China is widely expanding its surveillance network to strengthen and maintain vigilance over its entire population by tracking peoples’ movements through cellphones and monitoring content of telephonic conversations and emails. Attempts by the government to transform the internet into a system of surveillance and censorship represent a threat to all fundamental rights and democracy at large. China’s collaboration with authoritarian governments across the globe to build a large-scale surveillance system has given rise to global threats to free speech and privacy. As part of its political propaganda, Beijing has been setting up different surveillance strategies to control the outflow of news by instrumentalizing and implementing stringent laws to dominate its cyberspace.
This paper will examine the alarming rate of China’s export of surveillance technology, the widespread harm and threat to fundamental human rights these technologies pose and their far-reaching implications on a just and democratic society. Exporting the surveillance model is also a strategic move by the CCP to further test its model, apply it in variable contexts, and gather additional data and intelligence. The Party gains direct access into partner-states information stream; advantageous information about markets, business opportunities, important actors, etc. Even possible sensitive information that could be used to persuade or coerce important actors on local or international matters. This paper will attempt to contribute to a new understanding of China’s motive behind export of surveillance technology, implementation of New Cyber Security Laws and highlight China’s growing surveillance investment inside Tibet.
Keywords: China, export, surveillance, internet, technology, Cyberspace network & Law
China’s Instrumentalization of Laws to Restrict Cross-border Data Exchange
In the age of rapid technological advancement, as the news outlets in China increasingly goes digital, and as television goes mobile, the digital ecosystem has become one of the major concerns to the Chinese leadership and its rule. As part of its political propaganda, Beijing has been setting different communication strategies to control the outflow of news by instrumentalizing and implementing stringent laws to dominate its cyberspace. Through the implementation of three recent laws – the Cybersecurity Law, Data Security Law (DSL), and Personal Information Protection Law (PIPL) – China has taken a range of measures that restrict cross-border data flows (Haldane 2021) and enforce data localization.
The Chinese Cybersecurity law (Creemers, Webster and Triolo 2018) was enacted by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress on November 7, 2013, and it came into effect on June 1, 2017 (Wagner 2017). The law is widely seen to be in line with the 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015) which aims to promote domestic industries such as cloud computing and big data processing. The 14th Five-Year Plan aims to centralize and control China through a digital ecosystem. As outlined in the 14th FYP:
We will welcome the digital age, activate the potential of data factors of productions, promote the construction of a cyber powerhouse, accelerate the construction of the digital economy, digital society, and digital government, and leverage digital transformations to drive overall changes in production methods, lifestyle, and governance.
The legislation passed by China’s largely rubber-stamp parliament accelerates the damage it could do for global trade and services. According to the law, it requires companies to store all data within China (Zhang Dehao 2020) and it also includes contentious requirements to pass the security review, within China’s stated goal to achieve “cyber sovereignty.” The idea is that the state should be permitted to govern, monitor, and control data flow in their digital ecosystem.
The law forces the foreign companies operating within China to either invest in domestic server infrastructure following the law or partner with service providers such as Tencent, or Alibaba, thus saving capital expenditure costs for the foreign companies. The law is seen as a boon to domestic companies and has been criticized by the international community as creating unfair competition against international technology companies such as Microsoft and Google.
Since the law came into effect, many foreign technology companies have already complied with the law. Apple has established a data center for Chinese users in a contractual arrangement with state-owned firm in Guizhou with $1Billion in partnership (Store 2021). The Company has close ties to the Chinese government and transferred the operation and source of cloud data to China (BBC 2018).
In July 2017, Apple pulled out 60 VPN services (BBC 2017) from its AppStore in China. Meanwhile, online services, such as Skype which refused to store their data locally and were thereby delisted from China’s domestic app stores. Since China is home to Apple’s manufacturing services, Apple and other companies who are investing in China need to place human rights over profit-making.
The requirement for data localization (One Trust Data Guidance 2020) in article 37 of the Cyber Security Law is also seen as a move by Beijing to instrumentalize Chinese laws to prosecute entities and individuals who are viewed by the Chinese government in violation of it laws. Critics have (Qiang, 2021) concluded that the law exemplifies the practice of digital totalitarianism by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Xi Jinping’s Web of Laws
Since President Xi Jinping took the reign of China in 2013, he was instrumental in creating mass surveillance in cyberspace (Qiang, 2019) by cracking down on online activities which are deemed to be politically sensitive. Xi would also upend and reform the Chinese internet governance to gain greater control over cyberspace than his predecessors. He also oversaw the creation and expansion of the Great Firewall.
Hence it is not a surprise when President Xi Jinping himself emphasized the link between the two concepts: “Without cybersecurity, there is no national security” (Rogier Creemers 2018). With the rising power of the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), the country’s internet regulator, China has strictly extended its iron grip and tightened control over the flow of information.
The Data Security Law (DSL)
On August 20, 2021, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) passed the Personal Information Protection Law (PIPL) (KPMG 2019) which came into effect on November 1, 2021. This Law curbs what information companies can gather and sets the standard for how it must be stored. It triggered concerns among foreign business companies and civil societies.
Before the implementation of the Data Security Law, there are more than 56 million LinkedIn members in China, which makes it lucrative and the third-biggest market after the United States and India. Because of the DSL, the company felt “a considerably more difficult operating environment and higher regulatory requirement.” Following this, the tech giant LinkedIn decided to withdraw despite China’s lucrative market.
Yahoo, one of the foremost search engines, entered the Chinese market in the year 1998. It was a roller coaster ride for them to operate in China. On 15 Feb, 2006, Yahoo, Microsoft, Cisco, and Google were criticized in the US Congressional hearing for yielding to pressure from China for censoring their content (BBC 2006). On 7 September, 2005, Yahoo is charged with supplying sensitive information to the Chinese authorities which led to the jailing of journalist Shi Tao (BBC 2005). The recent timing of Yahoo pulling out from China, coincided with the implementation of China’s New Data Protection Law on 1 Nov, 2021, (Guo, Kelly and Bob 2021) marking an important milestone in China’s effort to create stricter guidelines on the Chinese digital ecosystem.
The new law intrudes upon individuals’ rights to freedom of expression, opinion, privacy, and access to information. It also forces individuals to self-censor and restricts sharing images or videos thatare perceived by the Chinese authorities as politically subversive. This law too limits the conditions where companies can gather personal information and set rules for how it is being used.
DSL also stipulates that the companies operating in the country must hand over their data if requested. For instance, one of the largest companies, Alibaba, was fined a record of $2.8 billion after an anti-monopoly probe found that it has abused its market dominance (Bloomberg 2021). Other than heavy fines, the laws have also raised concerns among both foreign and domestic companiesthat they would have to hand over intellectual property rights or open a backdoor channel to operate in China’s market. The law is widely criticized for limiting freedom of speech. For example, the law explicitly requires most online services operating in China to collect and verify the identity of their users, and, when required to, surrender such information to law enforcement without a warrant. For instance, article 33 states that:
When institutions engaged in data transaction intermediary services provide services, they shall require the party providing the data to explain the source of the data, examine and verify the identities of both parties to the transactions, and retain verification and transaction records.
Digital activists have argued that this policy dissuades people from freely expressing their thoughts online, thus it further stifles free expression and reduces them as a sitting duck.
Passang (name changed) who spoke on the condition of anonymity in 2021 has recently arrived from Tibet. He expressed his fear and said: “I was more afraid that these data security laws will also be practiced extensively in Tibet. Under the authority of the newly-appointed party secretary of the so-called Tibet Autonomous Region, Wang Zunzheng, the Chinese authorities frequently advise Tibetans not to engage in any anti-social activities including contacting their family members and acquaintances outside Tibet. I have personally witnessed many Tibetans detained under vague and fictitious charges such as ‘leaking state secrets’ and ‘inciting separatism.’ Tibetans are jailed and interrogated with no apparent evidence of any wrongdoing. We are more concerned about its restrictions on online activities, particularly on social media.”
Tibetans are subjected to arbitrary arrests, detention, and torture for exercising their rights to freedom of expression in cyberspace. Since the law applies to data handling, activities in China as well as those outside China, which will result in more scrutiny of data protection and direct suppression of freedom of expression and rights to privacy.
Digital Totalitarianism and its Impact on Tibet
China’s intensive use of high-tech surveillance, including Artificial Intelligence (AI) and espionage method has further stifled the voices of the Tibetan people, leading to self-censorship. Under Xi’s authoritarian rule, through the manipulation of a series of new laws, Beijing continues to subdue freedom of expression and infringe directly upon individuals’ privacy and daily lives.
A senior Tibetan journalist, who wants to remain anonymous, said: “The implementation of cyber security law makes it difficult for gathering any information from Tibet, especially getting information from the capital of Tibet, Lhasa. This has become almost impossible. The Chinese police consider monks to be troublemakers. Monasteries are kept under strict vigilance; the Tibetan monks are forced to install surreptitious monitoring apps on their smartphones. The dubious logic given by the authorities was that the app is meant to alert in case of accidental fire. But in reality, it is intended to monitor their daily conversations. He further explained that “we need to find different avenues to pass the messages of the Tibetan people from Tibet to tell the world about the increasing suppression under the Chinese regime.”
Many Tibetans are arrested knowingly or unknowingly. In March 2018, Woechung Gyatso, a Tibetan Monk was arrested and severely interrogated, and detained in Qinghai on suspicion of sharing politically sensitive content on social media and is being held at an undisclosed location.
In a notice, the Chinese (TCHRD 2020) Authorities in the “Tibet Autonomous Region” announced criminal prosecutions against individuals who use online communication as a tool to engagein activities against the Chinese Communist regime. The general public is ordered to report any rumors circulating on social media and those who are involved in spreading them. On 18 January, 2021, a Tibetan named Tse (Tibet Watch 2021) was arrested for “spreading rumors” on the WeChat group about Coronavirus. Another notice on 24 November, 2020 was also publicly posted about a week ago, which said that the authorities would “strike hard” against offenders as “per law.”
Sharing photographs, teachings, and talks of the Dalai Lama is viewed by Chinese authorities as illegal and this has resulted in Tibetans being arrested in Tibet. For instance, the Chinese authorities have arrested several Tibetans from Karze (Tibet) for celebrating the 86th birthday of the Dalai Lama (Lhamo 2021).
Through their extensive propaganda machinery (Brandy 2015), China claims that Tibetans enjoy the freedom of expression and freedom of religion belief in Tibet. The Chinese government has steadfastly maintained a complete crackdown on any expression of reverence to the Dalai Lama, and even the possession of his picture is criminalized.
Recently, a Chinese court in Tibet sentenced writer and educator Go Sherab Gyatso (Outlook 2021) to a 10-year prison sentence. He was known for his outspoken advocacy and activism (Tibet.net 2021) towards the protection and preservation of Tibet’s environment, religion, language, and culture.
In order to fulfill his dream of retaining power, Xi has been bending laws in the pursuit of digital totalitarianism and has been implementing a series of sophisticated strategies to further control the already suppressed society. By doing this, general secretary Xi Jinping is destroying the dreams of common Chinese people and it will also further tarnish China’s nose-diving image exacerbated by the spread of Coronavirus. To achieve a truly healthy “Digital ecosystem,” Chinese leaders may review the CSL and its related laws, and implement a stand-alone data protection law that adequately safeguard people’s rights and give a space to breathe for foreign and domestic companies. China also needs to reconsider policies related to data localization, not just to enhance the security of the internet and preserve human rights, but also to ensure society’s overall mental health and progress in the long run. Because to fulfill China’s dream, China may first need to fulfill the common Chinese peoples’ dreams and also the dreams of Tibetans, Uyghurs, and Southern Mongolian people.
Beijing’s Export of Surveillance Technology
How would you feel if your every move and decision were being tracked, recorded, and ranked? Nobody really wants a camera to follow them everywhere they go. Welcome to China where the Chinese government is experimenting a new system of surveillance as part of its overt and covert expansion of government intervention and surveillance. Alarmingly, this surveillance system is increasingly showing up all around the world.
China is widely expanding its surveillance network to strengthen and maintain vigilance of its entire populace by tracking peoples’ movements through cell phones and monitoring content of telephonic conversations and emails. Attempts by the government to transform the internet into a system of surveillance and censorship represent a threat to all fundamental rights, media freedom and democracy at large.
Cities in China are under the heaviest CCTV surveillance in the world, according to a new analysis by Comparitech, which provides information for research and comparative analysis of tech services. It has been widely reported that China today has about 200 million CCTV cameras in use, a figure predicted to rise 213% by 2022 to 626 million. China is projected to have one public CCTV camera for every two people. However, the Comparitech report (Zhang 2019) suggests the number could be far higher. These monitoring systems are more intensive and far-reaching in Tibet.
Another striking feature of China’s sophisticated surveillance system is the widespread use of highly advanced cameras with artificial intelligence which have facial recognition systems which can identify people’s age, ethnicity and gender. These cameras can run recognition systems that match you with your relatives and your associates and within no time pull out a list of people you frequently associate. These invisible eyes that follow you, wherever you go and whatever you do make you suffocated and generate a strong and lasting sense of fear.
The Chinese government admits that the technology using facial recognition, body scanning, and geo-tracking are matched with personal data to keep tabs on people in real life and online. Their master plan is to use these technologies as the backbone of their nascent social credit system.
Social Credit System
Since Xi Jinping tightened his power grip on technology and surveillance many new notorious strategies to suppress the freedom of expression have been implemented. These include the introduction of new cyber security law, the launch of Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) and the initiation of a social credit system (Ma 2018) – a score-based system relying on the adoption of desired behavior based on social merit. This system both punishes and rewards key behaviors through a range of initiatives such as public shaming, travel bans, limited or extended business opportunities, and favorable or devalued credit ratings. The ultimate goal is to hammer into citizens the idea that “keeping trust is glorious and breaking trust is disgraceful.”
The point system citizens incentivize lawfulness, integrity, and trustworthiness with real time impacts on what citizens can and can’t do. Perks for good behavior could lead to privileges of faster internet services, travel ticket booking convenience in flights and trains, and even concessions on advance deposits for renting cars and booking hotels. Having a low social credit score could mean restrictions on travel, refusal of passport, difficulty in getting employment and being publicly shamed among others.
China’s National Public Credit Information Center reported that it had cancelled airline tickets of 17.5 million people (Reisinger 2019) due to their unproductive scores and 5.5 million were barred from booking train tickets in 2018 because of low social credit scores.
For the Communist Party of China, the key motive for gathering, analyzing and evaluating data is to preempt and uncover any threat to the social and political stability of its iron grip on China. It is indeed for the first that a government is employing highly advanced technology to expand internet surveillance and censorship to maintain the stability of its own rule. China uses surveillance technology to spy on human right defenders, dissidents, and lawyers, deny freedom of speech and subvert anti-communist party campaigns. This abuse of technology fundamentally undermines democracy and threatens human rights.
According to the People’s Daily, the party-owned largest newspaper group in China, the Chinese capital of Beijing is now completely covered by surveillance cameras that watch over “every corner of Beijing city” (ZENG 2015).
Authoritarian governments across the globe are acquiring state of the art technologies to repress dissent at a rapid pace. For construction of “Smart Cities” in Pakistan, Philippines and Kenya, Chinese companies including Huawei and ZTE are involved in supplying extensive built-in surveillance technologies. Bonifacio Global City in the Philippines, outfitted by Huawei, has internet-connected cameras that provide “24/7 intelligent security surveillance with data analytics to detect crime and manage traffic.”
Surveillance Built with Loans from the Chinese Government
Chinas export of surveillance technology began in 2008 during the Beijing Olympic where it marketed its surveillance mechanisms and ‘solutions’. Prior to the Olympics, 300,000 new cameras were installed in the capital. China then invited many foreign officials to observe the effectiveness of its new authoritarian technologically advanced tools. Since then, the Party has exported its ‘solutions’ to many countries with severe human rights records including but not limited to Ecuador, Venezuela, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Kenya, Iran, and Zimbabwe. China’s collaboration with authoritarian governments across the globe to build large-scale surveillance systems has given rise to global threats to free speech and privacy.
In his research, Prof. Steven Feldman from Boise State University’s School of Public Service found that China is exporting AI-equipped surveillance technology to at least 54countries around the world with government types ranging from closed authoritarian to flawed democracies.”
With China’s help Ecuador now has a new surveillance system, ECU-911 meant to expand automated policing and reduce crime rates. This $200 million deal was jointly signed by China’s State-controlled C.E.I.E.C and Huawei and is funded by Chinese loans (Millar 2019) in exchange for Ecuador providing them with their principal export, oil. Ecuador’s surveillance systems were not only made in China, but were installed by Chinese companies and workers. The Chinese even trained the Ecuadorians how to use it.
China’s export of advanced technologies is a show of strength and capability to the world. It represents the country’s ability to compete with established powers (notably the US) in important sectors, reducing dependency and promoting self-reliance. However, Chinese companies often lack transparency and, most importantly, are without a doubt subordinate to the Chinese Communist Party.
The seriousness of the perceived security threats from Chinese technology companies is evident from the US’s notable restriction or outright prohibition of companies such as Huawei. The US has also encouraged its allies to do the same. Australia, Great-Britain, New-Zealand, the US, and Canada have all adopted measures to restrict the use of Huawei devices and Chinese infrastructure.
Xi Jinping’s Pursuit of Totalitarian Rule through Digital Surveillance
Under President Xi Jinping, the Chinese government has vastly extended domestic surveillance, fueling a new generation of companies that make sophisticated technology at ever-lower prices. With China’s global outreach, the domestic systems are spreading far and wide.
Loans from Beijing have made surveillance technology available to governments that could not have previously afforded it. Adding to this lucrative deal is China’s total lack of transparency and accountability of its use. This rapid development and export of China’s surveillance equipment is helping strengthen a future of tech-driven repression, potentially leading to the loss of privacy.
CCP’s export of surveillance systems to willing governments around the globe has given rise to significant national security risks for individual states as a result from their extensive reliance on and cooperation with Chinese state-owned enterprises or CCP member-owned firms in key infrastructure development projects and expansion of the state security apparatus. These high-tech exports including 5G infrastructure, fiber optics, and telecom equipment aid China’s rapidly rising control and influence over its trading partners. Ultimately, these strategic moves could lead to China’s goal of strengthening its internet sovereignty by securing its position as a great global power. China hopes to widen its sphere of influence particularly in South-East Asia and Africa with the help of the Belt and Road initiative (BRI), thereby promoting its economic dominance, and providing an alternative to the United States and its allies. The advent of modern technology in China granted the government, particularly under President Xi Jinping’s leadership, the opportunity to innovate, the expertise to initiate and the free-hand to implement modern surveillance technologies. This new and extremely effective combination of state control apparatus has proven to be incredibly valuable for the Party in tightening security measures, assuring its long-term survival, shaping public opinion, and suppressing resistance.
CCP’s Evolving Surveillance Strategies in Tibet
China in its latest White Paper on Tibet claims that “with modern communications network mainly consisting of optical cables and satellites, Tibet is part of the information expressway.” This development has led to a more complicated and dynamic threat to the digital landscape. With the advent of optical cables and satellites networks, it poses a new form of security concern and at the same time infringes on the individual privacy of Tibetans using the internet.
The bamboo curtains around Tibet have been shut for a long time and Tibet is off limits for free and independent visits of international media, journalists, advocates, researchers and government and civil society representatives. The highly repressive situation inside Tibet makes it difficult to understand the scope of digital surveillance in the region. Over the years, China’s surveillance system in Tibet has been growing and evolving at an unprecedented scale. The abundance of manned and unmanned checkpoints, AI, CCTV camera networks and re-education centers under the garb of national security have added another layer of suppression to an already extremely oppressive environment in Tibet.
Furthermore, the CCP is constantly upgrading its ‘Great Firewall of China’ to monitor and limit online traffic by creating its ‘own’ internet ecosystem thereby limiting access to the ‘traditional’ web. Chinese authorities in Tibet are offering large cash rewards to informants in a bid to stamp out in its cyberspace what it sees as online ‘subversive’ activities curbing free flow and dissemination of information (RFA 2019). According to a notice issued on Feb 28, 2019, by three government departments of the so-called Tibet Autonomous Region, “information leading to the arrests of social media users deemed disloyal to China can fetch up to 300,000 Yuan ($42,582). People found sharing political contents or commentary deemed sensitive are liable to face arrest and heavy criminal penalties” (RFA 2019).
Surveillance in Tibet and Xinjiang has been widely known as “Orwellian.” In addition to the traditional security surveillance apparatus of the military, police, and neighborhood spies, modern surveillance technologies have been specifically developed and tested in these regions. According to Human Right Watch reports, tight security measure currently being practiced in Uyghur to suppress the resistance movement were previously successfully developed and practiced in Tibet by Chen Quanquo, TAR’s then party secretary. Following his highly suppressive policies in Tibet, Chen was appointed the party secretary in Xinjiang and continues to be the chief architect of the massive surveillance and mass detention systems in the region. Spring 2008 witnessed the historic and widespread uprisings in Tibet against China’s rule which were followed by a series of self-immolations by reported 159 Tibetans demanding the return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and freedom in Tibet (ICT 2022). These protests prompted China to maximize and fast track the scope and intensity of its security surveillance both in the number of security personnel and digital technology.
In January 2012, (HRW 2013) the central government introduced a new surveillance system called the “grid system of social management.” In preparation of the implementing the new system, cadres in plainclothes were deployed in every Tibetan village and monastery. The campaign ironically called “Benefit the Masses” involved sending some 21,000 communist party cadres from townships and urban areas to live in teams of four or more in each of the 5,000 villages in TAR. Authorities expanded their network of small police posts known as “convenience” stations to every 200-300 meters in urban areas, to quickly respond to any protests. In 2016, a total of 696 convenient police check posts were newly set up in Lhasa with high-tech equipment to monitor daily lives.
Companies facilitating digital surveillance in Tibet include Alibaba, search engine Baidu, chat app operator Tencent holdings, voice recognition company iFlyTek and facial recognition system Sense Time. State subsidies and freehand to use Tibet as an open laboratory make Tibetan an enticing proposition for these businesses to invest and perfect their latest technologies. Companies operating in Tibet enjoy a highly reduced tax rate of 9% compared to the standard corporate tax rate of 25% for the rest of China (Nikkei 2019).
The substantial investment by these Chinese technology firms in recent years is one of the reasons critics of the new law believe it is partly designed to bolster the domestic Chinese data management and telecommunications industry against global competitors.
The non-transparent and unchecked export and adoption of China’s highly advanced technologies to foreign markets represent severe intelligence and security threats, especially when integrated directly to national security and surveillance apparatuses. China has successfully put at risk the safety and security of dissidents and activists all over the world and strengthened rogue and undemocratic regimes with its export of surveillance technologies.
Another serious danger for states adopting Chinese technologies is their reliance on foreign technology to run and manage core government systems thus representing a risk to their national security. CCP has not only been proliferating its methods through free or subsidized hardware, AI technology and training, but has also been gaining insights and direct connection to the information stream of partner-states.
Surveillance information streams can be realistically used in two ways as targeted micro information to gain leverage on important targets and to gather and employ big data; the use of which is essentially endless. In this sense, there is little to no transparency nor accountability and imposes a very high security threat.
In Tibet, over the last decade, surveillance technologies referred to as the “nets in the sky and traps on the ground” has further suppressed the fundamental freedoms of expression, movement, and assembly. New and highly advanced technologies have given unrestricted and illicit power to the state security apparatus to intensify and escalate mass surveillance. Checkpoints with smart surveillance and facial recognition are present in cities and at crossings between neighboring districts and provinces. Tibetans inside their homes are tracked through their phones and once they step outside surveillance and facial recognition technologies follow them wherever they go. The full extent and the scale of China’s oppressive surveillance system in Tibet which could very well be more draconian than what has been documented so far is yet to be ascertained due to lack of access to Tibet. This is the reality of today’s Tibet and if the free world is unwilling to restrict the import of China’s surveillance technologies, this could be your reality tomorrow.
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