The Chinese authoritarian state in its current form, has been enhancing its bid to increase surveillance upon its own people domestically as well as internationally. The Chinese Communist Party has historically been known to come down heavily upon dissenters. Yet, their initiative of not only financing but also promoting public-private partnerships in the field of cyber-security, is an indicator of the party’s desire to procure modernized surveillance mechanisms.
In a way, this growing interest in the cyber-security industry fulfils two of the party’s important objectives; firstly, it promotes research and development in an ever-growing field, allowing them to project Chinese firms as the pathbreakers in the development of newer technologies. Secondly, and perhaps of more far-reaching consequences, the development of newer technologies allows them to react sooner to domestic tensions and dissents that may brew in the future. This however does not indicate that Chinese authorities have not been utilizing such methods currently. Prominent examples have unearthed from within China seem to state that the party and its authorities have been keeping an eye on all those that may be deemed as problematic to the CCP.
Matters have however gone from bad to worse since the pandemic. Chinese authorities have shown a high-handed approach against any violators of the restrictions that have been imposed. Amongst such constraints the zero-covid policy has perhaps been the most gruelling one. The iron-fisted approach by the administration has instilled a sense of fear and anger in the people of the country and extended territories, leaving millions distressed. Yet it is well understood that the policy is meant to identify and prosecute dissenters who pose a threat to the CCP. The increased investment by the Chinese state in Chinese AI Surveillance tech firms however is quite telling of the CCP’s intentions. AI-enabled surveillance tools have scaled up in the recent decade and have increased the security apparatus’s scope of targeting populations that have been presumed to cause a threat to the internal social stability of the Chinese state; this includes residents from Xinjiang, Tibet, Taiwan and various others from sensitive regions including the heartlands of China as well.
Ever since the pandemic ran havoc across the world, China in specific has drawn upon the security apparatuses and groups that were infamous for curbing dissent towards the Chinese Communist Party for the purpose of upholding the monitoring systems. Although such measures are unfortunately not new for the residents, yet these newer measures in any case seem to be directly impacting millions of livelihoods.
It is however needless to state that China has been working on various methods to keep high intensity surveillance rampant upon citizens it deems as rebellious. As early as in 1990, the Chinese State Council approved an initiative to establish a national information system which included the Golden Shield program. The initiative was launched in 1998 with the primary objective of creating a completely digitalized public security sector through a national surveillance network upgrading the state’s capabilities in the security domain. Even though if it is officially stated to be designed for the purpose of dealing with crimes in the country, it has quite openly been used for other means that require addressal. The technology relies upon information and communication systems to expediate the ability for a unified response with coordinated effort. The system is at present connected to around 400 million surveillance camera that are integrated with Artificial Intelligence and facial recognition technologies. Many upcoming Chinese firms have also begun focusing their research on vulnerability reports, threat detection and security products that are then sold to the state for use. The prospects of such initiatives and investments are thus clear, China and its Communist Party intend to dominate the world through their stronghold on information and data; which shall invariably be used to help them gain an advantage over any and every form of threat that may undermine its rise.
However, China’s bid to expediate monitoring capabilities and technology is not specifically intended for domestic purposes. The CCP has been constantly engaging with domestic tech firms for exporting these technologies to developing countries who seem to be favouring the Belt and Road Initiative. As of today, Chinese companies have supplied AI surveillance technologies to thirty-six countries who have BRI projects progressing in their native lands. Most of these firms are either subsidiaries of the Chinese state apparatus or are third party firms employed by Chinese companies. This however is a significant threat upon the sovereign nations of the developing world who seem to be the target for such proposals.
Notorious Chinese behaviour with surveillance technology does not require any extensive detailing; yet it is important to recognize the intention in which such technologies are being supplied in low costs. The African Union’s building in Addis Ababa Ethiopia was found to have rigged cluster of servers that was stealing videos across the AU’s campus. China had paid and built the computer network in the African Union building, and were reported to have inserted a backdoor channel that enabled it to transfer sensitive data. Thus, it would be wise to state that integrating a nation’s technology with that of the Chinese firms would endanger local confidential information that are sensitive in nature.
China’s Orwellian nature is not only worrying but is a significant threat to the other nations that seem to be willing to import Chinese technology on the pretext of security development. These nations not only are jeopardizing their sovereign powers to an external nation but will also end up being subjected to Chinese dictates. Hence it is important that a comprehensive cost-based analysis be done by nations that see Chinese technology as an opportunity instead of a threat; for widespread leaks and investigative reports have suggested that Chinese AI surveillance technology is a moderated mechanism that is prone to espionage threats. The banning of Huawei across different countries for 5G technology is quite telling of the concern nations face in the light of Chinese advancements in the sector. This concern however is not only endangering the West, but is an even bigger concern for the developing world which in many prospects is seen by China as an opportunity to bring under its sphere of influence. Hence, a comprehensive understanding must be initiated before nations accept Chinese offers for advanced technologies as China has had a precarious past in terms of its global outreach which should not be neglected.