Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun briefs the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on the US government’s efforts to counter the spread of China’s digital authoritarianism.
China has long weaponized technology against its own citizens, and as the Chinese Communist Party’s influence seeps to other parts of the world, the US government is taking measures to stop the spread.
Last week, Deputy Secretary Biegun told the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations that the Communist Party’s predatory economic practices were “enabling the rule of autocrats and kleptocrats globally,” and that China’s authoritarian regime was using its technology to repress the Muslim Uyghur population while cracking down on all dissidents.
To counter the latter, Biegun explained that the US government was already taking steps to sanction Chinese companies who contribute to the repression of the Uyghurs.
“[China] exports technological know-how that can help authoritarian governments track, reward, and punish citizens through a system of digital surveillance” — Stephen Biegun
“One of the first and positive steps we’ve taken is in relation to Xinjiang, where Chinese companies who have in fact provided those tools to the Communist Party in order to be used to enforce the Chinese repression against the Uyghurs are now sanctioned under US law and are unable to do business with the United States or with United States companies,” said Biegun.
“We will continue to extend that kind of protection when we see these technologies used for repressive purposes, but it’s an important and worrisome area of technology, and one of many that we are having to grapple with in the world in which social media, telecom, and new technologies challenge freedoms around the world,” he added.
Forced facial scanning of all citizens registering mobile phones, DNA phenotyping to profile an entire ethnic population for identification and detention, predictive policing by algorithm, forced sterilization and birth control, massive surveillance, and censorship are just some of the many abuses Communist China is perpetrating against its own people, according to media reports old and new.
“The same technologies that are being used to repress populations are also used in many countries in the world in order to conduct routine screening and security” — Stephen Biegun
But the US is also worried about China peddling this Draconian use of tech abroad, with the deputy secretary of state testifying that countering China’s digital authoritarianism in other parts of the world is difficult because the technology the Communist regime sells can be used for either the benefit or suppression of societies.
“The same technologies that are being used to repress populations are also used in many countries in the world in order to conduct routine screening and security, and so it’s a very thorny and complicated issue to sort out the use issues,” said Biegun in last week’s hearing.
In his written testimony, Biegun laid out a few examples of where China’s surveillance technology was being rolled out by governments in other countries.
“The PRC exports technological know-how that can help authoritarian governments track, reward, and punish citizens through a system of digital surveillance,” he submitted.
“We have seen more than a dozen nations in Africa alone import Huawei’s AI surveillance technology that can reduce the cost and increase the efficiency of authoritarianism.
“A key element of the PRC’s strategy is to provide political, technological, and economic support to those who are willing to turn a blind eye to the PRC’s lucrative deals at the expense of the citizens of developing nations, thereby enabling the rule of autocrats and kleptocrats globally” — Stephen Biegun
“Moreover, we are carefully tracking a sweeping economic and security partnership between China and Iran that, if finalized and funded, could enable Iran to expand funding to its nuclear and military ambitions and malign activities in the Middle East region,” Biegun added.
Much of this is possible, according to the deputy secretary of state, because China will provide lucrative deals to anyone who looks the other way.
“A key element of the PRC’s strategy is to provide political, technological, and economic support to those who are willing to turn a blind eye to the PRC’s lucrative deals at the expense of the citizens of developing nations, thereby enabling the rule of autocrats and kleptocrats globally,” Biegun testified.
The deputy secretary of state submitted in his testimony several ways in which the government was acting to stop the spread of China’s digital authoritarianism, with an emphasis on collaboration and standardization with partners and allies.
Some key initiatives quoted verbatim from Biegun’s testimony include:
- Clean Networks: This is a comprehensive effort by a coalition of like-minded countries and companies to secure their critical telecommunications, cloud, data analytics, mobile apps, Internet of Things, and 5G technologies from malign actors by relying on only
trusted vendors who are not subject to unjust or extra-judicial control by authoritarian governments, such as the Chinese Communist Party. Clean Networks consists of multiple lines of effort all rooted in Digital Trust Standards.
- Investment Screening Outreach: The Department of State, together with the Department of Treasury, works closely with foreign governments to encourage the adoption and full implementation of factually rigorous, transparent, and national security focused investment screening mechanisms.
- Deal Teams: Through the Deal Team initiative launched by the Departments of State and Commerce in February, we are helping US firms more effectively compete and win projects abroad.
- Strategic Infrastructure: The Infrastructure Transaction and Assistance Network (ITAN) is a great example of a specialized deal team in action. This group of 11 agencies has identified and advanced more than $125 billion in infrastructure deals in the IndoPacific. Alongside partners such as Japan and Australia, we are providing credible, collective alternative to Beijing’s One Belt One Road offerings.
- Digital Connectivity and Cybersecurity Partnership: The Digital Connectivity and Cybersecurity Partnership is a whole of government effort to promote a vibrant digital economy in developing countries, based on transparency and privacy. This initiative is a direct challenge to Chinese government’s efforts to export its authoritarian approaches to internet governance.
- Blue Dot Network: The Blue Dot Network, launched at the Indo-Pacific Business Forum in November 2019 with Japan and Australia, is a multi-stakeholder initiative to certify quality infrastructure investment projects. The Blue Dot Network is another example of how we use a positive approach to show case the infrastructure investment best practices employed by the United States and our partners.
- Debt Service Suspension Initiative: With like-minded partners, the World Bank, and the IMF, we are leveraging the G20-Paris Club Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI) to increase debt transparency and address opaque and unsustainable PRC lending. The United States is faithfully implementing the DSSI by suspending official bilateral debt payments from the poorest countries to year-end 2020, providing those countries fiscal space to fund social, health, and other measures to respond to the pandemic.
“An essential component of US policy towards the PRC is upholding the rights and freedoms the United States has always stood for” — Stephen Biegun
Biegun also highlighted several pieces of legislation aimed at upholding human rights while combating China’s predatory economic practices.
- The Foreign Investment Risk Review Modernization Act , which expands the authorities of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, better protecting national security by allowing for a review of non-controlling investments that involve critical technology, critical infrastructure, or sensitive personal data, and certain real estate.
- The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which addresses Hong Kong’s status under US law and imposes sanctions on those responsible for human rights violations in Hong Kong.
- The Hong Kong Autonomy Act, which imposes sanctions on foreign individuals and entities that materially contribute to China’s failure to preserve Hong Kong’s autonomy.
- The Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, which directs the President to impose sanctions and export restrictions related to China’s treatment of the Uyghurs.
- The Asia Reassurance Initiative Act,which lays out strategies for promoting U.S. security and economic interests and values in the Indo-Pacific region
“An essential component of US policy towards the PRC is upholding the rights and freedoms the United States has always stood for, whether by exposing human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Tibet, fighting for press freedom, or supporting the rights of peaceful protesters and democratic institutions in Hong Kong,” Biegun testified.
5 ways China’s use of technology threatens global infrastructures: Brookings Institution