China is the world’s salesman when it comes to information technology. It exports the most cameras, laptop computers, and TV screens. Nearly every smartphone that’s sold around the world was produced in the factories of China. Nine out of the world’s top 12 smartphone makers are headquartered in the Middle Kingdom.
Increasingly, however, China is not just exporting ICT goods. It’s exporting digital authoritarianism.
The Chinese leadership has used digital technologies to cement its grip on power. Surveillance cameras, autonomous drones, citizens’ data — all are used to advance the communist party’s interests and stifle any opposition. Big data meets Big Brother. George Orwell’s nightmare vision is coming true, and it’s coming from China, the world’s first digital totalitarian state. Now an increasing number of countries is interested in learning from China. And Beijing is happy to teach them.
It has held seminars with representatives from more than 30 different countries on regulating the digital space. It has provided capacity-building on how to regulate the digital realm to Uganda and Tanzania, both of which have afterwards introduced Chinese-style internet controls and cybersecurity laws. It has hosted officials from North Africa training them in “cyberspace management” and introducing them to its system of surveillance and censorship. And its companies are happy to provide the digital backbone for authoritarian leaders to exercise their control. ZTE and Huawei are building the internet infrastructure for many African states, while companies such as Guangzhou-based Cloudwalk Technology have inked deals with Zimbabwe to provide it with a massive facial recognition infrastructure. China’s big brother is coming to Africa.
With China’s digital authoritarianism going global, it is no wonder that this year’s Freedom on the Net report highlights the decline of internet freedom and democracy for the eighth consecutive year. According to the report from US-based think tank Freedom House, almost a third of the 65 countries assessed, have come up with new laws to restrict online media. 18 governments have increased surveillance and 26 in total have constricted online freedom.
We are facing a struggle between liberal democracy and authoritarianism in the digital…