Data colonialism: Where China and the West diverge #Forum2000online

July 29, 2021

In our very first #Forum2000online Chat Summer Special, three experts share their research and knowledge on topics of data technology. Didi Kirsten Tatlow, a researcher at the German Council on Foreign Relations, moderates the debate with Xiao Qiang, a renowned expert on U.S-China relationship and Editor-in-Chief of the China Digital Times, and Ulises Mejias, Communication Studies Professor and the author of a book on data colonization. 

Not all data extraction is bad. We are focusing on extraction for profit 

Ulises Mejias recently co-authored a book titled The Costs of Connection: How Data is Colonizing Human Life and Appropriating it for Capitalism. The book reveals how data is appropriating human minds, bodies and lives. Why naming this phenomena data colonialism? 

The main similarity between the “old” colonialism and data colonialism is its function. The function is always to extract – whether it is oil or personal information.  

Xiao Qiang adds to the discussion by explaining that all consumers are the subjects of this colonization. Any purchase in the era of the internet of things generates data on the buyer. Depending on the political setup in the colonizing country, we can talk about either surveillance capitalism in the US or digital authoritarianism in China. 

“CCP is worried about the growth of tech companies” 

The recent scandal of Didi Chuxing company (so called “Chinese Uber”) illustrates the cautiousness of the Chinese Communist Party, says Xiao Qiang. Didi Chuxing entered the US market but saw its value drop drastically after Chinese cybersecurity structures have put the company under investigation. “Big corporations are growing so large that the data they’re gathering is potentially so powerful that the Chinese state needs to put a firm control on it.” Didi Chuxing now has to comply with the new security regulations approved by the CCP before it is allowed to register any more customers. According to Xiao, this will not be an exceptional case but rather a method of the CCP used on new tech companies entering the international market. 

“The mere fact of collecting data implies an intention”  

Didi also asked the two speakers where they see a possibility to push back against the state control over citizens. What can they do in the US, compared to China? 

To effectively push back against the unregulated collection and use of the data, “we need to question what it means to collect data continuously and extract it from our lives,” says Ulises Mejias.

Xiao rightfully points at core differences between possible data regulation in China and the US: “In our case, the technology is in favor of centralized control and dictatorship.”  

In conclusion, Ulises recalled that oppressed people under colonial rule fought back with their minds when they could not resist with their bodies. With the rise of technological giants in both repressive regimes and liberal democracies, we might find these experiences valuable. 

Key takeaways: 

What classical colonialism and data colonialism have in common is their function of extraction. 

  • We all provide data on ourselves, for example with our purchases or online activity. 
  • Xiao Qiang uses the term “digital authoritarianism” to describe a similar phenomenon in China. 
  • Ulises Mejias describes the issue of data extraction in the US as “surveillance capitalism.” 
  • The Chinese Communist Party is paying close attention to the activity of Chinese companies abroad. 
  • In China, the potential of citizens to push back against the collection of their data is very limited.  

About the speakers: 

Ulises Mejias is a Professor of Communication Studies and the director of the Institute for Global Engagement at SUNY Oswego whose research interests include critical internet studies, network theory and science, philosophy of technology, sociology of communication, and the political economy of digital media. His newest book, co-authored with Nick Couldry, is called The Costs of Connection: How Data is Colonizing Human Life and Appropriating it for Capitalism, available from Stanford University Press. Mr Mejias is also a co-founder of the Non-Aligned Technologies Movement and the network Tierra Común. 

Xiao Qiang is a Research Scientist at the School of Information, Berkeley, California and the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of China Digital Times, a bilingual Chinese news website. He became a full time human rights activist after the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989. Mr. Qiang teaches class on Digital Activism, and runs the Counter-Power Lab, an interdisciplinary group researching innovative technologies to expand the free flow of information in cyberspace. In 2015, Mr. Qiang has been named in the Foreign Policy magazine's Pacific Power Index list of "50 people shaping the future of the U.S.-China relationship." He was named on the list “for taking on China's Great Firewall of censorship." 

Didi Kirsten Tatlow is a Senior fellow of the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) Asia Program and a non-resident fellow at Sinopsis. Her work focuses on China, particularly its relations with Europe and technology transfer, as well as on China's relations with Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the Indo-Pacific. In 2019, she began a series, “China-in-Germany,” examining the influence and interference activities of the Communist Party of China in Germany. She has co-edited and co-authored a book, “China’s Quest for Foreign Technology: Beyond Espionage” (2021). 

This discussion was recorded on 13 July 2021.