The Democracy Summit Must Confront China’s Digital Authoritarianism

Illustration by Na Kim

Today President Joe Biden is hosting a virtual summit for democracy that is assembling leaders from government, civil society, and of the private sector. The aim is to discuss solutions and plans surrounding the key challenges of confronting authoritarianism, fighting corruption, and promoting respect for human rights. The summit is clearly intended to build a coalition to counter China’s increasing belligerence and aggression.

Unsurprisingly, Beijing is not happy. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, at a recent press conference and on Twitter, lashed out. “The Does the US has the moral authority or legitimacy to host the #SummitforDemocracy? “Is the US hosting of the meeting a move for or against democracy? Is it an act of true democracy or pseudo-democracy?” argued China’s diplomatic spokesperson. This follows an opinion piece penned by China and Russia’s Ambassadors to the U.S., where they argued in the National Interest that Biden’s Democracy Summit “will stoke up ideological confrontation and a rift in the world”.

Around the world, democracies are finally waking up to the reality that authoritarian regimes are using emerging technologies to undermine and threaten human rights and democracy. If digital authoritarianism were an Olympic sport, China would no doubt be this year’s gold medal winner.

In November, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken warned US companies to be cautious in providing China with technology that could be harmful to democracy and human rights. “What I’m hearing from company after company, in the United States and around the world, is a clear focus on making sure that they are not providing technology to China or to anyone else that could be used to repress people” he stated.

The Uyghur Muslim minority in China are the proverbial canaries in the coal mine. With over 1 million civilians separated from their families and forced into prison camps, the world is learning that Beijing has created a high tech, Artificial Intelligence powered surveillance system that tracks and is used to persecute this group. The world’s leading human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, have been raising alarm bells for quite some time.

Some of China’s largest tech companies have been complicit in Beijing’s embrace of digital authoritarianism and persecution of the Uyghurs. Last year the United Nations was forced to drop TenCent as a partner for the organization’s 75th year anniversary over its direct role in facilitating Beijing’s surveillance state. Huawei, accused of spying in many countries including the Netherlands, is reported to have developed technology that helps track and identify ethnic minorities. In Canada, universities are coming under increased scrutiny for establishing research partnerships with Chinese companies, including Huawei and iFlyTek.

Make no mistake, this is not simply Chinese domestic issue. It is a global one. The chief of the United Kingdom’s Secret Intelligence Service, also known as M16, cautiously warned his fellow citizens about the global spread of Chinese surveillance technology, noting the “technologies of control are being increasingly exported to other countries”.

Freedom House, a Washington DC-based NGO which assess 88% of the world’s internet population and which advocates for governments of democratic nations to be held accountable to their people, released their annual report “Freedom on the Net” in September of this year. Among its key findings were that internet freedoms have declined for the 11th year in a row and that China ranks as the worst internet environment for the 7th year in a row.

Facebook, Twitter and other major social media platforms are banned in China, depriving its citizens of accessing information. Yet Chinese officials and state affiliated media are free to use these platforms to spread disinformation and propaganda. From creating a Twitter army to mislead the world on the origins of Covid-19, to Facebook disrupting China based hackers who were spying and cyber-harassing Uyghur activities in Western countries, to manipulating Youtube to the deny the persecution of minorities in Xinjiang, America’s social media giants are being used for nefarious purposes.

It is essential that a commitment must be made at Biden’s Democracy Summit to confront, challenge and push back against China’s digital authoritarianism. The future of democracy and human rights are at stake.

Kyle Matthews is the executive director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies at Concordia University. Sara Tuzel is a youth fellow at the institute.

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Montreal Institute for genocide and human rights studies: Canadian think-and-do tank on human rights & prevention of mass atrocities and violent extremism

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Montreal Institute for genocide and human rights studies: Canadian think-and-do tank on human rights & prevention of mass atrocities and violent extremism

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