China’s Digital Colonialism: Espionage and Repression Along Digital Silk Road

Posted: 27th July 2021
China’s Digital Colonialism: Espionage and Repression Along Digital Silk Road

Editor’s Note: The following post is an excerpt of a full report. To read the entire analysis, click here to download the report as a PDF.

This report profiles the growth of China’s global digital presence and influence through state-sponsored development of digital infrastructure in foreign countries, cyber espionage enablement, and the export of Chinese surveillance technology. This examination weighs the privacy and security risks associated with Beijing’s growing global influence through programs such as the Digital Silk Road Initiative. Data sources include the Recorded Future Platform, academic papers, government reports, and common open-source tools. The report will be of most interest to democratic governments, strategic decision-makers in developing regions such as Latin America, Africa, and South Asia, cyber defense groups, and corporations hosting data in developing regions. Analysis cut-off date: June 22, 2021.

Executive Summary

Through the Digital Silk Road Initiative (DSR), announced in 2015, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is building an expansive global data infrastructure and exporting surveillance technologies to dictators and illiberal regimes throughout the developing world, in some cases trading technology for access to sensitive user data and facial recognition intelligence. Domestically, China uses this type of technology to assert authority over its citizens, censor the media, quell protests, and systematically oppress religious minorities. Now, over 80 countries are enabled to do the same with Chinese surveillance technology.

Many developing countries are vulnerable to the exploitation of their data by corporations and powerful governments due to a lack of direct experience in cyber defense and an eagerness to catch up with competitors through rapid digitalization. The 8 case studies in this report serve as examples from Africa, Latin America, and Southwest Asia. This report explores 3 primary concerns related to China’s digital colonialism:

  1. China’s DSR projects in the least developed regions of the world create a power imbalance between China and the recipient nations, resulting in a high risk for privacy and cybersecurity in those regions.
  2. China’s export of intrusive artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled technologies and ideologies to illiberal regimes around the world enables authoritarianism and systemic oppression and degrades democratic values.
  3. Chinese digital dominance poses both a critical cybersecurity threat to the world and a growing threat to competitors' markets through the assertion of new Chinese-style standards of internet governance.

Digital dominance benefits the Chinese government in several ways. By building out and controlling access to data infrastructure in foreign countries, China is establishing new footholds for the flows of information from new markets. And by hosting foreign companies and government information in data centers, the Chinese government has access to valuable intelligence and intellectual property (IP) if unchecked by the host country. Additionally, China is actively developing exploits for the global internet of things (IoT), giving them an additional layer of access to individual and societal behavior data.

As China builds new global internet infrastructure through the Digital Silk Road, it will co-opt billions of new IoT devices, servers, and foreign resources to its cyber arsenal. We posit that Beijing will conduct extensive influence operations in conjunction with the development of Chinese-style internet governance in participating Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) countries. If left unchecked by both the rest of the world, China will reshape internet governance by replacing democratic values and standards with authoritarian principles.

Key Judgments

  • China’s digital colonialism is a growing threat to democratic values, human rights, and national autonomy, especially in developing regions of the world such as Latin America and Africa.
  • The export of Chinese digital surveillance technology to developing and security-vulnerable countries poses a critical privacy risk to citizens and businesses alike.
  • China’s development of internet infrastructure in foreign countries opens avenues for Chinese intelligence services abroad and poses a growing risk for cyber espionage intrusion campaigns.
  • China’s growing presence and influence in the developing world will pose challenges for democratic institutions and markets as it co-opts new alliances through coercion and manipulation.
  • China’s intelligence services have unprecedented access to foreign user data and vulnerability research through its fused civil-military research ecosystem. China’s dominance in the IoT market ensures continued access to this data, which can be exploited and developed for multiple purposes.
  • The CCP will increase influence operations and espionage operations globally as the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing nears. Its focus will be on modeling the benefits of a surveillance state, crushing pro-democracy movements, and managing the messaging around its minority human rights violations in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Tibet.

Editor’s Note: This post was an excerpt of a full report. To read the entire analysis, click here to download the report as a PDF.