China exports tools of repression to the world

Oppressive governments are buying Chinese technology that allows them to track and monitor their citizens, according to a senior State Department official.

“China exports technological know-how that can help authoritarian governments track, reward, and punish citizens through a system of digital surveillance,” Kimberly Breier, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, said in an April 26 speech at the Council of the Americas.

China pioneered this technology in regions such as Tibet and Xinjiang to spy on Tibetans, Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs and members of other minority groups.

The deals exporting this high-tech surveillance and tracking equipment are often part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, according to a recent report, “Grading China’s Belt and Road,” from the Center for a New American Security.

Zimbabwe, for example, as part of its Belt and Road trade deal “is importing China’s facial recognition system and will likely apply it in ways that will reduce the cost of authoritarianism,” the report says.

China exports its philosophy

The “‘China model’ of economic development and Internet control is becoming more appealing to authoritarian-leaning leaders around the world,” Adrian Shahbaz, research director for technology and democracy at Freedom House, said in a February survey on the links between technology and authoritarianism.

Woman pointing to a screen showing facial recognition software (© Ng Han Guan/AP Images)
A sales woman introduces human identification technology from state-owned surveillance equipment manufacturer Hikvision. (© Ng Han Guan/AP Images)

In Freedom House’s report “Freedom on the Net 2018,” 18 out of 65 countries analyzed had purchased systems from Chinese companies such as Yitu, Hikvision and CloudWalk. These companies combine “advances in artificial intelligence and facial recognition to create systems capable of identifying threats to ‘public order.’” All these companies advanced their technology in Xinjiang, monitoring Uyghurs.

“Beijing took steps to propagate its model abroad by conducting large-scale trainings of foreign officials [and] providing technology to authoritarian governments,” the Freedom House report says.

The regimes buying China’s monitoring systems include Venezuela, which also contracted with Chinese telecom firm ZTE to create a national identity card that connects to a database the government uses to control and repress Venezuelans, according to Breier.

A bleak future

Chinese President Xi Jinping said in a 2017 speech to the Communist Party of China’s 19th Congress that “the path, the theory, the system” of China’s model of government “offers a new option for other countries and nations.”

The Freedom House report describes it differently, saying China is “remak[ing] the world in its techno-dystopian image.”