In this Oct. 31, 2019, file photo, attendees walk past a display for 5G services from Chinese technology firm Huawei at the PT Expo in Beijing.

China’s new Silk Road runs through cyberspace, worrying rivals and privacy advocates

China is fast becoming a global leader in cutting-edge technologies — such as artificial intelligence, facial recognition, surveillance and 5G. But critics say China’s technology enables authoritarian control and increases dependence on an autocratic state.

The World

This essay is part of “On China’s New Silk Road,” a podcast by the Global Reporting Centre that tracks China’s global ambitions. Over nine episodes, Mary Kay Magistad, a former China correspondent for The World, partners with local journalists on five continents to uncover the effects of the most sweeping global infrastructure initiative in history.

To win the hearts and minds of Mexicans, marketers from China’s Huawei telecommunications giant figured they’d sponsor a popular soccer team called Club America.  

“That was the best thing ever that we could invest in,” says Adriana Moreno who, until recently, headed Huawei Latin America’s marketing and communications for businesses in Huawei’s regional headquarters in Mexico City. 

In what Moreno calls a remarkably short time, Mexicans went from sneering at Chinese products as cheap and low quality, to cheering for a team with the Huawei logo on their shirts, buying more Huawei smartphones, and being impressed with the value for their money. 

At the same time, Huawei has been lobbying to build end-to-end 5G telecommunications networks for Mexico, and throughout Latin America and the world — as it promotes its ability to offer all-in-one 5G networks, as a key part of China’s “digital Silk Road.” It’s part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative — building out roads, railways, ports, pipelines, and laying fiberoptic cables around the world. Its vision is to create a new network of global trade and power, with China at the center.  

Since 2012, the US government has been urging people to stay away from Huawei, citing its equipment as a security risk. It has also banned Huawei from using US-made technology, including semiconductors.  

China is fast becoming a global leader in cutting-edge technologies — such as artificial intelligence, facial recognition, surveillance and 5G — and is exporting them worldwide. Fans like the high quality and low cost. But critics say China’s technology enables authoritarian control and increases dependence on an autocratic state. They’re calling for democracies, including the US, to work together to create a tech ecosystem that protects privacy and freedom of speech.

Related: The ‘China dream’: The new Silk Road begins at home 

Compared to the current 4G telecommunications networks that connect most of the world, 5G transmits much more data, much faster, with more capacity and less latency. It can power the Internet of Things, communicating with your smart thermostat and smart appliances — and perhaps with your future driverless electric car. 

But these days, the Trump administration — and President Donald Trump himself — have been urging US allies in Latin America and around the world to avoid Huawei, too. 

“We convinced many countries, many countries — and I did this myself, for the most part — not to use Huawei, because we think it’s an unsafe security risk,” Trump said in July. “It’s a big security risk. And I talked many countries out of using it. If they want to do business with us, they can’t use it.” 

One concern is that Huawei equipment may contain vulnerabilities or “backdoors” that allow Chinese state security to access the data of those who use it — in the same way that some US equipment has been discovered to have to have backdoors, sometimes installed in foreign exports by the National Security Agency, or NSA.   

Huawei denies having backdoors. Whether it does or not, a Chinese national intelligence law passed in 2017 says Chinese citizens and organizations, including companies, must help Chinese intelligence organs if they ask for help. 

“…if you’re using the Chinese technology, your data is not just in those private companies’ hands, such as Google or Apple. Your data is essentially in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party.”

Xiao Qiand, founder, China Digital Times

“So, in other words, if you’re using the Chinese technology, your data is not just in those private companies’ hands, such as Google or Apple. Your data is, essentially, in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party,” says Xiao Qiang, a native of Beijing and founder of China Digital Times. Qiang also heads the University of California at Berkeley’s School of Information’s Counter-Power Lab, an interdisciplinary research group that focuses on digital rights and internet freedom.

That’s a risk, he argues, for those signing on to China’s digital Silk Road —whether having China install a 5G network or a “smart city” surveillance camera system. It’s even a risk at the personal level, he says, for users of Chinese apps like TikTok and WeChat, both of which the Trump administration has targeted in an effort to limit or control their use within the United States.

“The form of generalized surveillance and political repression that most concerns me is the pervasive surveillance of WeChat, which is the chat and everything else app that pretty much all Chinese people who use smartphones are going to be using,” says Graham Webster, a research scholar who edits the DigiChina project at Stanford University’s Cyber Policy Center. 

WeChat concentrates a huge amount of personal data in one place: who you know, who you talk to and what you say, where you go and when, what you buy, and medical and banking records. The app is used by most Chinese within China, where it’s largely considered a must-have convenience and not a surveillance tool.

Related: WeChat users in the US rankled by potential ban on the app 

But the Chinese government has increased surveillance since President Xi Jinping took over China’s top leadership in 2012. It has even been experimenting with a “social credit” system that rewards what the Communist Party considers good behavior and punishes transgressions, both financial and political. Already, millions of Chinese have been blocked from buying plane and high-speed train tickets through various local versions of this system.

Other government surveillance in China is done through millions of security cameras, facial and voice recognition technology and artificial intelligence. On its digital Silk Road, it has exported surveillance camera systems to countries such as Ecuador. 

Within China, the government has used this cutting-edge surveillance technology on Uighurs, Turkic Muslims who live in China’s western region of Xinjiang, who the Chinese government largely distrusts as being separatists. Hundreds of thousands of Uighurs have been detained over the past three years, while many more face a daily gauntlet of checkpoints.

“The human rights abuses in Xinjiang are nothing short of ongoing atrocities,” Webster says. “And there’s a technology element there, in that the people who are being targeted may be recognized through facial recognition tools — which, by the way, have high error rates and are likely to misidentify people all the time.”

But the dystopian digital future that Xinjiang’s experience shows is not inevitable, even as China’s digital Silk Road rolls out globally. Nor is the digital Silk Road only something to be feared and blocked. China’s ability to make affordable high-quality technology cheaply has put smartphones in the hands of hundreds of millions of people in developing countries who otherwise may not have been able to afford them. It has also created ever-faster networks to connect them.

The trick in building a more positive, less invasive digital future, Webster says, is to take more seriously the fact that values are embedded in how technologies are made and regulated and be more proactive in steering both in a less invasive and predatory direction. 

“These could be some pretty darned compelling products around the world,” he says. “If there’s a whole technological ecosystem that is more respecting of freedoms and privacy and data security, then that would contrast with the Chinese offerings, which are built for surveillance and manipulation and, frankly, for lower cost.”

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