The 21st century has accelerated the digital transformation of various countries. Data analytics for business is no longer optional, but a strategic imperative. High-quality data management and protection are fundamental for policy-making, efficient resource allocation, and effective undertaking of public services.
In October 2022, the week-long gathering of the 20th Party Congress and decisions taken in Beijing further highlighted the concentration of state power in the hands of Xi Jinping and his closest allies. Control over data has become more centralized than ever, and surveillance is ubiquitous in China.
There is a growing concern internationally and specifically in the United States over China using its state-controlled companies and universities in helping drive Beijing’s rapid growth in the high-tech and security sectors which are detrimental to America’s overall national interest. Accusations of China’s intellectual property (IP) theft and state-sponsored industrial espionage have constantly loomed large over US-China bilateral relationship.
China is strengthening its Artificial Intelligence (AI) and big data capabilities to intrude on the privacy of its citizens and tighten its surveillance. The non-transparent and unchecked introduction and adoption of China’s highly advanced technologies in foreign markets represent severe intelligence and security threats, especially when integrated directly with a nation’s security and big data apparatuses.
Big data investment is a strategic move by the CCP to further test its surveillance model, apply it in variable contexts, and gather additional data and intelligence. CCP has gained direct access to partner states information streams and procured advantageous and sensitive information on market and business opportunities and important actors. These have armed them with the power to persuade and even coerce important domestic and foreign actors on local or international matters. CCP Leaders have built a dystopian police state that keeps million under the constant gaze of security force armed with Artificial Intelligence (AI)
Data privacy is crucial to curb the dark side of data misuse. In January 2019, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan called for the G20 summit in Osaka to include worldwide global data governance as a key priority at the G20 discussions. The overall theme of the conference indicated the rise of the data economy driving unprecedented growth and innovation in recent decades but also accentuating new policy challenges for global leaders. Figuring out how to govern the complex data ecosystem, both enabling its potential and managing its risks, has become a top priority for global policymakers.
World’s Highest Data Centre in Lhasa
Construction of the Lhasa data center began in 2017 to service investment and trade between Chinese companies and their counterparts in South Asia. Touted as the world’s highest-altitude cloud computing data center, the project is scheduled for completion in the next two to three years with a grand investment of almost 12 billion yuan or $1.69 billion. It is estimated that the cloud facility will generate 10 billion yuan in revenue each year when it goes into full operation.
In 2020, the first phase of construction was built at a cost of around 2.8bn yuan ($400m) while the next two phases will cost 3bn yuan ($450m), and 6bn yuan ($900m) respectively. Once operational, the data center is expected to meet the data storage needs of China and neighboring countries such as Nepal, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. The project is part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) aimed at creating new trade routes and agreements with almost 70 maritime and terrestrial nations from Southeast Asia to Europe.
The partially state-owned tech company Tibet NingsuanTechnology Group is overseeing the construction and will manage the data center. In 2018, the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba signed an agreement with Ningsuan promising to provide a range of cloud services that span electricity supply, finance, national security, government affairs, public security, and cyberspace.
The entire project covers an area of 645,000 sq m (7 million sq ft) and when fully built out, will include several buildings covering a total of 400,000 sq m (4.3 million sq ft) housing 70,000 cabinets. The partially built data center went live in December 2022 with an initial capacity of 3,000 racks and reportedly began providing cloud services for 491 systems of various administrative departments in the region.
A local source from Lhasa speaking on the condition of anonymity noted that the establishment of a data center could lead to “more scrutiny and enhanced monitoring of Tibetans leading to further infringement of their freedom of expression and enforcing greater self-censorship. “Such sentiments find validation in Beijing’s drive to collect mass DNA samples from Tibetans without their consent. Emile Dirks, apost doctoral fellow at Citizen Lab estimates that between June 2016 and July 2022, police may have collected up to 1,206,962 DNA samples from Tibetans, representing up to one-third (32.9%) of what China calls Tibet Autonomous Region’s total population of 3.66 million.
China’s sophisticated surveillance prowess is being employed to target personal information to gain leverage on important actors and to gather big data – the use of which is essentially unlimited. Beijing’s stupendous growth and deployment of data-gathering systems and surveillance tools globally have come with little to no transparency or accountability.
China has knowingly put at risk the safety and security of dissidents and activists all over the world and strengthened rogue and undemocratic regimes with the export of weaponized big data investment, digital espionage, and surveillance mechanisms. If China aspires to become a trusted global partner in fair and transparent data management, they need to address growing domestic and international distrust over how its companies and government agencies gather, use and share and instrumentalise data.
Furthermore, profiling Tibetans including mass DNA collection drive to create a biological database to intensify the monitoring and surveillance of Tibetans is a complete violation of their fundamental human rights. Such developments indicate that China, now having full confidence in its technological surveillance, is moving onto what it calls biosecurity state – the next phase of misusing personal data to further repress and control Tibet.