China is winning the digital cold war

Published by The i paper (22nd June, 2020)

The world is sliding into a new cold war. Once again, it pits a dictatorial political system against democracy, but now it is China against the West. This looming struggle is very different to the tense tussle that overshadowed the first half of my life. The Communists in Beijing offer much greater challenge than their counterparts ever did in the Kremlin. The giant Asian nation is many times stronger economically, allowing it to almost double military spending in a decade, while its leadership is far more sophisticated having seen the fall of the Soviet Union and how to exploit globalisation.

Last week this conflict erupted in medieval style when Chinese and Indian troops fought in hand-to-hand combat on a freezing Himalayan mountainside. They used stones and studded clubs as weapons since banned from firing guns in the border zone under a previous accord, yet with 20 Indian soldiers dying this was still their most lethal such conflict for half a century. It was another sign of Beijing’s growing aggression under President Xi Jinping. alongside the crushing of freedom in Hong Kong and creation of militarised islands in the South China Sea.

Slowly but surely, the challenge is being seen across the political divide. At the core of this struggle that will dominate the coming decades lies the fight for technological superiority. If one side triumphs, they control the lifeblood of the digital age. Even the rush to find a pandemic vaccine plays into the contest, since leadership in the field of biosciences is a central part of the equation. We should support Australia when it comes under ‘state-based cyber attacks’ after calling for proper inquiry into origins of the coronavirus. And heed warnings from former Google chief Eric Schmidt, now chair of the Pentagon’s Defence Innovation Board, when he tells us to prioritise the creation and exploitation of new technologies.

Much of the focus in Britain is on Huawei’s involvement in the 5G network. It seems astonishing there is even debate on this issue. Beijing helped build the new African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, then every night for five years all the body’s data was downloaded in the middle of the night until the hacking was discovered. Another Chinese telecoms firm helped the repressive former regime in Ethiopia monitor activists and journalists. Huawei itself has worked with police in Xinjiang, where technology is central to the hideous control and detention of Uighur Muslims.

Yet the West has shown great naivety over China. First there was belief that trade and integration would corrode its autocracy. Then we thought the internet would destroy dictatorship. Now prominent names pocket cheques to promote Huawei’s cause, helping the firm pretend to be independent from the state. Its billionaire boss Ren Zhengfei, a former engineer in the People’s Liberation Army, denies they assist the security apparatus. Yet one executive was caught spying in Poland. Last week, two Canadians were charged with spying in China, assumed to be a reaction to Ren’s daughter – the firm’s finance chief – being detained in Canada for sanctions busting.

Yet these issues go far beyond Huawei. Since taking power eight years ago Xi has eliminated any slivers of space for free expression, placed the party firmly back at centre of public life, demanded total obedience and imposed his nationalist vision on the country. New laws demand support for the security services from all citizens and firms. Jack Ma, the telegenic boss of Alibaba – China’s version of Amazon – is a top Communist Party member.

Along with the heads of other major technology firms such as Tencent and Baidu, he is also a vice-president of the China Federation of Internet Societies, a body set up two years ago to promote the party in their sector and, according to state media, implement Xi’s online vision.

For all the talk about the Great Firewall of China, their approach is smarter than simply erecting a barricade – as shown by veteran German reporter Kai Strittmatter in ‘We Have Been Harmonised’, his superb book exposing their descent into Orwellian totalitarianism. China built up its own hardware and software systems, allowing it to embrace the digital world at high speed while ruthlessly controlling content.

These firms oversee citizens’ spending, their online thoughts, even their steps in the street as the country hurtles forward in facial and speech recognition technologies. They assist China’s development of Social Credit, intended to protect against ‘negative’ behaviour with those failing to follow state diktats excluded from best schools, jobs and even transport services.

We have seen all too often how Western firms seeking a share of the huge Chinese market shame themselves by capitulating to the Communist Party stance on issues such as Hong Kong and Taiwan. Meanwhile the state exports its ‘digital Leninism’ to other dictatorships, aided by dire leadership and lack of confidence in democracies. Beijing is pumping cash into winning the global battle of ideas in the arts, media and universities while also pouring vast sums into artificial intelligence with Xi demanding they ‘occupy the commanding heights’ in this area. Here is the space race of this new cold war – but China has been increasing spending on research four times faster than the United States.

These homegrown technology firms are in the vanguard of Xi’s drive to export his shuttered vision of society. Yet for all the fuss over Huawei, consider the lack of concern over Hikvision. The Chinese government is the controlling shareholder in this company, which began as a state research unit. Its boss attends the National People’s Congress, the main body for rubber-stamping Communist Party decisions. It has been blacklisted by the United States for links to human rights violations. Yet its surveillance systems are used by airports, councils and hospitals across Britain, with more than one millions of its cameras sucking up data and images across the country. How easily we let down our guard on the digital frontline.

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