The global threat of China’s digital authoritarianism

By Michael Abramowitz and Michael Chertoff
November 1 at 8:15 AM

Michael Abramowitz is the president of Freedom House. Michael Chertoff is the chairman of Freedom House, former homeland security secretary and chief executive of the Chertoff Group, which advises corporations on cyber and physical security.

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.

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.

The Chinese Communist Party leadership is quite open about its intention to replace the liberal international order with its own authoritarian vision, a project that clearly extends to the digital sphere.

The “Belt and Road Initiative,” an ambitious bid to project Chinese influence around the world through bilateral loans and infrastructure projects, includes a major emphasis on information technology. Of the 65 countries examined by “ Freedom on the Net,” Freedom House’s global assessment of Internet freedom published Thursday, 38 were found to have installed large-scale telecommunications equipment from leading Chinese companies such as Huawei, ZTE or the state-owned China Telecom. Huawei is building Latin America’s largest public WiFi network in Mexico, Bangladesh’s 5G mobile network and Cambodia’s 4.5G service, and it is advising the Kenyan government on its “master plan” for information and communication technologies.

As these firms build a “digital Silk Road” linking host nations through fiber-optic cables, experts have warned that the equipment may facilitate surveillance by Chinese intelligence services. In January, it was reported that the Chinese-built IT network of the African Union headquarters in Ethiopia had been transmitting confidential data to Shanghai daily for five years.