Chinese firms have attracted most attention for their role in exporting surveillance technologies, but policing is far from the only government service that they are supporting. China’s new white paper on China-Africa cooperation states that 29 African countries use Chinese smart government services.
While e-government and the use of ICT for delivering public services like healthcare and education can play a fundamental role in closing the digital divide, beneficial technologies often come with hidden risks and costs. Chinese surveillance giants who purport to keep people safe from Covid-19 have repurposed the same technologies the Chinese police use to persecute Muslim minorities. The temperature screening solution of deep learning company Megvii, which was hit by new US government sanctions in December over its complicity in the surveillance of Muslims in Xinjiang, experienced international success. These technologies were developed in an environment where the recipe for public health security is constant and unconstrained surveillance, a troubling model that the party-state has touted as an example for other countries to learn from.
Government information platforms
More and more governments are relying on Chinese infrastructure to power the critical infrastructure on which data-intensive public services rely. Based on Huawei’s e-government cloud, Cape Verde’s Operational Nucleus for the Information Society “developed more than 150 websites and 77 types of eGovernment software, covering social security, electronic elections, budget management, distance education and healthcare, and Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) for all government departments, schools, hospitals, and state-owned enterprises.” The Export Import Bank of China backed the project with several loans.
Such a deep penetration into government networks potentially provides the Chinese state with channels for intelligence collection and political influence. Coupled with a track record of lax cybersecurity practices, recent regulatory developments in China further increase the risks: for example, new rules for software vulnerabilities oblige Chinese ICT vendors to report bug details to state authorities without disclosing them to overseas entities.
China is among the most ambitious countries in the world in digital education, especially in its efforts to modernize teaching and learning through emerging technologies like AI. In 2019, China spearheaded UNESCO’s Beijing Consensus on Artificial Intelligence in Education. During the pandemic, it launched two distance learning platforms with UNESCO while experts from several Chinese universities and tech firms compiled a technical guide on protecting personal data security in e-learning. Considering the crucial role of education in cementing the CCP’s authoritarian rule at home, Chinese state actors’ involvement in setting international norms in this field raises serious political questions.
Furthermore, some of the companies that are implementing smart education projects overseas have deep ties with the Chinese police and supply technologies that enable the repression of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. IflyTek, China’s national champion for voice-related AI, has supplied voiceprint recognition systems to public security authorities in the region. It also claims to provide multilingual translation services in 55 BRI countries and cooperates with UNESCO on building smart classrooms. These projects could grant IflyTek access to vast troves of data it can use to train its algorithms.