WASHINGTON, DC – China has long censored information its own citizens can access and distribute internally and is now trying to use its economic muscle to export that censorship outside the country, according to experts who appeared before the Congressional-Executive Commission on China on Wednesday.
Homegrown Chinese technology firms are now large enough to invest overseas and buy stakes in firms that produce applications and services around the world, and could embed technology within them that would comply with Chinese standards, they explained.
For example, the popular Chinese messaging application WeChat can censor certain words even when its users are overseas.
“[This is] just the beginning of what could be a larger trend,” said Shanthi Kalathil, director of International Forum for Democratic Studies, National Endowment for Democracy.
China is also actively building out key telecommunications infrastructure in developing countries, she said.
“If China succeeds in dominating the emerging global market for data-enabled objects, often referred to as the ‘Internet of things’, its approach to embedded surveillance may become the norm in places with weak individual privacy protections,” she said.
Commission chairman Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) noted wryly that if an American telecommunications carrier or provider has signed a deal that has the sponsorship and support of a Chinese company, it likely means that “you are inheriting something in the device [that could] make you individually vulnerable to surveillance.”
American academic institutions increasingly relying on digital databases could also find themselves vulnerable to Chinese censors wanting to create a “pliable version of the past … to serve the party’s present,” said Glenn Tiffert, a visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.
“For censors, the possibilities are mouthwatering,” he said.
Instead of pushing back, Western firms appear to be increasingly blessing China’s approach to the Internet, Kalathil said, noting that China’s widely derided Internet World Conference in Wuzhen, China, succeeded in attracting high-level Silicon Valley participants like Apple CEO Tim Cook.
“It established the optic that the world’s leading technology firms have blessed China’s approach to the Internet,” she said.
Panelists described China’s goal as promoting its soft power in its quest to replace a Western liberal international order with one that benefits China, they said.
“The Chinese Communist Party is leveraging its economic muscle and the technologies of the information age to pursue a distinctively Leninist path to soft power,” Tiffert said.
“It depicts public opinion as a battlefield upon which a highly disciplined political struggle must be waged and won,” he said.
Chinese leaders are trying to argue that electoral democracy does not work while leaving the alternative China model “deliberately vague” so that authoritarian leaders around the world can read into it what they want, Kalathil said.
“For them, it’s a direct appeal to the elites of authoritarian regimes,” she said.
Tiffert warned that American leaders need to “get its game back on.”
“It seems to me the United States is accustomed to dealing or engaging with the world from a position of strength–not just comprehensive economic and military strength, but also a deep confidence in the appeal of our values around the world,” he said.
“And that, particularly since the fall of Berlin Wall, has produced a certain amount of complacency. We thought, ‘Game over.’ I don’t think China ended the game. And I believe that we are now playing different games, and the United States needs to get its game back on,” he said.