China is exporting digital surveillance methods to other governments

The U.S. trade war with China is focused on products ranging from agricultural goods to household appliances, but the United States and other democracies should worry about a different type of Chinese export: digital authoritarianism.

China has consistently been ranked by digital advocates as the world’s worst abuser of internet freedom. The country, however, isn’t just tightening online controls at home but is becoming more brazen in exporting some of those techniques abroad including in Africa, says a new report from the U.S.-based think tank Freedom House.

Using a mix of official training, providing technological infrastructure to authoritarian regimes, and insisting that international companies accept its content regulations even outside of China, Beijing is becoming adept at controlling information both inside and outside its borders. Together, these trends present “an existential threat to the future of the open internet and prospects for greater democracy around the globe,” the Washington DC-based non-profit said.

Officials in Beijing are providing governments around the world with technology and training that enable them to control their own citizens. As Chinese companies compete with their international counterparts in crucial fields such as artificial intelligence and 5G mobile service, the democratic norms that long governed the global internet are falling by the wayside. When it comes to internet freedom, many governments are eager to buy the restrictive model that China is selling.

A spy chief said in a speech released Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2018, that Australia’s critical infrastructure including electricity grids, water supplies and hospitals could not have been adequately safeguarded if Chinese-owned telecommunications giants Huawei and ZTE Corp. had been allowed to become involved in rolling out the nation’s 5G network.

As part of its Belt & Road infrastructure project, the Asian giant is also developing a “digital Silk Road” that will establish fibre optic networks across the developing world.

The study assessed developments related to internet freedom that took place between June 2017 and May 2018 in 65 countries across the world.
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