The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The global threat of China’s digital authoritarianism

Uighur men pray in a mosque in Hotan, in China's western Xinjiang region, in 2015. Residents are tracked through surveillance drones, ubiquitous street cameras and obligatory spyware apps on their phones. (Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images)

Michael Abramowitz is the president of Freedom House. Michael Chertoff is the chairman of Freedom House, former homeland security secretary and chief executive of the Chertoff Group, which advises corporations on cyber and physical security.

The U.S. trade war with China is focused on products ranging from agricultural goods to household appliances, but the United States and other democracies should worry about a different type of Chinese export: digital authoritarianism.

Officials in Beijing are providing governments around the world with technology and training that enable them to control their own citizens. As Chinese companies compete with their international counterparts in crucial fields such as artificial intelligence and 5G mobile service, the democratic norms that long governed the global Internet are falling by the wayside. When it comes to Internet freedom, many governments are eager to buy the restrictive model that China is selling.

The Chinese Communist Party leadership is quite open about its intention to replace the liberal international order with its own authoritarian vision, a project that clearly extends to the digital sphere.

The “Belt and Road Initiative,” an ambitious bid to project Chinese influence around the world through bilateral loans and infrastructure projects, includes a major emphasis on information technology. Of the 65 countries examined by “ Freedom on the Net,” Freedom House’s global assessment of Internet freedom published Thursday, 38 were found to have installed large-scale telecommunications equipment from leading Chinese companies such as Huawei, ZTE or the state-owned China Telecom. Huawei is building Latin America’s largest public WiFi network in Mexico, Bangladesh’s 5G mobile network and Cambodia’s 4.5G service, and it is advising the Kenyan government on its “master plan” for information and communication technologies.

As these firms build a “digital Silk Road” linking host nations through fiber-optic cables, experts have warned that the equipment may facilitate surveillance by Chinese intelligence services. In January, it was reported that the Chinese-built IT network of the African Union headquarters in Ethiopia had been transmitting confidential data to Shanghai daily for five years.

Some Chinese companies are focused explicitly on exporting surveillance technology. In 18 of the 65 countries assessed by Freedom House — including Zimbabwe, Singapore and several Eurasian countries — enterprises such as Yitu, CloudWalk and the partly state-owned Hikvision are combining advances in artificial intelligence and facial recognition to create “Smart Cities” and sophisticated surveillance systems. This allows authoritarian-leaning governments to identify and track citizens’ everyday movements.

Chinese authorities’ relentless persecution of Muslims in the country’s Xinjiang region provides a disturbing preview of these tools’ potential. Residents are tracked through surveillance drones, ubiquitous street cameras and obligatory spyware apps on their phones. Suspicions of “untrustworthiness” may land individuals in one of Xinjiang’s secretive “reeducation” camps.

Beijing is not only transferring its repressive technology to like-minded governments abroad, but is also inviting those governments’ officials and media elites to China for training on how to control dissent and manipulate online opinion. Chinese officials have held training sessions on new media or information management with representatives from 36 out of the 65 countries that Freedom House surveyed. During a two-week seminar last year, visiting officials toured the headquarters of a company involved in “big data public-opinion management systems.”

Democracies need to take immediate action to slow China’s techno-dystopian expansionism. Governments should impose sanctions on companies that knowingly provide technology designed for repressive crackdowns in places such as Xinjiang. Legislators in the United States should reintroduce and pass the Global Online Freedom Act, which would direct the secretary of state to designate Internet-freedom-restricting countries and prohibit the export to those countries of any items that could be used to carry out censorship or repressive surveillance. The law would also require tech companies operating in repressive environments to release annual reports on what they are doing to protect human rights and freedom of information.

But the best way for democracies to stem the rise of digital authoritarianism is to prove that there is a better model for managing the Internet. We will have to tackle social media manipulation and misuse of data in a manner that respects human rights, while also preserving an Internet that is global, free and secure.

Policymakers should undertake serious efforts to protect critical infrastructure and citizens’ personal data from misuse by governments, companies and criminals. Tech companies should dramatically scale up their work with civil-society experts to maximize their own transparency and ensure that their platforms are not being misused to spread disinformation. As the 2016 elections in the United States showed, more-responsible management of social media and stronger privacy rights are needed to prevent malicious actors from exploiting open societies to undermine democracy.

Beijing is working hard to propagate its system around the world. If democracies fail to advance their own principles and interests with equal determination, digital authoritarianism threatens to become the new reality for all of us.

Read more:

The Post’s View: China’s Orwellian tools of high-tech repression

David Ignatius: China has a plan to rule the world

David Ignatius: China’s fingerprints are everywhere

Fareed Zakaria: China is winning the future. Here’s how.

Josh Rogin: How China forces American companies to do its political bidding