Nov 2, 2020

From September 29 to October 9, the Human Rights Foundation (HRF) in partnership with Stanford University’s Global Digital Policy Incubator, the Hoover Institution, and the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence hosted an online event series titled “The Rise of Digital Authoritarianism” highlighting the global implications of the Chinese dictatorship’s growing use of artificial intelligence and big data analysis.

All sessions are now available online:

How AI is Powering China’s Domestic Surveillance State

The Ethics of Doing Business with the CCP and Chinese Companies

The Geopolitics of China as an Emerging AI Global Superpower

How Democracies Should Respond to China’s Emergence as an AI Superpower

Key Takeaways

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) collects enormous amounts of information about each Chinese citizen in order to sculpt a more “harmonized” society, to socially engineer ideological compliance, and to discourage any dissent. Provided with no other alternatives, more than a billion Chinese use a handful of phone apps which, though extremely convenient, destroy privacy by revealing their communications, transactions, and behaviors to giant tech companies like Ant Group and Tencent which are obligated to share this data with the CCP. Ethnic minorities and dissidents identified through this dragnet as bad actors are sanctioned, disappeared, and even interned in a high-tech concentration camp network so vast it can be seen from outer space.

In The Rise of Digital Authoritarianism, speakers unpacked this technological shift, detailing: how Chinese government and corporate use of big data and AI is shaping societies everywhere from Beijing, Xinjiang, and Tibet to Angola, Burma, and Panama; how Western companies handle data requests from the CCP and how they decide whether to not work in mainland China and Hong Kong; how this growing global data collection system impacts human rights even in Europe and the United States; and what democracies can do to push back and design data systems that actually protect digital freedoms.

The program was held over the course of four days, and featured more than a dozen speakers. Here are four key insights from the event:

1. The CCP is using AI to help install a digital totalitarian regime. 

For years, China has been developing AI, facial recognition, and internet censorship technology that is designed to create a massive surveillance state capable of not only monitoring every person’s move, but also predicting what that person might do next, and determining whether that person poses a future threat to the regime. Today, that technology has been deployed in cities across China, but especially in the Xinjiang region, home to the Uyghur Muslim minority, where the CCP uses AI to quash freedom of speech, movement, and religion. Any Uyghur whose behavior is flagged by algorithms may be taken to a concentration camp, where millions of people have been forced to sit in “re-education” programs that teach propaganda and discourage Uyghurs from practicing their own language and culture. Alarmingly, the technological repression used by the CCP in Xinjiang is also being used in Tibet and in Inner Mongolia to further suppress ethnic minorities and dissenting opinions.

2. Even if the United States and China are not in a new Cold War, China’s digital authoritarianism is a serious threat to societies worldwide.

Unlike during the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union, the US and Chinese economies are closely interlinked, the two countries aren’t fighting proxy wars against one another, and there is thus far little ideological competition between the two superpowers. None of this, however, means that Chinese surveillance technology, authoritarian ideology, and economic neo-colonialism aren’t threats. The CCP and Chinese companies are exporting their surveillance technology abroad, selling equipment, software and ideas to dictatorial regimes from Venezuela to Angola as part of the multi-billion dollar digital silk road and the Belt and Road campaigns. Authoritarians such as Cambodia’s Hun Sen and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni have looked at the Chinese government’s actions as a source of inspiration as they seek to replicate Beijing’s surveillance systems in their own countries. And even democratic politicians in Europe, for example, are debating whether or not to hire Chinese companies to build their future telecommunications networks. On this latter point, the Chinese government’s subjugation of Hong Kong among other things seems to have slowed its momentum in terms of finalizing contracts with European governments, but the threat still remains.

3. International tech companies are often pressured or compromised by the CCP, while Chinese tech companies cultivate a climate of surveillance abroad.

China is the world’s largest market, and the desire of foreign companies to sell to Chinese citizens has forced them to cave to CCP demands and to sacrifice on human rights issues. International companies which wish to enter and successfully stay in the Chinese market are often, either directly or indirectly, pressured by the CCP to fall in line with the party’s ideology and to exert silence on issues that are deemed “sensitive” by the party. This results in an enormous amount of censorship ranging from Blizzard’s banning of a pro-democracy gaming star to companies like Apple and Google pulling “problematic” apps from their platforms. In addition, tech companies with Chinese ties, such as Zoom, often route data from customers abroad through servers in China, allowing the CCP to collect that information. Meanwhile, popular apps like TikTok allow Chinese companies to harvest information from consumers in countries like the United States, and telecoms companies like Huawei can build backdoor access into their equipment so that the Chinese government can access all of their user data. This is a threat to consumer privacy globally that we must take seriously.

4. Multilateral alliances can challenge the rise of digital authoritarianism. The global community needs leadership.

To this day, there is no strong multilateral alliance dedicated to creating norms and standards on international digital governance, privacy, and rights. China’s digital authoritarianism is not just a part of a US-China great power conflict — it is an attempt to completely realign the geopolitical world order against the democratic world. The US and Europe can’t win that struggle on their own. They must work together with its like-minded partners and form a multilateral alliance against the Chinese government’s authoritarianism. Internet standards that prioritize security and privacy over state control can only be established with targeted coordination and the cooperation of like-minded countries. A coalition of democracies dedicated to protecting the right to privacy and freedom of expression has better odds of challenging the rise of digital authoritarianism than a patchwork of regional groups. Finally, democracies need to create laws and regulations that protect privacy and incentivize companies based in and operating in their jurisdictions to protect user data over short term profits.