CHINA’S far-reaching foreign policy includes not only investment and political affiliation, but something more insidious and underhand, according to a new report from Freedom House.
The study details how China is cultivating media elites and government ministers around the world to create a network of countries that will follow its lead on quashing internet freedoms.
President Xi Jinping made no secret of his plan to transform China into “cyber superpower” and made the country’s approach a model for others who wish to follow.
But rather than wait for others to follow, Xi has actively been pushing his intense level of “digital authoritarianism” on the world, the report found.
Chinese officials have held training and seminars on new media or information management with representatives from 36 out of the 65 countries covered in this survey.
China has also hosted journalists and media from other countries – including the Philippines and Thailand – for workshops and conferences to learn about its sprawling system of censorship and surveillance. Media professionals attended two- and three-week seminars entitled, “socialist journalism with Chinese characteristics” and “the important role played by new media in domestic and international affairs,” among others.
China press is considered “not free” by the press freedom watchdog and was once again deemed the worst abuser of internet freedom in 2018 of those surveyed. Internet censorship, known as the Great Firewall, has ramped up under Xi, transforming into an “alarmingly effective apparatus of censorship and surveillance.”
Their approach may be working as the report noted a drop in internet freedom in 26 countries from June 2017 to May 2018, some of which China has shared its “expertise.”
In almost half of the countries where internet freedom declined, the tightening of restrictions coincided with elections as authoritarians used claims of “fake news” and data scandals as a pretext to move closer to the China model, the report said.
Among those with the biggest decline were the Philippines and Cambodia.
Cambodia dropped three points, after re-elected Prime Minister Hun Sen cracked down on dissent, hobbled independent press, and prosecuted people for online activity in the lead up to the July general election.
In May, the government issued a proclamation on website and social media control that Freedom House believes lays the groundwork for future blocking and filtering of online content and provides excessive surveillance powers to the government.
While the exact impact of China’s dissemination seminars and training, the report notes that Vietnam introduced a new cybersecurity law very similar to China’s own law, just months after officials attended a training session in Beijing.
The spread of Chinese telecommunications infrastructure across the globe is also cause for concern, the report says.
Chinese companies have reportedly installed internet and mobile network equipment in at least 38 countries. State-owned China Telecom, China Unicom, and China Mobile are laying down the digital Silk Road, with fibre-optic links to Burma (Myanmar), Kyrgyzstan, and Nepal, among others.
Governments have been so concerned with the spread that some have banned Chinese affiliated telecoms companies from contracts.
In August, Australia banned Chinese phone makers Huawei and ZTE from providing 5G technology for the country’s wireless networks.
The concern is that, as more of the world’s critical telecommunications infrastructure is built by China, global data may become more accessible to Chinese intelligence agencies through both legal and extra-legal methods.
The report suggests methods for countries to stem the spread of, what it calls, China’s “techno-dystopian expansionism.” These include tightening import and export controls, and imposing sanctions on those tech companies that facilitate human rights abuses.
Freedom on the Net is a investigates internet freedom in 65 countries around the globe, covering 87 percent of the world’s internet users, tracking improvements and declines in internet freedom conditions each year.