A prominent voice in the Senate is out with a stark warning about China’s efforts to advance an anti-democratic vision of the internet that marshals digital technology as a tool for censorship, surveillance and propaganda.
Democratic staffers on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are warning about China moving “with astounding speed and focus” to develop “a deeply troubling governance model for the digital domain.”
“China’s concerted effort to develop, expand, export and institutionalize digital authoritarianism as the future governance model of the digital domain represents a fundamental political, economic and security concern for the United States, our allies and partners, and the international community at large,” Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the ranking member on the committee, said in a statement.
He accused China of looking to “cultivate digital authoritarianism along multiple paths” and “utilizing its entire policy toolkit … to shape the digital domain in its desired image.”
“If successful, China — and not the United States and other like-minded nations — will be writing the future of cyberspace,” Menendez said.
The report describes a coordinated campaign within the Chinese government both to assert greater control over communications technologies at home and to export the authoritarian model abroad.
Those efforts include spending lavishly to support Chinese technology companies that “enable its authoritarian governance model,” and exerting pressure on foreign entities to accede to its policy positions.
The report cites an incident in 2018 when China pressured hotel giant Marriott into apologizing for listing disputed territories such as Tibet as countries in a drop-down menu, and the more recent — and ongoing — skirmish with the NBA, which began when the general manager of the Houston Rockets tweeted in support of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. The NBA tried to walk that statement back, but tensions have been simmering between the league and the Chinese government, which has pulled NBA broadcasts from its state television. The disruption to a lucrative business arrangement has likely cost the NBA hundreds of millions of dollars, according to league officials.
Menendez’s report describes those and other incidents as examples of China “seeking to utilize its newfound clout to reshape the rules of the road in cyberspace away from a free, unfettered, and secure environment to one that facilitates the growth of authoritarianism.”
The report notes that the United States remains the “the premier digital innovator on the globe,” but cautions that China’s massive investments in technology, its foreign influence campaigns and its increasingly assertive role in international regulatory bodies “are positioning it to erode the United States’ leadership on technological issues and reconfigure the standards of the domain away from free, democratic values.”
U.S. policy makers have long warned of the proliferation of communications equipment from Chinese firms Huawei and ZTE, companies that critics see as closely allied with the Chinese government. Menendez’s report sees the global expansion of those companies along with a number of internal Chinese programs like the so-called Digital Silk Road as troubling signs of an ascendant power bent on remaking the global internet in pursuit of an illiberal agenda.
“If the United States fails to lead the international community in assuring that governance of the digital domain is consistent with principles and values that benefit all,” the report warns, “then it will be China, not the international community at large, which will shape the future of the digital domain.”