Venezuela, Iran and the Philippines are major beneficiaries of China’s cyber power.
Thirty years ago in China, there was a burgeoning pro-democracy movement made up mostly of young people that was brutally crushed by the Chinese military. On June 4th, 1989 Chinese troops armed with rifles and tanks put an end to the protests that had begun on April 15 of the same year. This is now known as the Tiananmen Square massacre. That massacre took the lives of hundreds of people. Furthermore, the Chinese government ordered the cremation of dead bodies in order to hide the number of victims. What was important for the ruling Communist party, both then and now, is their absolute hold on power.
Since then, not only has China continued its practice of authoritarian rule and human rights violations but it has become a superpower whose model of repression has been adopted by a good number of authoritarian regimes worldwide.
China has become a world leader on internet censorship and repression of dissent. According to Freedom House, China has hosted seminars on cyberspace management with representatives from authoritarian countries including Iran, Egypt, the Philippines and Venezuela.
China passed a cybersecurity law in 2017 that established rules that increase the costs of running an internet company in China, and also limited the scope of action of independent media, bloggers and writers.
These rules also enable the government to restrict the use of circumvention mechanisms to bypass, block and filter censorship. Companies are obliged to share data. Companies such as Apple and others complied with the new law.
By the same token, Chinese police used advanced technology to spy on dissidents and ordinary internet users. Heavy penalties were imposed not only on dissidents but also on ethnic and religious minorities.
30 years after Tiananmen Square, China has become not only a huge repressor of social dissent and protest but also increased the capability of the state to spy on citizens and punish them harshly.
As dictatorships around the world look to perpetuate themselves in power they shop in China for advice. Last year China hosted representatives from many countries for seminars on censorship and surveillance. As the Freedom House report has pointed out, “Digital authoritarianism is being promoted as a way for governments to control their citizens through technology, inverting the concept of the internet as an engine of human liberation.”
Governments in countries such as Egypt and Iran rewrote restrictive media laws to apply to social media users, jailed critics under measures designed “to curb false news,” and blocked foreign social media and communication services. China, Russia, and other repressive states are also demanding that companies store their citizens’ data within their borders, where the information can be accessed by security agencies.
According to the report “Beijing took steps to propagate its model abroad by conducting large-scale trainings of foreign officials, providing technology to authoritarian governments, and demanding that international companies abide by its content regulations even when operating outside of China. These trends present an existential threat to the future of the open internet and prospects for greater democracy around the globe.”
China is cultivating a coalition of countries that would follow its cybernetic censoring procedures, including representatives from dictatorial or semi-dictatorial regimes, including certain Arab states, the Philippines, Uganda, Tanzania, Iran Russia, Belarus, Cambodia and Venezuela.
Many governments are enforcing criminal penalties for the publication of what they deem false news. In 2018, 13 countries prosecuted citizens for spreading false information.
In Venezuela, the Chinese telecommunications giant ZTE is helping Venezuela to build a system that surveys the behavior of its citizens through an identity card (also called “carnet de la patria” or “the document of the fatherland”. This identity card is aimed, in theory, at offering services to its citizens but in practice also transmits all the information about each individual strengthening the Venezuelan police state and repression.
This confirms what we have been saying for a long time. China aims at becoming a world superpower with as much influence as possible. Thus, it strengthens alliances with non-democratic countries and provides them with support. Because of its domination of much of the telecommunications technology and effective mechanisms of repression of dissent, these dictatorships get close to China. Conversely, China actively seeks them out in order to strengthen its’ status as a superpower.
The U.S. needs to take these powerful activities by an unfriendly competitor into account and proceed accordingly to develop and install anti-censorship mechanisms.