China’s global export of digital infrastructure provides a foundation for the party-state to gain greater access to, and control over, data internationally, while also affording new avenues for Chinese digital companies to gain greater market access that can be leveraged to advance the government’s strategic interests. Most debate on the issue underestimates the risks associated with the ways control over digital infrastructure can enable future efforts by the party-state that undermine the interests of countries whose data is being accessed and used. For example, control over digital infrastructure can allow for collection of data that, when aggregated, creates greater visibility of a society, enabling other efforts to subvert democratic debate. It can also embed standards that go against liberal democratic values by enforcing authoritarian definitions of risk rather than democratic definitions. Ultimately, however, the largest issue is that China has a political system that is fundamentally different from liberal democracies and that is embedded in the digital technologies and infrastructure researched and developed in China and exported globally.
The coming decades will require democracies to work together to recreate an international system that privileges their values. As the PRC accelerates its efforts to build an alternative digital system for an illiberal international order and it gains acceptance from other authoritarian regimes, those countries that value rule of law, transparency, individual rights, and free markets will need to act in concert. Democracies will be forced to confront a competitive world in which the PRC and other authoritarian regimes seek to drive wedges in open societies and coerce acceptance of an illiberal order. Resisting those efforts will require leadership from multiple capitals, business leaders, and wider civil society. The sooner those leaders align policies, manufacturing, and R&D toward a common digital infrastructure that excludes the PRC, the more likely democratic nations will be able to protect the interests of their citizens.
To read the full report by the National Bureau of Asian Research, please click here.