Digital Dystopia: The tools the Chinese Government uses to control its population
Sascha Hannig Nuñez, Researcher, Fundación para el Progreso, Chile
«This website is unavailable». That’s what the computer screen showed, next to a bunch of Chinese characters I couldn’t understand. I tried to log on to Facebook, Google, and Twitter to tell my family I had safely arrived in China. Later, I would be told that the only way to enter most of Western websites was by installing a VPN, or Virtual Private Network, outside the country and dodge The Great Firewall. In other words, the system that the Chinese government has enforced to stop its people from reaching unwanted content, or even censor people’s comments directly on social media — their versions, of course —, or to pay volunteers who would write pro-government statements online.
It was an uncanny experience to know that many of the people around me didn’t know about the Tiananmen’s massacre, or the “school stabbings” that have become common in their country, but were widely informed of Hong Kong’s “rising crime rate” or “Europe’s decay”, and how China was defeating other countries in any way: from space tech to sports. Some of them would tell me it was dangerous to write against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and from time to time, wondered why they couldn’t find Winnie the Pooh on search engines anymore.
Since the World Wide Web started to spread around the world, China has limited its people’s access to it, creating a parallel universe — with its own platforms — for a population of around 800 million “connected” citizens so far.
The bare idea of a country controlling its people’s access to information to support its goal can be horrifying. Nevertheless, the Great Firewall is just a glimpse of the Chinese tech control system used to approach its people. In 2017, the cybersecurity law introduced by the government allowed the administration to request direct information from private companies under “security concerns”, and commanded companies to transfer their data to mainland China cloud services. But there is more to the private-government relation. To comply with security, censorship and ideological laws, national companies do not argue, but rather collaborate with the CCP. Services such as Wechat, Alibaba or Baidu give the regime access to their clients’ information and their behavior on and offline.
One of the most infamous results of this collaboration is the Sesame Credit or the Social Credit System, which was introduced in 2015, and will become mandatory next year. Using the principle of Western economic evaluations — developed for debt evaluations —, the CCP has installed a scoring platform that aims to measure a citizen’s trustfulness. In other words, to score a citizen’s loyalty to the regime. If one is a high score citizen, it means one has access to social benefits. But if one doesn’t agree with the CPP, has a political opinion, buys foreign products or even, jaywalks, one’s social credit will drop, and the punishment can take several forms, by instance, denying someone to buy a train ticket, or their passport.
PRC censors and controls its people’s minds through digital resources, but it is also active in the surveillance of their offline lives. A strong monitoring system combines a rate of around one camera for every seven people, with facial recognition technology to detect any misconduct in the streets.
It is true that, under international pressure, a “personal data law” draft was launched this year, but it does not erase the fact that Mainland China has, legally, the right to deny its people any privacy concerning the internet space, because that thin line between security and privacy works at the state’s will. Also, China is pushing for international agreements on internet to shift to a more controlled virtual space.
Furthermore, China has exported this technology to other countries, rising doubts about its possible intermission with freedom of speech, or even domestic security abroad. If Australia has put limits on China's development of 5G and optical fiber technology in its territory, countries like Venezuela have imported population control resources, like the ZTE “Carnet de la Patria”, or Ecuador whose government has introduced Chinese surveillance technology.
By the way, the reason Winnie the Poo is forbidden in China is because the bear resembled president Xi Jinping, he didn’t like how people were joking about it, so, the CCP banned it. This could sound funny, but is the seed of a growing threat: the ability of a State to control not only what people say, but what they aim, feel and think.
Following Q&A section under the title „Does communist China present a risk?“ was inspired by Sascha Hannig’s article and was published as a part of the Forum 2000 special insert in one of the Czech leading newspapers, Hospodářské noviny.
DO YOU SEE ANY RISKS ASSOCIATED WITH THE PRC‘S ACTIVITIES IN YOUR REGION? IF SO, WHAT ARE THEY?
Martin Hála, Sinologist, Sinopsis, Czechia
The main risk is the cooptation by various means of local elites. Such elite capture undermines the democratic systems from top down, effectively repurposing the institutions of democratic governance represented by the captured elites into a tool of a foreign authoritarian power.
Sascha Hannig Nuñez, Researcher, Fundación para el Progreso, Chile
In my view, there are two main threats regarding China’s influence in Latin America. The first one is related to economic dependence, as there are countries whose economies rely largely on their exports to China or that have fallen into debt traps in the last years. The second one is the indirect attack on democracy and its core values through the condemnation of its weak points but also manipulation of speech in matters that concern the culture, history and politics.
Andréa Ngombet, Activist, Presidential Candidate, Republic of the Congo
The biggest threat from PRC in the Central African region, apart from the debt trap, is the enforcement of kleptocrats state’s capture by extending the Digital Great Wall. This will definitely impair the access to independent, fact-based information which is critical for a free and pro-democratic public opinion.
WHAT MEANS DOES CHINA USE THE MOST IN YOUR REGION?
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has at its disposal machinery and tactics for political interference in foreign countries built over decades. At the core is the United Front system, much strengthened by Xi Jinping. In his „New Era“, the toolbox was expanded with „Economic Diplomacy“, or exerting political influence by promising economic benefits with the help of initiatives like the Belt and Road Initiative or „17+1“. In CEE more than elsewhere, it has become clear that the economic impact of these initiatives has been negligible, while the main goal is the cooptation of local elites.
Sascha Hannig Nuñez
One of its main tools is the influence among think tanks and academic platforms, through public diplomacy and the installation of cultural centres, such as the well-known Confucius Institutes. This mean is mainly used to reach students with a rising interest in Asian studies or China itself, and to push a justification of the current state of the CCP government through the manipulation of history and cultural approaches. Establishing relationships with politicians and notable business people is also a course of action of both sharp power and people-to-people diplomacy, and its goal is to appeal to decision makers.
Debt trap, briberies, weaponization of countries‘ foreign affairs, UN veto, enforcing marred elections, all means necessary are used. PRC has always had a domination plan for Central African region since its attempts in the 60s to create the first People‘s Republic of the Congo in the now DRC. It then supported and trained the political military apparatus of a second People‘s Republic of the Congo, now Republic of the Congo. Our political staff were not just communist, they were and still are Maoist.
HOW TO TACKLE THESE THREATS?
The first step is understanding what actually lies behind the rhetoric of „economic diplomacy“ and „win-win“ cooperation. From there, it should be clear in practical terms that the most immediate remedy is strengthening of our domestic Conflict-of-Interest legislation, and insisting on transparency and reciprocity in the relationship with the PRC.
Sascha Hannig Nuñez
It is important to care about the countries‘ security in terms of the imports of PRC technology and how its surveillance structure can be exported abroad. Such thing has been denounced in Ecuador and Venezuela. Finally, transparency policy and public awareness have been proven efficient to redirect the influence of the country and prevent corrosive capital to enter the public structure. Looking at other experiences (such as Australia, Africa or Southeast Asia) might be useful to prevent further institutional damage.
A coalition for democracy with African and Asian democratic movements to disrupt this bogus anti -imperialism narrative and totalitarian agenda is the key. That coalition will do civic education by encouraging participation in the electoral process. Only a profound update of the leadership culture can tackle it.