Data-Driven Diplomacy: China’s Growing Surveillance Industrial Complex

Designed by Crystal Nattoo

“As more authoritarian countries implement Chinese surveillance technologies and imitate Chinese surveillance practices, many citizens’ hopes for democratic governance could be diminished.”

Today, the city of Belgrade, Serbia, is working with the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei to install over 1,000 cameras in 800 locations across the capital city.1 Many of these cameras will be equipped with facial recognition technologies enabling law enforcement to determine the identity of citizens from previously unthinkable distances. 5,000 miles south, in Kampala, Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni continues work on a $126 million project to install Huawei facial recognition systems to combat crime.2 In Venezuela, citizens fret over a new Beijing-designed ID card that controls access to government welfare programs.3

These countries have three features in common. They lack adequate democratic checks to ensure surveillance technologies will respect human rights and civil liberties. They have all signed onto China’s One Belt One Road initiative (OBOR), a program designed to link the world’s developing economies partially through the export of artificial intelligence-equipped surveillance technologies and 5G telecommunications infrastructure.4 Finally, and most importantly, none of these countries possessed sufficient technology or capital to implement these systems without Chinese support. As more authoritarian countries implement Chinese surveillance technologies and imitate Chinese surveillance practices, many citizens’ hopes for democratic governance could be diminished. 

Chinese technologies have exhausted the American news cycle. While these stories capture headlines, China has greater ambitions than 5G and social media apps. As tensions between China and countries such as the U.S. worsen, the U.S. and its allies must consider all instruments of power, including the exportation of technologies equipped with surveillance and facial recognition capacities. The introduction and implementation of Chinese surveillance technologies in countries across the world demonstrates their growing ubiquity. The increasing pervasiveness of China’s surveillance technology systems presents a threat to human rights and political freedom around the globe.

China’s Surveillance Technology and its Dangers 

China has a long history of using technology to stifle dissent and pro-democratic sentiments. In 1994, just six years after the internet arrived in China, the Chinese Minister of Public Security (MPS) initiated the Golden Shield Project, colloquially called the “Great Firewall of China,” to maintain the regime’s political stability and economic rise by censoring certain information and websites.5  Although China had suppressed dissent in the name of national stability for decades, the Great Firewall marked the beginning of the Chinese government’s digital surveillance of civil society. Both internet censorship and mass digital surveillance systems are a means of exercising state control for political purposes. The reduction in Chinese citizens’ freedom to express their private beliefs has been drastic. Freedom House, a non-profit organization that conducts research and advocacy on human rights, democracy, and political freedom, has deemed China the worst abuser of internet freedom of the planet every year since 2015. 6 

However, internet surveillance is no longer the only way China monitors its citizens. In 2015, the MPS called for the development of a country-wide “omnipresent, completely connected, always on and fully controllable” video-surveillance network.7 By 2020, there will be an estimated 626 million surveillance cameras in China.8 9 10 New technologies, particularly Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems, give the state granular access to each citizen’s political activity, communications, associations, and lifestyle choices, allowing them the ability to monitor and exploit patterns and discrepancies.11 There is currently no known centralized system for these records due to the immense amount of storage and processing required–though Beijing continues to seek to develop such a system. 

 The development of Chinese social credit systems, coupled with increasing technological capabilities, suggests an ominous future for authoritative regimes looking to import Chinese surveillance technologies. In this system, ‘red-lists’ reward citizens for demonstrations of trustworthiness while blacklists punish citizens for infringements of the law that fall short of criminal activity such as not paying their debts or refusing to apologize to a citizen they have wronged.12 The social credit score also establishes a direct connection between the Chinese government’s surveillance state and the private sector; Chinese companies are required by law to assist their government in surveilling Chinese citizens.13 This cooperation is evident in the partnership between the social video streaming app TikTok and a local court in Nannin, Guangxi, where photographs of blacklisted people were displayed as advertisements between videos. In some cases, these advertisements were accompanied by a promise of a financial reward in exchange for information on the blacklisted person’s whereabouts.14 15 

Surveillance technologies can be harmful because governments can collect data on citizens without their consent. In countries where there are few mechanisms to protect citizens’ freedoms, this data can then be used by authoritarian governments to smother political dissent. While not all facial recognition technologies are harmful, the purpose of the surveillance technology often exceeds deterring crime and routinely stifles freedom of expression, particularly political dissent. 

Xinjiang as a Testing Ground 

Enhanced technological surveillance capabilities enables autocratic regimes to suppress and discriminate against ethnic minorities. Worse, these technologies can be used to carry out genocidal practices with an unprecedented level of accuracy and precision. The ongoing genocide of Chinese Uighurs16 17 18 provides a grim example of how surveillance technologies are used to curtail citizens’ freedoms. The Chinese province Xinjiang serves as a testing ground for the surveillance technology companies that are a key facilitator of China’s repressive efforts. In Xinjiang, millions of ethnically Uighur and Kazakh Muslims are subjected to arbitrary arrest and pervasive surveillance and discrimination.19 Uighurs and Kazakhs in Xinjiang find their lives extensively monitored by advanced AI systems. Their only permitted means of digital communication is through the app WeChat, which is subject to monitoring by Chinese officials.20 The use of AI and facial recognition technology further enables this systemic discrimination by allowing for rapid compilation of data on the daily lives of the Uighur people.  

In 2017, Uighurs in Xinjiang were forced to install spyware onto their mobile phones to track their online activity, or risked facing up to ten days in a detention center.21 The app, called Jing Wang (“clean internet” in Chinese) blocks specific websites, searches a phone’s files, and sends a copy of chat records and Wi-Fi logins to a government server along with identifying information.22 The same year, Chinese officials required all residents of Xinjiang to install Chinese-made satellite navigation systems into their vehicles.23 Several state-owned technology companies have established research and development labs in Xinjiang because of the unfettered access to large swaths of data. 

The suppression of the Uighurs serves as a clear warning of how future genocides and ethnocides may be carried out in the very countries interested in buying these technologies from China. While it is alarming to consider the human rights implications of these technologies within China, it is even more disturbing to consider their potential use in less developed authoritarian regimes with few legal protections of citizens’ rights. Xinjiang is just one example of how Chinese surveillance technologies, without proper protections and safeguards in place, are antithetical to the protection of human rights and political freedoms. The rate at which other authoritarian countries are eagerly buying these technologies from the Chinese suggests more nations are seeking to imitate the Chinese model of using technology to restrict speech and restrain political freedoms. 

Moving Abroad 

China has been exporting technologies to autocratic regimes for decades, but, as described in a recent Brookings Institution policy brief, these exports have changed in two key ways.24 First, instead of their former low-quality imitation products, China now retails high-quality products made by companies like Huawei, Hikvision, and Yitu, which are designed and developed in China.25  Additionally, while China has long exported these technologies to increase their economic edge, there is now a greater emphasis on the value these exports bring to China’s international influence, foreign policy, and long-term strategy.26

In 2015, China announced Made in China 2025, an ambitious plan to channel government support and subsidies towards Chinese companies.27  The industrial planning initiative called for domestic companies to increase their market share not just within China, but in global markets as well. 28 Made in China 2025 began with the goal of reducing China’s dependency on U.S. technologies and evolved into a more ambitious project, not just hoping to match U.S. power but to surpass it. In response, the Trump administration railed against the policy as promoting unfair business practices, leading mentions of the plan to all but disappear from China’s published rhetoric.29

The current Chinese surveillance state suppresses political, religious, and other forms of dissent, a model other countries may seek to imitate, posing a danger to the future of liberal democracy around the world. Countries throughout Africa, Latin America, and even Europe have sought China’s support in developing their telecommunication and surveillance systems. 


One illustration of Chinese technologies’ dominance abroad is the grip Huawei Technologies has on the African telecommunications market. Huawei has aided incumbent Ugandan and Zambian politicians in intercepting citizens’ encrypted communications and mobile phone data to track individuals’ whereabouts. 30 In Uganda, the country’s cyber-surveillance unit partnered with Huawei to hack into an opposition leader’s WhatsApp group. 31 This access allows the Ugandan government to regularly interfere with planned rallies and arrest opposition politicians and supporters. African countries, particularly those with weak records in protecting their citizens’ human rights, remain particularly vulnerable to China’s exportation of these new technologies. 

While African telecom operators are subject to international human rights initiatives’ audits, the Chinese software operators who are swiftly replacing them are not.32 The number of Chinese technologies being employed in Africa is even more concerning given that fewer than 20% of African countries have signed on to progressive frameworks that provide the protections necessary to accompany the ethical and practical challenges that AI-related investments require. 33

Latin America 

In Latin America, China has provided Ecuador with more than 4,300 surveillance cameras.34 The centralized system, ECU-911, sends video footage to police for manual review as well as to the nation’s infamous domestic intelligence agency, historically known to surveil and attack political dissidents.35 ECU-911 was developed almost entirely by Huawei and the Chinese controlled firm China National Electronics Import and Export Corporation. 36 Yet Chinese companies’ lack of corporate accountability coupled with lack of faith in Ecuadorian institutions, leaves locals and activists with little recourse to fight against ECU-911.37

A recent partnership between the Venezuelan Maduro regime and Beijing foreshadows a portentous attempt to increase control over the population. In 2018, the country rolled out the “fatherland card” based on Beijing’s own ZTE-backed national identity smart card program to administer the government’s disbursement of subsidized food, healthcare, and other social programs.38 But many fear the cards could prevent access to resources scarce in Venezuela’s ongoing economic crisis.39 40 Worse, the card may be used to sway elections, as some voters were told they could not vote if they did not register for the program.41


Africa and Latin America are not the only places where China is exporting these technologies. Huawei claims it has installed similar surveillance systems in 56 “safe cities” in countries such as Germany, Spain, and France.42 These relationships have forced the U.S. to reconsider intelligence-sharing partnerships with these countries, over suspicions that companies such as Huawei share data with the Chinese government.43

Serbia, a European Union (EU) candidate, is seen by China as a potential foothold on the continent. In 2019, the Serbian Interior Minister and the Chinese MPS signed a three-point memorandum.44 Two of its initiatives have already been realized, including joint police patrols, in which China supplies Serbia with supplemental law enforcement officers and the installation of security cameras equipped with facial recognition technology. 45 China has provided Serbia billions of dollars in loans to build coal-powered plants, roads, railroads, and bridges, suggesting Beijing takes varied approaches to influence countries to adopt these new technologies.46 Activists argue the intrusiveness of this facial recognition software warrants a data protection impact assessment to determine how invasive this technology is without requiring an individual’s consent. The foundation additionally created precise rules for how the data should be stored and processed to mitigate adverse use.47

What will China do with all this data?

Beyond the immediate threats Chinese surveillance technologies pose to the countries in which they are implemented, there are two additional long-term concerns. 

First, China can use data gathered from other countries to enhance its AI algorithms.48 If the contracts between authoritarian regimes and Chinese companies specify that data collected from their respective populations are held in China, China could gain an even greater competitive edge in the race for AI dominance. Kai-Fu Lee, an American-Taiwanese computer scientist, asserts that China’s greatest advantage in AI over the United States is the nation’s ability to collect more data on more citizens, increasing the amount of data to train its AI.49 The more data points an algorithm has, the greater its predictive ability. China’s lack of domestic privacy regulation and the isolation of its internet suggests a virtually unlimited number of data points on which the Chinese government exclusively can use to train and improve its algorithms. In the words of author Shoshana Zuboff, China’s approach to data is a nightmare in which “private human experience is claimed as a free resource.” 50

Second, Chinese companies are required to share data collected from these technologies with the Chinese government. Samantha Hoffman, a fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), notes that under the National Intelligence Law, Chinese companies are required to work to actively conceal their involvement with Chinese intelligence entities.51 This means firms such as Huawei are legally bound to hand over data to the Chinese government, allowing the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to use the data as they wish. Though Huawei’s CEO has stated he would “definitely say no” if China made such a request, he would have to break Chinese law if he rejected a government request to share data.52 53 54 Additionally, the Chinese party’s view of intelligence broadly includes ‘state security,’ suggesting they are willing to gather intelligence on users around the world to support the stability of its regime.55 The CCP recognizes the risks that an open and free internet poses to the stability and maintenance of its regime if it hopes to maintain and expand its current rule.56

Current Responses

In the U.S., there is bipartisan support for banning certain Chinese technology companies’ access to American markets. In 2019, U.S. Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff stated the “coupling of innovation and authoritarianism is deeply troubling and has spread beyond China itself…Export of this technology gives countries the technological tools they need to emulate Beijing’s model of social and political control.” 57 58 That year, the U.S. added another twenty-eight companies to its Entity List, which restricts a company’s access to American technology due to its threat to national security.59 60

One of the largest differences between Chinese firms and Western firms, in the context of selling technology and infrastructure to African governments, is their level of accountability. In 2017, observers in Kenya determined an election results management system designed by a French firm was compromised. As a result, the French government readily complied with the demanded external audit.61 62 As Beijing continues to export its authoritarian toolkit abroad, the U.S. government maintains that Huawei, the largest maker of telecom equipment in the world, is a tool the Chinese government uses to conduct espionage. Despite evidence that Huawei aids governments in spying on their citizens in countries like Uganda, Huawei denies the allegations that the company helps governments spy on their citizens. 


One way the global community of democracies can compete with China’s exportation of surveillance technologies is by disrupting the supply chain of Chinese surveillance companies. One of the most important parts of AI systems is semiconductor chips, a feat of manufacturing China has yet to achieve. Though the U.S. and Europe have already started restricting the export of these materials to China, they could expand the use of export controls.63 Additionally, the U.S. could create consequences for regimes who opt into the large-scale employment of mass surveillance without ensuring adequate protection for the civil liberties of their people. The United States could label these regimes “digital authoritarian” and apply targeted sanctions or otherwise withhold potentially critical aid to ensure the stringency of these sanctions is clear.64

The U.S. should also work with allies to establish international ethical standards for technologies that support international commerce while enabling free expression. One example of encouraging these norms is Section 304 of the 2020 Senate bill, the STRATEGIC Act.65 The bill, designed to advance a comprehensive strategy for U.S. competition with China, was introduced to protect institutions from Chinese influence and prioritize cooperation between the U.S. and other countries by creating a ‘tech coalition.’ The U.S. and its allies should develop scalable, decentralized models of democratic surveillance that allow nations to protect their citizens while also respecting privacy and human rights. Offering a compelling alternative to the current products on the digital surveillance market and developing a scalable and consistent code of conduct when it comes to implementing these technologies will enable the democratic world an opportunity to compete with China. 

Finally, ensuring citizens’ access to the internet and information must be prioritized to combat the spread of surveillance technologies in authoritarian countries. If citizens know these technologies are being used without their consent and adequate safeguards for their rights, they will be better positioned to protest their installment and implementation. In the words of human rights researcher Adrian Shahbaz, “Global internet freedom can and should be the antidote to digital authoritarianism. The health of the world’s democracies depends on it.” 66

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