From SURVEILLANCE STATE: Inside China’s Quest to Launch a New Era of Social Control by Josh Chin and Liza Lin. Copyright © 2022 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.
- China, for all of its associations with authoritarianism, has done more than any other country to democratise state surveillance around the globe.
- By seeding other countries with Chinese technology in three areas – communications infrastructure, cross-border e-commerce, and smart (or safe) cities – the Communist Party hopes to rewire cyberspace according to its own vision.
- However, the “China model” is not something Beijing necessarily expects other countries to replicate. In helping its companies to sell surveillance systems abroad, China’s government is equipping countries with the tools and knowledge to develop their own alternatives, whatever those might be.
On a cool, overcast September day in 2015, a crowd of roughly 500 people filed into the headquarters of the Kampala Capital City Authority in central Kampala to witness an unveiling. The group included senior officials from the Ugandan government, Chinese business executives, and several Chinese diplomats. Among them was Beijing’s ambassador to Uganda, Zhao Yali, who was dressed sharply for the occasion in a dark blue suit with a bright yellow tie and a red Chinese flag pinned to the lapel. As photographers gathered around, Zhao positioned himself next to a Ugandan man in his early seventies, also gussied up in an oversized grey pinstriped suit and a wide-brimmed hat with the chin strap hanging down.
The headwear gave the man away as Yoweri Museveni, Uganda’s president since the days of Ronald Reagan. The aging strongman had been invited to the gathering by the Ugandan subsidiary of Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd., the world’s largest maker of telecommunications equipment. Huawei had operated in Uganda for almost a decade and a half, expanding and upgrading the sub-Saharan country’s phone and internet networks. Now it wanted to make a donation to Museveni’s government—a gesture of thanks for past contracts and an advertisement for a new product the company hoped would lead to business.
Zhao and Museveni stood with other important guests in the centre of a drab room observing three flat-screen monitors hung on the wall opposite them. One showed a street scene outside, the other a map, and the third a diagram that explained what they were looking at: a Safe City system built by Huawei to help the government keep better track of what was happening in the capital. The screens were connected to twenty cameras that Huawei had installed at ten “key surveillance points” around Kampala. Zhao looked on, a broad smile spreading across his face, as Museveni grabbed a walkie-talkie and issued the order to officially bring the system online.
According to an account later posted online by the Chinese embassy, the Ugandan leader thanked Huawei for “fulfilling its corporate social responsibility.” The starter surveillance network, worth roughly $750,000, was a modest investment that would pay off big down the road for Huawei and Museveni alike.
China, for all of its associations with authoritarianism, has done more than any other country to democratise state surveillance around the globe. It has accomplished this by helping its companies sell useful and affordable digital tracking systems to governments and by offering to train local police in how to get the most out of the technology. As a result, almost any regime can now get their hands on advanced surveillance tools to do with as they see fit.
The global market for mass surveillance is young. Like many markets, it was invented in the West. Prior to 9/11, retail sales of surveillance technology were virtually non-existent. The Global War on Terror gave rise to new companies from the United States, Israel, Germany, France, and Canada— many of them founded by former spies and soldiers—that sought to profit by selling military-grade tracking tools developed to hunt terrorists to the highest bidders. The firms’ products, mostly spyware intended for breaking into protected communications, were enticing to criminal groups and governments alike. They were also expensive, narrowly focused, and hard to use. In 2011, The Wall Street Journal reported that the retail surveillance market had grown from “nearly zero” in 2001 to a robust but still modest $5 billion a decade later.
Chinese companies entered, and changed, the field with a new type of product: “safe city” systems. They resemble the smart city platforms that Alibaba built in Hangzhou but with an emphasis on security. They promised to help governments track not just a handful of suspicious individuals but entire populations. Huawei began marketing the systems abroad as early as 2010. The company’s domestic rival ZTE followed suit a few years later. Early versions were rudimentary and had few takers. But starting in the mid-2010s, exponential growth in the availability of data and the capabilities of artificial intelligence made it possible for the companies to offer governments a new menu of much more powerful tools like facial recognition and crowd analysis.
Since then, Chinese surveillance systems have expanded across the globe with breath-taking speed. As of 2019, Huawei said it had installed Safe City systems in 700 cities across more than 100 countries and regions. ZTE claimed to have built similar systems in 160 cities spread across 45 countries. Tallies conducted by independent scholars are smaller but still striking. Sheena Greitens, a professor of political science at the University of Texas, found that Chinese surveillance and public-security technology systems had been adopted in more than eighty countries worldwide by 2020. With the exceptions of Australia and Antarctica, every continent now sees Chinese surveillance technology aiding its police forces.
Democracies host several of the Chinese systems. Hangzhou-based camera maker Dahua has installed its own “safe city” products to help monitor public transportation in multiple cities in Mexico. Huawei has refurbished video surveillance systems in the French village of Valenciennes, built smart city systems in Italy’s Sardinia to monitor public safety threats and extreme weather, and begun installing a camera network in central Belgrade that can identify faces, track license plates, and alert police to suspicious behaviour.
Estimates by market research firm IDC put the value of the market for video surveillance alone at more than $23 billion in 2019, and predicted it would more than double to nearly $50 billion by 2025. China is a driving force in that growth. This is due in large part to the ingenuity and drive of Chinese tech companies, but also to state support. While all governments play a role in supporting the business interests of domestic companies abroad, Beijing has gone further than most, offering generous loans to other governments to partner with Chinese firms without the demands for political or economic reforms that Western governments typically attach.
In recent years, the Chinese government’s role has mushroomed and grown more muscular. The reason is Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative. In the same way that the United States launched the Marshall Plan to rebuild war-ravaged Western Europe as a bulwark against Soviet expansion in the 1940s, Xi wants to use the Belt and Road Initiative to rebuild the global trading system in ways that protect China’s interests. One part of the trillion-dollar plan involves creating what Beijing describes as a “Digital Silk Road.” By seeding other countries with Chinese technology in three areas—communications infrastructure, cross-border e-commerce, and smart (or safe) cities—the Communist Party hopes to rewire cyberspace according to its own vision.
Since the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative, Chinese diplomats have morphed into full-blown salespeople for built-by-China information technology projects abroad, brokering deals with the promise of easy financing that governments find difficult to reject. As of 2019, such projects accounted for an estimated $79 billion in investments around the world. Most of that money has gone into infrastructure like internet cables and 4G base stations, but surveillance has made up an ever larger slice of the pie.
As the scope of China’s ambition became apparent in the late 2010s, concern began to bubble up in technology and policy circles about its implications, particularly in cutting-edge fields such as AI. By 2018, Chinese start-ups were vanquishing Silicon Valley giants in facial recognition tests, and AI research papers written by Chinese scientists held their own against their peers in global conferences. With both Washington and Beijing zeroing in on the technology as an area of competition, observers envisioned a near-future world divided between US and Chinese spheres of AI influence.
In October 2018, Wired magazine ran a cover story that captured the anxiety coursing through Western societies over China’s growing tech prowess. Its title: “The AI Cold War That Could Doom Us All.” In the story, the magazine’s editor in chief, Nicholas Thomson, and political scientist Ian Bremmer fretted that China’s Sputnik moment had come at the worst time. The world was beginning to doubt the durability of democracy. Far from spreading democratic ideals, information technology had helped put Donald Trump, an authoritarian, in the White House—and now it was helping China’s Communist Party spread its influence around the globe. “Is the arc of the digital revolution bending toward tyranny, and is there any way to stop it?” they asked. Their answer to both questions: a resounding “maybe.”
Evocations of the Cold War reflect the enormousness of the stakes, but as events in Uganda demonstrate, they paint a mistaken picture of the dynamics. China might be the United States’ most formidable challenger since the Soviet Union, and the notion of a world divided certainly had a familiar ring to anyone old enough to remember the fall of the Berlin Wall. But for all its genuflecting to Marx and Lenin, the Party had demonstrated little interest in leading a global insurrection of the proletariat. The “China model” is not something Beijing necessarily expects anyone to be able to replicate. The point in promoting it is to show to the world and to China’s own citizens that alternatives to liberal democracy exist and should be considered legitimate. In helping its companies to sell surveillance systems abroad, China’s government is equipping countries with the tools and knowledge to develop their own alternatives, whatever those might be.
This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the China Foresight Forum, LSE IDEAS, nor The London School of Economics and Political Science.
The blog image was generated by DALL-E 2.