platforms run by U.S.-based companies like Facebook or Twitter. But these claims ring hollow, as multiple reports have found that TikTok has at times tried to alter or suppress content related to China, and as the Chinese government has taken a stake in ByteDance and gained an important seat on its board.

The China-based app WeChat also has begun to spread outside China. WeChat, owned by the Chinese conglomerate Tencent, has become a ubiquitous tool in China: Many middle-class Chinese have come to rely on it for much of their family, social, and work lives.

Usage of WeChat is spreading among Chinese speakers in every corner of the world. It has 1.24 billion users and it has expanded across Southeast Asia and South Asia. The United States, meanwhile, is believed to be the second largest-source of WeChat users, behind China. The Trump administration tried to crack down on it and its parent company with an executive order – but WeChat is still accessible, since the Biden administration rescinded plans to ban its service in the United States.

In Thailand, nearly 20 percent of the population uses the app.  In Malaysia, a country of around 32 million people, there are reportedly 20 million WeChat accounts. The app’s group chats, which can include up to 500 people, are channels for the spread of information sympathetic to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), while people who offer critical commentary in the chat are censored. (While WeChat is not known primarily as a news app, its content often contains news stories, links to stories, and discussions about stories, making it a major disseminator of information about Chinese domestic and foreign policies.) In Northeast Asia, WeChat has become the second-most-popular messaging app in Mongolia, and is widely used in Japan and South Korea.

While Chinese social media platforms are spreading, Chinese mobile phone makers also are enjoying success, particularly in developing regions like Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. In these places, inexpensive Chinese phones have gained huge market shares, competing with more expensive rivals like Samsung and Apple. And because China was an early adapter in many new smartphone-related features like having one super app like WeChat, Chinese firms actually have surpassed non-Chinese rivals in developing many apps beloved by consumers, as well as developing specific innovations for markets in Africa and other developing regions.

The numbers do not lie. Today, China-based mobile phone companies make more than half of the phones purchased annually in Africa, including both smartphones and budget phones. In Southeast Asia, they are becoming increasingly popular, after garnering two-thirds of the market in India, a major geopolitical rival, and much of the market in China.

Many Chinese-made phones come loaded with the apps of the biggest Chinese social media platforms and web browsers, giving them an instant entrée to users in Africa, Southeast Asia, South Asia, and other regions, although they have also been accused of coming preloaded with spyware.

Chinese companies also are gaining ground in the global digital television market. They are no longer just copying foreign technologies but have become innovative and competitive. The Chinese pay television company StarTimes, for example, has become one of Africa’s leading digital television operators. With its cheap TV packages and easy-to-install hardware, it can reach formerly unserved populations from Kenya to Nigeria to Rwanda.

“The pay TV company [i.e., StarTimes] is leading the continent’s transition from analog to digital television with some of the world’s most affordable cable/satellite TV packages priced as low as $4 per month. In the burgeoning Digital TV sector, StarTimes is far and away the market leader. The company’s reach covers 90 percent of the continent’s population,” wrote Eric Olander. StarTimes has announced nascent plans to expand its inexpensive services into Latin America as well.

Other large Chinese companies are entering the digital and satellite television markets in Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. ZTE has launched digital television services in Pakistan and is exploring other markets, while Chinese provincial and national state television networks are expanding into neighboring Southeast Asian cable markets like Laos, Timor-Leste, and Vietnam.

Influence Through Omission

By controlling the information pipes, Beijing can exert influence through omission. In other words, what does not appear about China in the media in other states can be as important as what does appear.

Beijing wants to silence conversations about many topics – Xinjiang, Tibet, the South China Sea, its COVID-19 policies, and so on. It wants to make these tough topics disappear. And if they disappear for an extended period of time from media coverage and public conversations in other countries, that disappearance feeds on itself, creating a greater boon for China. Publics and opinion leaders do not learn about these issues sensitive to China; over time, publics and opinion leaders become less informed about these issues; with less information, they naturally speak and write about the topics less and less.

It is next to impossible for China to get positive coverage about these topics if they are covered openly and fairly. China could achieve this outcome, of course, through clear and open threats to punish other countries with economic measures, diplomatic measures, or other sanctions, for instance. But the bullying approach, though it certainly has worked with foreign companies and some foreign states fearful of being excluded from China’s market or facing other sanctions from Beijing, has major downsides as well.

WeChat provides an opportunity for Beijing to help contain what appears in the news about China in other countries. As users outside China have gravitated to the app, including its popular messaging service, WeChat has become a central source of news for many Chinese-language speakers beyond the mainland. Wanning Sun, of the University of Technology Sydney, has found that while most Mandarin speakers in Australia do not get much of their news directly from Chinese state media, a majority of them do access WeChat and obtain news from it, such as from news shared in groups and messages. In fact, Sun found that about 60 percent of Mandarin speakers in Australia used WeChat as their primary source of news and information.

Yet much of the news shared on WeChat stems from Xinhua, Global Times, CGTN, and other state media outlets, which are controlled by Beijing and uncritical of the Chinese government. Case studies of Mandarin speakers in Australia and their use of WeChat  found that, during some periods of time, most channels they accessed had no stories about Chinese politics. Mandarin-speaking Australians who relied on WeChat for news often were getting no news about Chinese politics at all.

The Chinese government, however, is getting plenty of news about what users of WeChat, and several other social media platforms, are interested in. WeChat offers no privacy protections like end-to-end encryption, and the Chinese government extensively monitors and censors content on the platform.

There is evidence that WeChat is applying tactics outside China that it uses inside the country, thus potentially curtailing critical discussions about Beijing in developed democracies like the United States, Australia, and many European countries. Sarah Cook of Freedom House shows that WeChat is “systematically monitoring conversations of users outside China and flagging politically sensitive content for some form of scrutiny,” including messages in both English and Chinese, as well as other languages. A study of WeChat by Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto found that “WeChat communications conducted entirely among non-China-registered accounts are subject to pervasive content surveillance that was previously thought to be exclusively reserved for China-registered accounts.”

Exporting Repression

China also offers other countries a tested model of how to control a domestic internet, by blocking content and monitoring and punishing internet users. Beijing promotes its model of a closed, monitored, filtered internet in several ways. Until COVID-19, it trained foreign officials and held regular high-level meetings with national and local leaders from Africa to Southeast Asia, where Chinese officials and corporate executives promote internet control technologies; these trainings likely will resume as COVID-19 is controlled. The number of these trainings in information management has increased since the mid-2010s, and trainings often focus on how China has blocked certain social media platforms, forced domestic social media platforms to submit to state guidelines, and used a range of filtering methods to scrub social media and messaging sites.

According to an estimate by Freedom House, China has held trainings and seminars on information management with officials from 36 countries. The true number of countries that have sent representatives to China to study information management is probably much higher, since Freedom House only analyzed officials from 65 countries. (There are 193 member states in the United Nations.)

Freedom House’s study of these trainings showed that many countries often follow up on trainings, like the ones that were done for Southeast Asian states, by importing specific types of Chinese assistance and introducing cybersecurity laws that constrain the internet in similar ways to China’s controls. Indeed, in recent years Southeast Asian states like Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Thailand appear to have modeled their increasingly tough cybersecurity laws — which include clauses allowing for widespread blocking of information, massive government monitoring of domestic internets, and provisions to force companies to keep data locally — on China’s own efforts to control its domestic internet, or to have sent officials to China to study cybersecurity practices and then brought those practices back home.

And as China returns to the global stage, after getting its domestic problems under control, it is likely to expand its promotion of its internet model – and its many other ways of controlling and using information pipes as well.

This article is excerpted from Josh Kurlantzick’s new book “Beijing’s Global Media Offensive: China’s Uneven Campaign to Influence Asia and the World.”