• 12 June, 2024
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China exporting censorship, surveillance to Southeast Asian nations through ‘Digital Silk Road’: Report

Sat, 25 May 2024   |  Reading Time: 4 minutes

Beijing [China], May 24 (ANI): China, which claims to assist Southeast Asian countries in modernising their digital landscapes through investments in infrastructure as part of its ‘Digital Silk Road’, rights groups say that Beijing is also exporting its model of “authoritarian governance” of the internet through censorship, surveillance, and controls, the report by the Voice of America stated.
China’s state media announced this week that Chinese electrical appliance manufacturer Midea Group jointly built its first overseas 5G factory in Thailand with Thai mobile operator AIS, Chinese telecom service provider China Unicom, and tech giant Huawei.
The 2,08,000-square-meter smart factory will have its own 5G network, Xinhua news agency reported.
Earlier this month, Beijing reached an agreement with Cambodia to establish a Digital Law Library of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Inter-Parliamentary Assembly.
Cambodia’s Khmer Times said the objective is to “expand all-round cooperation in line with the strategic partnership and building a common destiny community.”
But the rights groups say that parallel to these technology investments promoted by China’s state media, Beijing is also helping countries in the region to build what they call “digital authoritarian governance.”
Article 19, an international human rights organization dedicated to promoting freedom of expression globally and named after Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in an April report said the purpose of the Digital Silk Road is not solely to promote China’s technology industry.
The report, China: The rise of digital repression in the Indo-Pacific, says “Beijing is also using its technology to reshape the region’s standards of digital freedom and governance to increasingly match its own,” the VOA reported.
Looking at case studies of Cambodia, Malaysia, Nepal and Thailand, the Article 19 report says Beijing is spreading China’s model of digital governance along with Chinese technology and investments from companies such as Huawei, ZTE and Alibaba.
Michael Caster, Asia digital program manager with Article 19, told VOA, “China has been successful at providing a needed service, in the delivery of digital development toward greater connectivity, but also in making digital development synonymous with the adoption of PRC [People’s Republic of China]-style digital governance, which is at odds with international human rights and internet freedom principles, by instead promoting notions of total state control through censorship and surveillance, and digital sovereignty away from universal norms.”
The group says in Thailand, which is home to the world’s largest overseas Chinese community, agreements with China led to a rise in internet controls imposed after Thailand’s 2014 coup. It also notes that Bangkok has since been considering a China-style Great Firewall, the censorship mechanism Beijing uses to control online content.
In Nepal, the report notes security and intelligence-sharing agreements with China and concerns that Chinese security camera technology is being used to surveil exiled Tibetans, the largest such group outside India.
The group says Malaysia’s approach to information infrastructure appears to increasingly resemble China’s model, citing Kuala Lumpur’s cybersecurity law passed in April and its partnering with Chinese companies whose technology has been used for repressing minorities inside China, as reported by VOA News.
The Article 19 report further stated that China is involved at “all levels” of Cambodia’s digital ecosystem. Huawei, which is facing increasing bans in Western nations over cybersecurity concerns, has a monopoly on cloud services in Cambodia.
While Chinese companies say they would not hand over private data to Beijing, experts doubt they would have any choice because of national security laws.
Phnom Penh announced a decree in 2021 to build a National Internet Gateway similar to China’s Great Firewall, restricting the Cambodian people’s access to Western media and social networking sites.
“That we have seen the normalization of a China-style Great Firewall in some of the countries where China’s influence is most pronounced or its digital development support strongest, such as with Cambodia, is no coincidence,” Caster said.
The Cambodian government says the portal will strengthen national security and help combat tax fraud and cybercrime. But the Internet Society, a U.S.- and Switzerland-based nonprofit internet freedom group, says it would allow the government to monitor individual internet use and transactions, and to trace identities and locations.
Kian Vesteinsson, a senior researcher for technology and democracy with the rights group Freedom House, told VOA, “The Chinese Communist Party and companies that are aligned with the Chinese state have led a charge internationally to push for internet fragmentation. And when I say internet fragmentation, I mean these efforts to carve out domestic internets that are isolated from global internet traffic.”
Despite Chinese support and investment, Vesteinsson notes that Cambodia has not yet implemented the plan for a government-controlled internet.
“Building the Chinese model of digital authoritarianism into a country’s internet infrastructure is extraordinarily difficult. It’s expensive. It requires technical capacity. It requires state capacity, and all signs point to the Cambodian government struggling on those fronts,” he added.
Vesteinsson says while civil society and foreign political pressure play a role, business concerns are also relevant as requirements to censor online speech or spy on users create costs for the private sector.
“These governments that are trying to cultivate e-commerce should keep in mind that a legal environment that is free from these obligations to do censorship and surveillance will be more appealing to companies that are evaluating whether to start up domestic operations,” he said.
Article 19’s Caster says countries concerned about China’s authoritarian internet model spreading should do more to support connectivity and internet development worldwide, according to VOA News.
“This support should be based on human rights law and internet freedom principles,” he said, “to prevent China from exploiting internet development needs to position its services – and often by extension its authoritarian model – as the most accessible option.”
China will hold its annual Internet conference in Beijing July 9-11. China’s Xinhua news agency reports this year’s conference will discuss artificial intelligence, digital government, information technology application innovation, data security, and international cooperation. (ANI)



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